Manitoba’s NDP government is joining the Saskatchewan Party government in calling upon Ottawa to abolish the scandal-plagued Canadian Senate. Manitoba Attorney General Andrew Swan introduced the motion in the provincial legislature urging the Harper government to begin consultations with provinces with the aim of abolishing the Senate.
Swan said Manitoba’s position includes the results of public hearings which took place in 2009 that heard overwhelming support from Manitobans for outright abolishment or reform.
She further said that today’s Senate too often serves partisan objectives rather than public interest, and that any confidence Manitobans had in the upper house has been shaken due to the events of the past year.
In August of this year, Manitoba made a submission, known as a factum, which addressed the constitutional questions posed by the federal government to the Supreme Court of Canada. The province’s position was that Parliament does not have the constitutional authority to enact significant unilateral changes to the structure of the Senate or to the selection of its members.
Arguably, never in the history of the Senate has there been such a build-up in momentum that could possibly led to an end to the unelected Senate.
“In this province, we abolished the upper house in 1876,” said Swan. “We’re calling on the Government of Canada to start negotiations with the provinces. It is time to get started on abolishing the Canadian Senate.”
Swan was referring to Manitoba’s unelected Legislative Council that was abolished after being judged as being too expensive and too useless to continue — arguments also made against today’s Canadian Senate.
When Manitoba first entered the Canadian Confederation in 1870, Ottawa-appointed Lieutenant-governor Adams Archibald ruled by decree until he could appoint members to the Legislative Council to assist him as well as hold a province-wide election for the legislature. When the
December 27, 1870, election was over, Archibald appointed his Legislative Council to reflect the ethnic and language divisions of the new province. James McKay, a multilingual Catholic “Scots half-breed trader” was made the first president of the council; Francois X. Dauphinais, a Catholic Métis, former member of the Hudson’s Bay Company-appointed Council of Assiniboia and vice-president of Louis Riel’s Provisional Government; Salomon Hamelin, a Métis who had been opposed to Riel and the so-called Canadian Party that caused Riel so much grief during the Red River Resistance of 1869-70; J.H. O’Donnell, a Catholic representing the Irish element in the province; and Colin Inkster, Francis Olgetree and Donald Gunn, English-speaking Protestants representing the “old settlers” of Red River. What every appointee had in common was loyalty to the lieutenant-governor and the candidates that Archibald supported in the first election.
By the time of the next provincial election four years later, grumblings about the Legislative Council were heard throughout Manitoba’s political circles. In fact, Robert “Hotel Premier” Davis, who was originally from Ontario, and his supporters ran in the December 30, 1874, election campaign under a platform that included the abolition of the Manitoba Senate. Royal joined the Davis government as the province’s attorney general, while the premier appointed Colin Inkster as the president of the council and minister of agriculture.
The Manitoba Free Press called the inclusion of Inkster from the unelected Legislative Council in the Davis government evidence of “Davis-Royal Government ... this novel cabinet ... must excite ridicule and disgust throughout the whole civilized world ...”
When the Speech from the Throne was read by new Lieutenant-governor Alexander Morris in January 1876, abolition of the Legislative Council was prominently mentioned.
The Free Press called the proposed abolition “the most important one in the entire Speech, viewed as a means of cutting down the expenditures ...”
Actually, the Davis government had been engaged in negotiations with Ottawa seeking “better terms” for Manitoba in Confederation — more money from Ottawa for the province was the gist of the negotiations.
The Manitoba government had been running on a scant budget of approximately $90,000 with Ottawa providing $67,000 by way of a grant. On the other hand, the Manitoba government had few sources of revenue to call upon and annual deficits were continually recorded, such as one of $26,000 in 1875.
The Toronto Globe, a Liberal-party organ, wrote on January 10, 1876, that the fiscal deficit in Manitoba could partially be attributed to government waste, but the “system of Government given Manitoba, in the first instance, was cumbersome and expensive, and the revenue so limited, that, our contemporary admits, it is no matter of surprise that the Province’s financial position is what it is to-day.”
Although it would prove easier than expected, some in Manitoba and Ottawa argued that abolishing the council would open up a constitutional debate.
On January 25, 1876, MLA Marc
Girard introduced the bill to abolish the Legislative Council. He said the legislation had been debated so extensively over the past couple of years that it was unnecessary for him to make lengthy remarks. He did mention that he did not like being pressured by the Canadian government to abolish the council — some thought it was a form of blackmail — although it was time for change.
By abolishing the Manitoba Senate, the province secured “better terms” from
Ottawa, including a loan and an additional annual grant of $26,000 to raise the federal contribution to $90,000.
MLA Joseph Lemay rose from his seat in the Manitoba Legislature and to “roars of laughter and cries of order” pronounced that it would be appropriate for the legislature to be adjourned for a month“as a token of sorrow” to mark the passing away of the Legislative Council. He further asked that a resolution be passed compelling every member “to attend the funeral.”
The St. Norbert businessman was noted by contemporaries as being “full of sarcasm.” When the Legislative Council (also referred to as the Manitoba Senate, Upper Council, and Upper House) was abolished on February 4, 1876, he couldn’t resist using the occasion to exercise his sharp wit and emphasized that the legislative body, only in existence for six brief years, was a
But it may be a little premature to call for an end to the Senate, since the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the Harper government’s constitutional authority to either
reform or abolish the institution.
Still, there are undoubtedly many Canadians who would regard the death of the Senate with the same brand of sarcasm heaped upon the defunct Manitoba Legislative Council by Lemay in 1876.