Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo pays historic visit to the Senate

In a parliamentary first, the fisheries minister stops by the Senate to take questions from senators.

Senate sketch | Cabinet minister makes history as the Senate inaugurates a new measure of accountability

Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Hunter Tootoo responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Wearing a red shirt that nicely matched the Red Chamber's carpet, Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo, diminutive and otherwise dressed in black, entered the Senate this afternoon and took a seat at a desk in the centre aisle, nearer the back of the room.

This was something new and possibly even useful.

"It's indeed an honour to be here. I welcome the opportunity to appear before the Senate today as the minister for fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard," Tootoo said. "This is really a historic day and I thank you for inviting me."

In its initial post-Duffy era, the Senate has been cut adrift, though with the benefit of distance it might now find a new identity for itself. 

In July 2013, Stephen Harper removed the government leader in the Senate from his cabinet. Six months later, Justin Trudeau ejected all senators from the Liberal caucus. And a year after that, Harper formally announced that he would not be appointing any more senators (by then it had already been two years since his last appointee).

But with neither abolition nor elections now up for discussion, the Senate might reinvent itself within constitutional parameters. As prime minister, Trudeau has proceeded, as promised, to implement a new non-partisan process for recommending Senate nominees to him. Five such senators — marking another historic moment — are due soon. 

Trudeau has also so far declined to name a government representative to the Red Chamber. And that has frustrated the Senate's practice of a daily question period — though less noticed than question period in the House of Commons, the Senate also reserves time each session for queries of the government.

No heckling, hooting or hollering

Enter Tootoo, for a new exercise in accountability.

As proposed by Conservative Senator Claude Carignan, the Senate is now requesting that ministers appear before it at regular intervals.

Tootoo, a former cabinet minister in the Nunavut Legislature who has so far only sparingly been tested in the House as fisheries minister, was lucky enough to be the first.

And so for 30 minutes this afternoon he took questions about the protection of coastal waters, shipbuilding, aquaculture, lobster, crab, herring, salmon, scientific research and tourism. He stood to respond, reading at times from a binder laid out in front of him.

Tootoo explained whom he had been meeting with and about what they'd been discussing and on what he would be focusing. He might not have precisely explained whether the federal government would compensate provinces for the protection of coastal waters, but he recited a long list of the coast guard's assets and agreed to get back to the Senate with a delivery schedule for new acquisitions.

To his right sat 40 or so Conservatives, to his left were two dozen Liberal and unaligned senators, while another three dozen seats sat empty. A half dozen reporters had turned out to watch.

There was no heckling, hooting or hollering. Perhaps, like a first date, everyone was on their best behaviour. Alas, the sedate affair was not televised (the Senate is still not yet in the television era).

Breaking the ice

Halfway through the half hour, Senator John Wallace, who recently quit the Conservative caucus to sit as an Independent, stood to impart a short lecture on the proper role of the senator and the prime minister's expressed desire for an independent and non-partisan Senate.

"Minister," Wallace finally asked after Senate Speaker George Furey had interjected to suggest he get to his point, "as a senior representative of the government, the first cabinet minister to appear before us in Senate question period, and considering the importance and significance of the prime minister's initiative and its potential impact on the Senate, I'm wondering if you are supportive of his initiative and if there are any other comments about it that you may wish to share with us?"

"Thank you for the question," Tootoo replied. "Like I said earlier, I'm very pleased to be here and I think as being the first one here as one of Canada's first people" — Tootoo is Inuk — "someone mentioned today, it's ice-breaking, I think as also the minister of the Canadian Coast Guard, [that is] another fitting reason why I'm here today. I appreciate this opportunity.

"As far as how this moves forward, that's not my call."

The assembled senators laughed appreciatively and then applauded his deference.

When his time was over and history had been completed, Tootoo received a standing ovation from both sides.

"I hope that this is the first of many appearances by ministers of the Crown," concluded Speaker Furey. "And I trust you will report back to your colleagues that it was a fruitful and worthwhile experience and one in which you would encourage them to participate."

Conservative Senate Leader Claude Carignan discusses the experiment of having a cabinet minister sit in on Senate question period to answer on behalf of the government 4:48

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.