OTTAWA — The evolution of the discredited Senate into a less partisan chamber of sober second thought picked up steam Friday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named seven new senators — including a former senior bureaucrat, a judge, a journalist and a Paralympian — all of whom will sit as independents.
They are the first appointments in three years and the first to be based on the recommendations of a new arm's-length advisory board, established by Trudeau in a bid to reduce partisanship in the Senate.
Peter Harder, a former federal deputy minister who led the transition team when Trudeau took power last fall, was named government representative in the Senate — as opposed to the traditional government leader in the Senate. His role will be to steer government legislation through the upper house but, even so, he said he'll sit as an independent, as will the other six new senators.
Justice Murray Sinclair led the Truth and Reconciliation commission. (The Canadian Press)
"I think it's important that we are clear that the Senate is both a separate chamber and that the independent members of the Senate are being called upon to exercise their judgment on pieces of legislation as they come through, without being whipped by partisan interests," Harder said in an interview.
His own role is somewhat murky. Harder will be sworn into the Privy Council so that he can attend cabinet meetings when necessary, but he is not a cabinet minister and still considers himself to be non-partisan.
"I'm a bit of a buckle that joins the government, which is represented in the House of Commons, with the other chamber," Harder said. "And as the representative of the government, I will work with all senators to appropriately advance the legislative agenda that comes to the Senate of Canada."
Harder left the public service to work for Joe Clark when he was leader of the Progressive Conservatives in the 1970s. But he rejoined the bureaucracy because he felt "more comfortable in a non-partisan, professional public service context."
"I haven't felt as a partisan person for many decades."
Tories: 'Fresh paint on a tired, undemocratic process'
Still, the Conservatives wasted little time dismissing the new appointments as nothing more than "fresh paint on a tired, undemocratic process."
"Regardless of the merits of those appointed, the new senators were still appointed from secret short lists, created by an unelected, unaccountable board that reports to the prime minister himself," Tory MPs Scott Reid and Blake Richards said in a joint statement.
"This process does nothing to make the selection of senators more transparent or more democratic."
The new appointments fill vacancies in Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario. There are still 17 more vacancies to fill in the 105-seat chamber, left empty by former prime minister Stephen Harper, who last appointed senators in 2013 in the midst of the Senate expenses scandal.
Trudeau's picks include Justice Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation commission, Paralympian Chantal Petitclerc, Raymonde Gagne, former president of Universite Saint-Boniface in Manitoba, former Ontario NDP cabinet minister and United Way CEO Frances Lankin, longtime multiculturalism and diversity advocate Ratna Omidvar and former Quebec journalist Andre Pratte.
"The Senate appointments I have announced today will help advance the important objective to transform the Senate into a less partisan and more independent institution that can perform its fundamental roles in the legislative process more effectively — including the representation of regional and minority interests — by removing the element of partisanship, and ensuring that the interests of Canadians are placed before political allegiances," Trudeau said in a statement.
Sinclair issued a statement expressing "heartfelt gratitude."
Sinclair: Focus is 'reconciliation'
"I approach this appointment with hope for the future and remain committed to reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people, something I believe in my heart is possible," he said.
Sen. Claude Carignan, leader of the Opposition said he looks forward to working with the new senators but maintained the new appointment process is not substantially different from what happened in the past.
"I note that this process yielded the same type of appointments as it has previously — former judges, provincial ministers, journalists, Olympians — have all been appointed to the Senate before," he said.
The Conservatives currently hold 42 seats in the upper house and technically the Liberals have 26, although Trudeau ejected those senators from his caucus in 2014 in a bid to pare back partisanship.
Thirteen other senators also currently sit as independents.
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