Constitutional Origins          

When Sister Mary Alice (Peggy) Butts was appointed to the Senate in the fall of 1997, she discovered that she didn’t meet the qualifications. It wasn’t that Sister Peggy didn’t have the necessary political know-how. On the contrary, Sister Peggy was an experienced political player. She had a doctorate in political theory and Canadian government from the University of Toronto and she taught this subject at the University of Cape Breton for 18 years. She was also an upstanding citizen who had demonstrated a commitment to the poor and underprivileged. Until her appointment she had been working as the co-ordinator of social justice for the diocese of Antigonish. In addition, Sister Peggy met all the qualifications of age, citizenship, and residency. But having taken a vow of poverty 40 years ago, she lacked the necessary $4000 in “real and personal property” that is stipulated in Section 23 of the Constitution Act of 1867. Upon this realization, the scramble was on to ensure her appointment, and a small parcel of land was transferred by her Montreal-based order into her name. The irony of the situation did not go unnoticed; the appointment to the Senate, an institution originally created as the house of the privileged, of someone who had renounced privilege.

Below is an excerpt from the Constitution Act of 1867. This particular excerpt starting at Section 21 details the rules, functions, and procedures of the Senate. As you read this primary source material, consider the purpose and the original intent of the Senate as envisioned by the original framers of the Constitution in 1867.


Section 21 [Membership]
The Senate shall, subject to the provisions of this Act consist of One hundred and four Members, who shall be styled Senators.


Section 22 [Composition]
In relation to the Constitution of the Senate, Canada shall be deemed to consist of Four Divisions:
(1) Ontario;
(2) Quebec;
(3) The Maritime Provinces, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island;
(4) The Western Provinces of Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta;

which Four Divisions shall (subject to the provisions of this Act) be equally represented in the Senate as follows:
Ontario by twenty-four senators;
Quebec by twenty-four senators;
the Maritime Provinces and Prince Edward Island by twenty-four senators, ten thereof representing Nova Scotia, ten thereof representing New Brunswick, and four thereof representing Prince Edward Island;
the Western Provinces by twenty-four senators, six thereof representing Manitoba, six thereof representing British Columbia, six thereof representing Saskatchewan, and six thereof representing Alberta;
Newfoundland shall be entitled to be represented in the Senate by six members;
the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories shall be entitled to be represented in the Senate by one member each.
In the case of Quebec each of the Twenty-four Senators representing that Province shall be appointed for One of the Twenty-four Electoral Section Divisions of Lower Canada specified in Schedule A to Chapter One of the Consolidated Statutes of Canada.


Section 23 [Qualification]
The Qualification of a Senator shall be as follows:
(1) He shall be of the full age of Thirty Years:
(2) He shall be either a natural-born Subject of the Queen, or a Subject of the Queen naturalized by an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain, or of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, or of the Legislature of One of the Provinces of Upper Canada, Lower Canada, Canada, Nova Scotia, or New Brunswick, before the Union, or of the Parliament of Canada, after the Union:
(3) He shall be legally or equitably seised [in possession of] as of Freehold for his own Use and Benefit of Lands or Tenements held in Free and Common Socage [tenure to land through rent or work], or seised or possessed for his own Use and Benefit of Lands or Tenements held in Franc-alleu [land free of feudal obligations] or in Roture [tenure of feudal land by a commoner subject to an annual charge or rent], within the Province for which he is appointed, of the Value of Four thousand Dollars, over and above all the Rents, Dues, Debts, Charges, Mortgages, and Incumbrances due or payable out of or charged on or affecting the same:
(4) His Real and Personal Property shall be together worth Four thousand Dollars over and above his Debts and Liabilities:
(5) He shall be resident in the Province for which he is appointed:
(6) In the case of Quebec he shall have his Real Property Qualification in the Electoral Division for which he is appointed, or shall be resident in that Division.

Section 30 [Resignation]
A Senator may by Writing under his Hand addressed to the Governor General resign his Place in the Senate, and Thereupon the same shall be vacant.


Section 31 [Vacancy]
The Place of a Senator shall become vacant in any of the following Cases:
(1) If for Two consecutive Sessions of the Parliament he fails to give his Attendance in the Senate:
(2) If he takes an Oath or makes a Declaration or Acknowledgment of Allegiance, Obedience, or Adherence to a Foreign Power, or does an Act whereby he becomes a Subject or Citizen, or entitled to the Rights or Privileges of a Subject or Citizen, of a Foreign Power:
(3) If he is adjudged Bankrupt or Insolvent, or applies for the Benefit of any Law relating to Insolvent Debtors, or becomes a public Defaulter:
(4) If he is attainted of Treason or convicted of Felony or of any infamous Crime:
(5) If he ceases to be qualified in respect of Property or of Residence; provided that a Senator shall not be deemed to have ceased to be qualified in respect of Residence by reason only of his residing at the Seat of the Government of Canada while holding an Office under that Government requiring his Presence there.


Section 32 [Filling Vacancies]
When a vacancy happens in the Senate by Resignation, Death or otherwise, the Governor General shall by Summons to a fit and qualified Person fill the Vacancy.


Suitable for Younger Viewers 1. Examine the distribution of Senate seats among the provinces and territories as found in sections 21 and 22. Calculate the percentage of seats allotted to each province, region, and territory. Express this distribution in words.

2. Compare the percentage of seats in each area of Canada. Speculate as to the rationale for allotting and distributing the seats in this manner. Are there any historical reasons that might explain this distribution? Considering the geography and current populations of the different regions, is this distribution fair? Answering this question may require some minor research.

Suitable for Younger Viewers 3. Examine the qualifications to be a senator as outlined in Section 23. Why do you think the framers of the constitution chose these particular qualifications? How do the qualifications support the function and purpose of the Senate? Are there qualifications that you feel are particularly relevant today?

4. Examine the rules and procedures about vacancy as outlined in Section 31. In your own words, describe how Senate vacancies occur. Explain carefully why this section of the Constitution is particularly relevant to this story.

Suitable for Younger Viewers 5. What is the role of the Governor-General regarding vacancies and appointments? (Remember that the Governor-General is the representative of the Monarch who is the Head of State). Do you think it would actually be the Governor-General who would make the decision?

6. Given that a new nation was being created out of a vast and scarcely populated land, suggest how much foresight the framers of the Constitution did or did not have when designing the Senate. To what extent should we trust their original judgment? On the other hand, to what extent could Senate reform or abolition amount to “throwing the baby out with the bath water?”



A Citizen’s Sober Second Thought
Constitutional Origins
The Legislative Role

Question Period
A Triple-E-Senate
Discussion, Research, and Essay Questions

Suitable for Younger Viewers Indicates material appropriate or adaptable for younger viewers.


Comprehensive News in Review Study Modules

“The Senate and the GST,” November 1990
“The Governor General: A Canadian Tradition,” March 1995


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