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Consideration of the Special Senate Committee on Senate Modernization report, entitled Senate Modernization: Moving Forward (Nature)

Consideration of the Special Senate Committee on Senate Modernization report, entitled Senate Modernization: Moving Forward (Nature)

Consideration of the Special Senate Committee on Senate Modernization report, entitled Senate Modernization: Moving Forward (Nature)

Hon. Joan Fraser: 

Honourable senators, I’ve found myself rather torn on the matter of this particular report. I have gone back to reread the Modernization Committee’s first report, the broad report which covered the whole range of its work up to that point. In particular, of course, I focused on the section on the nature of the Senate and of what we do. It’s a very well-done section — maybe not perfect, but what human endeavour is ever perfect? It’s a thoughtful, wide-ranging discussion of what we are and what we do. I was again impressed by the work that had gone into that.

But then all of a sudden, boom, there’s this recommendation for a mission and purpose statement. The committee did not actually explain in its report why the Senate would need a mission and purpose statement, so we are left to reach our own conclusions on the desirability of a mission and purpose statement. I confess that, at this point in my reading, I found myself in disagreement with the committee for a number of reasons.

First, I have never actually thought that mission statements have the positive impact that those who propose them hope to achieve. In my experience, mission statements have either no or little, or sometimes negative, impact for a number of reasons.

First of all, as John A. Macdonald once observed, no one can know what he called the futurity of this country, or indeed of its institutions. So no mission statement can actually face the future as knowledgeably as it should do if it’s going to be a good mission statement. Things change. Public needs change. Public concerns change. Institutions themselves change. And what looks like a perfectly reasonable and rational mission statement today may not in fact be appropriate to the needs of the future. If it is taken to have authority, it may in fact end up hampering our work as we go forward, precisely because you cannot know, when you draft your mission statement, what the needs of tomorrow, or next year, or the next decade will be. Bitter experience has taught me, colleagues, that once something is approved in the Senate — a rule change or something like a mission statement — it is exceedingly difficult to get any change to that decision by the Senate adopted in the future, even if the needs seem glaringly apparent.

That’s one reason for having reservations about the need for a mission statement.

Another is that, as is the nature of mission statements, this particular proposed one consists of a list — a list of activities and qualities that characterize the Senate:

(i) Providing independent “sober second thought” to legislation, with particular respect to Canada’s national interests, aboriginal peoples, regions, minorities and under-represented segments of Canada’s populations;

(ii) Undertaking policy studies, reports and inquiries on public policy issues relevant to Canadians; and

(iii) Understanding, sharing and representing the views and concerns of different groups, based on a senator’s unique perspective.

All of the elements in that list are in themselves acceptable, even admirable, but there are many that seem to me to be left out here. This is the problem with the devising of lists — you always end up leaving things out.

Just off the top of my mind, it occurs to me, for example, that we would be required to pay particular respect to regions — which is true; we are set up on a regional basis — but there’s no reference to provinces here, and we are in fact within our regional groupings appointed from provinces. Why would we not have some reference to that?

There is danger in setting out a list of particular groups to whom one pays attention. Aboriginal peoples, minorities and under-represented segments of Canada’s population are the ones listed here. Well, definitions can change, apart from anything else. “Minorities” can have all kinds of meanings, depending on who you consider to be a minority.

For the sake of argument, let me point out that most women would agree that in many, many ways, women constitute a minority in the sense that they do not enjoy the full rights, in too many cases, of all Canadian citizens, but statistically we’re not a minority. So if I come to interpret this list, where do I put women?

The list does not mention our attention to human rights, and I find that, in particular, a serious omission. The Senate was always supposed to pay attention to human rights, although I must say that 150 years ago the definition of human rights was a little different from what it is now. Some of the authorities, for example, thought that one of our key roles was the defence of property rights. We haven’t heard too much about the defence of property rights here in recent years. I’m not saying it could never arise, but it hasn’t been our first preoccupation. But human rights, in general, have been very high on the list of criteria that we use as we examine proposals that come before us, whether in the form of legislation or in special studies. So I would have preferred, if we were going to adopt a mission statement, to have specific reference to human rights.

Lists are just dangerous; they are. They can be straitjackets rather than the liberating and focusing elements that we would hope to have. I do not believe that the adoption of any mission statement, however wonderfully devised, would actually do very much to improve our work or to improve the public’s view of us, the public’s understanding of us. The public will pay attention to the work we do and will pay much less attention to our internal navel gazing. Forgive me if that’s not a very parliamentary expression.

The public has, for 150 years, assumed that we were useless fuddy-duddies. Once we get here, most of us conclude we are not all that useless, and as I look around this room and at the people sitting in it, there certainly aren’t any fuddy-duddies. There are not many assemblies of Canadians that contain as many activists as this room does.

We have changed over the years; we will change over the years, and some of those changes will be derided. I was delighted last night, when I was doing some reading, to come across some words written by the eminent-for-his-time political scientist Robert MacGregor Dawson, who, in 1947, was writing about the Senate’s attempts to become more diverse and to accommodate different groups. He said, once one woman had been appointed to the Senate:

. . . the demand was made that the women of each province should have their own senators . . .

And he went on to say, in disapproving terms:

. . . there are now seven ladies in the Senate, from six provinces. In short, the problem of balancing race, creed, sex, and province shows signs of getting out of hand.

That might be a little beside the point, but I thought it was so nice, you should all hear it.

The fact is that it goes to the point I was making: Social change occurs, and the Senate must reflect the social change, but we must do so without the constraints that can be imposed by a mission statement.

I would have been happier to confine our discussion to the actual discussion of our role and nature in the Modernization Committee’s report, because there they have done excellent, positive, constructive, helpful work. But the mission statement, I’m sorry, I cannot support.

Hon. Leo Housakos: Would Senator Fraser take a question?

Senator Fraser: Yes.

Senator Housakos: Thank you, Senator Fraser, for sharing your views on this issue today. I was wondering if you can further share with us your views on the following: When an institution like the Senate develops or attempts to develop a mission statement, what are your thoughts on reaching out and consulting the stakeholders and those I consider shareholders of this institution, which are all the provincial and territorial governments? At the end of the day, this body has been created, as has Canada, by all its pieces across the country.

I know we’ve made attempts in the last few years through the Modernization Committee, and the Prime Minister has unilaterally made attempts, as he points out, to make this place more independent, but don’t we have an obligation, when we put forward changes as substantive as a mission statement, to go back to our provinces and talk to the provincial leaders?

Senator Fraser: Grist for my mill, Senator Housakos. First of all, we were created to represent regions and provinces, but in my view, that doesn’t mean we were created to represent provincial governments. We were created to represent the people of the provinces from which we are appointed, so I would be all in favour of consulting them if they actually cared. I don’t know how many would care about the Senate’s mission statement.

A thorough consultation is a fairly massive undertaking. While I believe the Senate does wonderful work in consulting Canadians about things, since I’m not particularly in favour of a mission statement anyway, I’m not sure I would be in favour of devoting the resources, both financial and human, it would take to do a proper, thorough consultation on this matter.