03/26/2016 10:38 EDT | Updated 03/26/2016 11:59 EDT

Huguette Labelle: Senate Advisory Board Didn't Ensure Nominees Met Property Requirements

Huguette Labelle says the independent Senate advisory board did not make sure five Quebecers met property ownership requirements.

OTTAWA — The head of the board that recommended Senate appointments to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it wasn’t their responsibility to ensure that all the nominees met the qualifications for office.

Huguette Labelle, a highly regarded former civil servant and emeritus governor of the University of Ottawa, told The Huffington Post Canada on Friday that when her independent panel handed over 25 names to the Prime Minister’s Office as recommendations for new senators, it did not make sure that the five Quebecers on the list met property ownership requirements that apply in the province.

“We had to recommend a number of individuals, and not knowing who the prime minister would select of these individuals, we felt that it would be very complicated … so we stuck with [the idea instead that] at the time of the appointment, the individual must have property in one of the [provincial] divisions, whatever that division might be,” she said.

Huguette Labelle, seen here in 2005, says the independent Senate advisory board did not make sure five Quebecers met property ownership requirements. (Photo: CP)

Labelle suggested it was not her board’s but rather the PMO’s responsibility to ensure that every candidate fulfilled the requirements before being appointed by the Governor General.

Controversy over property requirement

A controversy erupted this week after news broke that André Pratte, a columnist at the Montreal daily La Presse, was still waiting to complete the purchase of a plot of land in Salaberry, Que., the senatorial division that Trudeau announced on March 18 he would be appointed represent.

Unlike in other parts of the country, the Constitution requires not only that senators from Quebec own $4,000 worth of property in the province but that it be in one of 24 districts to which their appointment is tied — much like constituencies for members of Parliament.

In the past, this has led to some frantic scrambles to find property. Former Conservative adviser Bruce Carson told HuffPost a story of how his friend, Robert de Cotret, was appointed to the Senate in 1979 by Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark but did not own property in his district of Berthier–Maskinongé. De Cotret drove up to the district to find something to buy for $4,000.

“He noticed an empty field with a ‘For Sale’ sign on it … offered the farmer who owned it $4,000, but the farmer said it was only worth $2,000,” Carson said in an email. “The argument was on, and eventually the farmer reluctantly took the $4,000 from city slicker Bob.”

Andre Pratte has not been appointed to the Senate yet. (Photo: CP)

Pratte has not been appointed to the Senate yet and, as he told the Canadian Press last week, he is actively looking to purchase something in Salaberry. He will, almost certainly, meet the constitutional requirement before he takes his seat in the upper house.

The issue instead is, as Conservative MP and democratic reform critic Scott Reid noted in the Commons Thursday, whether the independent board Labelle chaired followed the clear criteria the government publicly set out for all potential nominees.

On her website, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef outlines the “qualifications and merit-based assessment criteria” the board had to weigh before recommending individuals for appointments.

“In the case of Quebec, a nominee must have his or her real property qualification in the electoral division for which he or she is appointed, or be resident in that electoral division,” the website states.

We were not nominating. We were recommending nominations.”

Labelle told HuffPost she believes the board was not nominating persons but was rather recommending them for nomination. The prime minister, she suggested, makes the nominations.

“We felt … this particular aspect would need to be dealt with in the subsequent phase, which is at the time that it had been considered by the Prime Minister’s Office,” she said.

“We were not nominating. We were recommending nominations.”

At the PMO, spokesman Olivier Duchesneau said Trudeau appointed individuals from the list provided to him and he suggested it was the board’s responsibility to ensure individuals met the qualifications by referring questions to Labelle.

The Privy Council Office, the PMO’s department, took the view that the requirement on the minister’s website applies only at the time of appointment to Senate, according to spokesman Raymond Rivet.

Other qualifications outlined on the website for the board’s consideration, such as non-partisanship, diversity, knowledge about the Senate, are clearly related to the nomination process.

Vacancies in Quebec

Labelle acknowledged that the wording on the website might need to change in order so as not to discourage would-be applicants from Quebec from coming forward for consideration even if they don’t have $4,000 worth of property in a random region of the province.

Rivet would not say Friday whether the other appointee for Quebec, former paralympian Chantal Petitclerc, owns property in the division she was selected to represent. He also declined to say which senatorial division she will represent.

Labelle told HuffPost she wasn’t sure if any of the five potential appointees from Quebec had property in any of the vacant Senate districts. Even with the two new senators, there will still be four vacancies in Quebec.

All of Trudeau's picks for the upper chamber came from the independent advisory panel's shortlist. (Photo: Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, Trudeau announced he was recommending Pratte, Petitclerc and five other individuals from Manitoba and Ontario to fill vacancies in the upper chamber.

All the people Trudeau named were on the recommendation panel’s shortlist, Labelle said. They were all recommended by various organizations, had three references and each answered questions about what they thought they could accomplish in the Senate.

A report outlining how the process worked and how many applications were received from organizations nominating individuals will soon be released to the public, she said.

Rules surrounding the next phase of the appointment process — including how individuals can nominate themselves — will also be released later this spring.

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