Put farmers, fishers, veterans in the Red Chamber, senator urges

A Prince Edward Island senator is calling on Justin Trudeau to fill more seats in the Red Chamber with farmers, fishers and veterans.

Percy Downe says prime minister must 'make sure snobbery is not our weakness'

Sen. Percy Downe says the Senate needs members with more diverse backgrounds. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A Prince Edward Island senator is calling on Justin Trudeau to fill more seats in the Red Chamber with farmers, fishers and veterans.

In a letter to the prime minister dated Mar. 9, Sen. Percy Downe said the Senate has many lawyers, journalists, academics and business people, but he urged Trudeau to look at  "untapped expertise" across the country and broaden the diversity of backgrounds in the Senate.

He tweeted about the letter Wednesday, lamenting the fact that "important voices" are missing from Senate debates. 

Downe points out the Senate is doing well on gender equality; 45 per cent of senators are women, compared to only 27 per cent in the House of Commons. But he said significant gaps exist in terms of representatives of key industries like agriculture and fisheries, and those who served in the Canadian Armed Forces.

"The prime minister and others often say diversity is our strength, but we want to make sure snobbery is not our weakness," Downe said, suggesting the appointments process favours those in certain professions.

Before his appointment to the Senate in 2003, Downe worked as a Liberal political aide at the provincial and federal levels.

Robert Black, who has a university degree in agriculture and had served as CEO of the Rural Ontario Institute since 2010, was appointed to the Senate last month.

Downe said that's not enough to represent the agriculture and agri-food sector, which represents more than $111 billion of national GDP and 12.5 per cent of Canadian jobs. He said the Senate needs the voices of those who have worked in the field as farmers, fishers or lower-ranking military personnel, who understand the issues from the ground up.

He said problems with the timely delivery of veterans assistance programs appear to disproportionately affect retired military members below the rank of colonel — yet they have no representation in the Senate.

Sen. Percy Downe says the government should do more to raise awareness across the country about the openings in the Senate. (CBC)

Pointing to the Veterans Charter as an example, he said the bill — which made controversial changes to post-service compensation for members of the Canadian Forces — made its way quickly through the House of Commons and the Senate with little scrutiny.

"No sober second thought, little or no input from veterans, and we're still trying to clean up the mess more than 10 years later," he said. "Same with agriculture and fisheries issues ... what are we missing?"

There are currently 12 vacancies in the Senate and the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments is accepting applications until April 3.

'Important voices' missing

Downe said the government should do public advertising to raise awareness about the openings across the country. In the absence of that, he said, he will be reaching out to various veterans and farmers organizations to let them know about the vacancies.

"As it stands today, these important voices continue to be missing from our Senate debates," he wrote in the letter to Trudeau. "Amongst sitting senators there are 18 lawyers, 13 professors, a dozen businessmen and women, journalists, chartered accountants and nurses, yet no farmers, fishers or veterans."

PMO spokeswoman Eleanore Catenaro said the Senate application process is open to all Canadians, and that the independent advisory board is guided by "public, transparent, non-partisan and merit-based" criteria to identify candidates.

"This open process ensures Senators are independent and are able to tackle the broad range of challenges and opportunities facing the country," she said in an email. "Our aim is to identify high-quality candidates who will help to achieve gender parity and truly reflect Canada's diversity in terms of background and experience." 

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