Guest Commentary

Helen Forsey

Speaking Of The Senate

If my father was alive today he’d be disgusted by the Senate expense scandals. He served eight years in the Senate. After he died in 1991 at 86, I found a handwritten note he’d sent to the administration: “I had a message today which involved my calling Toronto. I don’t think the taxpayers should be paying for any long distance calls of mine. I’ll be glad to reimburse the Treasury for this one. Henceforth I’ll use the payphone downstairs.”

Dad was principled and frugal. When I was growing up in Ottawa, we walked everywhere or took the bus; we didn’t own a car. He was research director for the Canadian Labour Congress. It wasn’t a wealthy organization and he didn’t earn a whole lot. He was born in Newfoundland and had studied the coal industry in Nova Scotia in the 1920s. By the time the Depression came around he was a democratic socialist, a founding member of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

He counted Conservatives among his friends. Former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Meighen was almost like a father to him. John Diefenbaker once offered Dad a “safe” seat in Parliament, but as a loyal CCFer he declined. He had run for the CCF in the 1940s, but was defeated each time.

Pierre Trudeau appointed Dad to the Senate in 1970 because of his constitutional expertise, his progressive views and his integrity. Trudeau told him, “I don’t give a damn where you sit, I just want you there.” Dad accepted because he thought he could be of some use.

Many Canadians now see the Senate as a useless appendage. But my father always maintained that its work, though often unspectacular, contributed to a better functioning of government and democracy in general. He thought senators should be independent of party discipline – and he practised what he preached. He sat with the Liberals to support their national unity policy, but he spoke and voted independently.

The Senate can be a place for men and women of merit with roots in their region and a keen interest in public affairs to apply their knowledge for the public good. By and large, that’s not the Senate we have now. It has been damaged by dreadful appointments and galloping partisanship. As Elizabeth May has pointed out, the true scandal today is the notion that senators should be tools of the Prime Minister’s Office.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Senate appointments should be merit-based and non-partisan, enabling senators to complement the legislative work of Commons MPs, protect minorities and the less powerful regions, and hold government to account. In fact, a Senate that does its job is a major nuisance to an autocratic government that wants as little sober second thought as possible.

If Eugene Forsey were here now, he’d be working hard to restore the Senate to its rightful role in our democracy.

(Editor’s note: the author is a writer and activist, daughter of the late Senator Eugene Forsey, and author of A People’s Senate For Canada – Not a Pipe Dream! published by Fernwood).

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