THE BLOG

Want Real Senate Reform? Appoint Inspiring, Worthy Advocates

05/07/2012 01:57 EDT | Updated 07/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Senator Hugh Segal called it the surprise call of his life. This was a call he received from the then Former Prime Minister Paul Martin inviting him to become a member of the Canadian Senate. This was a rare moment when a Liberal was nominating a Conservative to a very partisan position and this gesture was celebrated across Canada.

The Canadian senate has had a long history to Canada dating back to confederation and agreed as part of the British North American Act. According to our very first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, it was hoped the Senate would be a "sober second thought" to legislation passed from the lower house before it ultimately becomes law.

Since then, it has become anything but. One is likely to become a member of this elitist group of Canadians based on loyalty to a political party rather than to Canada as a whole. There was a time during the height of the Reform Party in Ottawa where Senators were put on the spot for their lack of contributions to the Senate. We saw them at their worst. There was a Senator who lived in Mexico and who failed to attend any of the Senate businesses for years.

There was another senator who used his own office budget and staff to renovate his place of residence. It seems these were not isolated incidents. A very cosmetic reform has taken place in recent years to make the senate more accountable yet the status quo has remained, it seems, the same.

Lester B. Pearson made a certain age -- 75 -- a retirement age for senators. It is now a requirement for senators to attend senate business and there is a financial penalty if they do not. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spoken passionately about reform, even going so far away as appointing an elected Albertan activist to the senate. Nevertheless, these reforms have been a tiny step to real reform before the Canadian senate is accepted universally by Canadians.

In the early 1990s, for instance, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney used the senate to appoint instant members who would pass his GST tax legislation. A total of eight were appointed to ensure a Tory majority of an absolute power on the eve of an important legacy vote for the Prime Minister. The reality is that Liberal and Conservative governments have followed suit.

In all of these, there have been notable senators at their best as they used their office for public good. For example, Senator Romeo Dallaire has been a great advocate to the issues of child labour especially in the areas of conflicts. Former senator Michael Kirby has done the same for the promotion and awareness of mental health issues while Senator Mobina Jaffer gave the dire situation in Darfur a powerful international voice. After losing her daughter due to drinking and driving, Senator Marjory LeBreton has spoken out eloquently about crime victims.

The depressing issue of crime in the black community also deserves an advocate and the Senate is a great place to start with. In a Conservative government that believes in the empowerment of victims, the next member of the Canadian senate should come from the black mothers who have been touched by random and senseless crimes in Toronto. Audette Sheppard is such a great leader and candidate.

Like many black mothers in Toronto, Sheppard lost her 19-year-old son a decade ago in a crime that has not been solved yet. Her tragic story did not make her a victim but a great public servant with an important public agenda. Her association -- United Mothers Against Violence Everywhere -- has been a powerful voice and an important institution to parents who have been broken because of crime. For many victims, she has been a great friend and leader at their dire needs. She has joined a long list of boards and committees including Ontario's Office for Victims of Crime to advocate for a cause that has devastated yet empowered her.

She might not be a household name like sports tycoon David Braley, come from a prominent and famous family like Senator Linda Frum, or be universally worshiped like Senator Romeo Dallaire.

What she brings is a voice of experience in a Harper Ottawa that wants to empower victims to be the voice of the voiceless. This inspiring Canadian leader belongs in the Canadian senate to contribute to make our great institution relevant once again.