The Liberal government is one step closer to filling some of the 22 vacant Senate seats with the naming of advisory board members who will help Prime Minister Justin Trudeau make his picks for the red chamber.

The creation of an appointment advisory board — which includes two members each from the federal government, Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba — is the next phase of government's stated plan to make the Senate more independent and less partisan.

The board will be chaired by a former top civil servant and includes several academics, as well as an accomplished musician and a former Olympian.

But the Conservatives' Senate leader came out swinging against the announcement Tuesday, telling CBC News that "there is no reform here."

"How will these panels insure that "ordinary" Canadians are appointed to the Senate?" said a spokesperson for Claude Carignan, the leader of the opposition in the Senate.

"This does nothing to fundamentally change how senators are selected. The Senate nominations list which the panel creates will remain secret and non-binding, and Prime Minister Trudeau will have carte blanche to appoint senators who don't appear on any recommended list," said the spokesperson.

Only three provinces are participating in the process at this early stage, the government said, because they have the most vacancies in the upper chamber. Not to mention other provinces, including British Columbia, have refused to participate in the process

The board will consult with labour groups, chambers of commerce and the arts community to suggest a short list of five individuals for each vacancy.

"The idea here is that the individuals that will come from this broad consultation process will be of the highest calibre, will reduce the tone of partisanship and will help us provide that real change that Canadians mandated us with when it comes to the Senate," Democratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef told reporters Tuesday in St. Andrews, N.B., where cabinet ministers have gathered for a retreat.

"This new process will immediately begin to restore the confidence of Canadians in an institution that plays an essential role in our parliamentary system," Monsef said, adding that she hoped the new picks will restore the reputation of a chamber that has seen its effectiveness "hampered" in the recent past.

"I believe we are on the right track in ensuring that individuals who are acting as senators are there because of merit."

Importantly, the board's picks will be non-binding on the prime minister, who will still have the ultimate say in who takes a seat in the upper house.

Monsef reiterated the government's intent to fill at least five vacancies in the early part of 2016. One of the new appointments will be chosen to serve as the government's leader in the Senate.

Liberal-appointed senators were kicked out of Trudeau's caucus in January, 2014 at the height of the Senate expenses scandal. They have no formal ties to their colleagues in the House of Commons. New senators are expected to sit as independents.

Tories question independence

The Conservatives also called into question the political leanings of two of the board members.

"Unfortunately, the non-partisan selection of this panel is not apparent. Two of the individuals, including the chair, Huguette Labelle, and Ontario panel member Dawn Lavell Harvard, are Trudeau Foundation scholars, with clear links to the prime minister," Carignan's office said.

Labelle is a former senior public servant, serving as deputy minister at Transport Canada, the Public Service Commission and the Canadian International Development Agency. She is also an adviser to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's committee on integrity and anti-corruption.

Labelle was appointed chancellor of University of Ottawa in 1994, a position she held until 2012. She also holds honorary degrees from 12 Canadian universities and is a companion — the highest rank — of the Order of Canada.

The other members of the advisory board are:

  • Indira Samarasekera, federal member: she served as the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta.
  • Daniel Jutras, federal member: dean of law, professor, Wainwright Chair in Civil Law at the Faculty of Law, McGill University.
  • Murray Segal, provincial member for Ontario: former Ontario deputy attorney general and Ontario deputy minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs.
  • Dawn Lavell Harvard, provincial member for Ontario: president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.
  • Sylvie Bernier, provincial member for Quebec: Olympic gold medalist, media contributor and "healthy lifestyle ambassador."
  • Yves Lamontagne, provincial member for Quebec: psychiatrist.
  • Susan Lewis: provincial member for Manitoba: worked for over 40 years with the United Way of Winnipeg, including as president from 1985 to 2014.
  • Heather Bishop, provincial member for Manitoba: a musician/singer-songwriter, independent recording artist and entrepreneur.

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