OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminded senators Thursday that his government was elected on a promise to legalize recreational marijuana — a subtle warning that they should not attempt to thwart the will of Canadians or the government they elected.
The reminder came with uncertainty clouding the fate of the pot legalization bill, C-45, as senators prepared to decide whether to give it approval in principle.
The uncertainty was triggered by Conservative senators who are evidently hoping to deliver a double-barrelled embarrassment to Trudeau: upending one of his signature election promises, while demonstrating the folly of his efforts to reform the Senate into a less partisan, more independent chamber.
Ordinarily, approval in principle, known as a second reading vote, is not a big hurdle and is dispensed with on the basis of a quick voice vote — after which the bill is sent to committee for closer scrutiny, witness testimony and any proposed amendments before returning to the Senate for a final debate and vote.
But, in the case of Bill C-45, the 33 Conservative senators are vowing to vote en masse against it at second reading. And they've signalled that they'll insist upon a standing vote, where each senator's vote is counted.
The vote is expected Thursday evening.
The Conservatives no longer dominate the 105-seat upper house but they apparently hope they can take advantage of a large number of absent independent senators, who are travelling on Senate committee business, combined with a handful of independents who may oppose the bill, to defeat it.
On Wednesday, the leadership of the independent senators group scrambled to avoid that outcome, sending a memo urging all of its absent members to return to Ottawa in time for the vote.
"Our sense is that (Conservatives) are willing to take the risk of having the bill defeated at second reading, and — in that event — to blame independent senators for failing to ensure its passage," senators Yuen Pau Woo and Raymonde Saint-Germain said in the memo.
Woo said Thursday that the "vast majority" of the independents were back in time.
"We don't whip our members so I can't tell you how they will vote," he said.
Woo said independent senators understand their job is "not willy nilly to defeat government legislation but to provide careful scrutiny, including from time to time, amending bills, maybe defeating on the rare occasion. But we don't do this as a matter of course, certainly not on second reading."
The prospect of the bill being defeated before it's scrutinized or amendments can be proposed "strikes me as somewhat horrific," Woo added.
"If it's killed at this stage by a group of senators who are there just to oppose, then we will not have the chance to provide that sort of layer of sober second thought and improvement that we've been sent here to do."
Sen. Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate, said it would be entirely inappropriate for senators to defeat a bill before studying it or proposing amendments. Indeed, he said the upper house has never before defeated a government bill at second reading.
However, Conservative Senate leader Larry Smith said if the bill is defeated, it will be because Trudeau's reforms to the Senate means the government can no longer rely on senators appointed by the prime minister to support government legislation.
"It has nothing to do with partisanship," Smith said.
"It has everything to do with Sen. Harder, as the government representative, trying to implement Prime Minister Trudeau's new system, which has holes in it ... They have to get their troops organized to make sure they get the vote they want."
Trudeau, meanwhile, said he expects the unelected Senate to scrutinize and suggest improvements to bills passed by the House of Commons. But he reminded senators that Canadians voted to end the criminal prohibition on cannabis when they elected his Liberal government.
"It is very clear that this bill responds first to an electoral promise that we made very clearly during the election campaign and for which Canadians voted," he said following an event in New Brunswick.
The criminal cannabis regime has not protected Canadian kids, who are among the highest under-age users of marijuana in developed countries, and has put up to $7 billion every year in the pockets of organized crime, Trudeau said.
"The current system does not work ... This is not something that Canadians want to see continued."