A Paralympic gold medallist and an esteemed jurist who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools have been appointed to the Senate.

Chantal Petitclerc and Murray Sinclair are among seven new senators named by the Liberal government today.

The five 'independent' senators are:

  • Peter Harder, a former bureaucrat who led Justin Trudeau's transition team.
  • Raymonde Gagné, former president of Manitoba's Université de Saint-Boniface.
  • Frances Lankin, a former Ontario NDP cabinet minister and a national security expert.
  • Ratna Omidvar, executive director at Ryerson University's Global Diversity Exchange.
  • André Pratte, editorial writer at La Presse.

Petitclerc, a 14-time Paralympic gold medallist and world-record-holding wheelchair racer, was Canada's chef de mission at the 2014 Commonwealth Games — the first time a Paralympic athlete had held that post. She is also Canada's chef de mission for the Rio Paralympics in September 2016.

She tweeted, "There we go: feeling humbled."

Making reconciliation a reality

Petitclerc and Sinclair composite

Chantal Petitclerc and Murray Sinclair are among seven new Senators named Friday, March 18, 2016. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press, Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Sinclair issued a statement expressing "heartfelt gratitude" for the appointment. He said he believes there is a "new era" of relations with indigenous people in Canada.

"I approach this appointment with hope for the future, and remain committed to reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people, something I believe in my heart is possible," his statement reads. "It is my wish to work toward repairing this relationship and doing what I can to make reconciliation a reality in Canada."

Ontario appointee Omidvar told CBC News she was "stunned into silence" when she received the call from Trudeau.

"The prime minister has asked, and I have accepted to be a senator who sits as an independent and I'm excited to sit as an independent because it means I can vote with my values," she said. "And I can review the issues that come before the Senate not in a partisan or political way but based on the way I have experienced the lives of people."

A news release from the Prime Minister's Office described the senators as "independent" and said Harder will serve as the "government representative" in the Senate.

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Ending partisanship

"The government is today taking further concrete steps to follow through on its commitment to reform the Senate, restore public trust, and bring an end to partisanship in the appointments process," he said in a statement.

He added that today's appointments will "help advance the important objective to transform the Senate into a less partisan and more independent institution that can perform its fundamental roles in the legislative process more effectively."

Trudeau tweeted that the appointments mark "next steps" to fulfil the Liberal promise to reform the Senate and "restore the public's trust in that institution."

Claude Carignan, the opposition Leader in the Senate, said members of the Red Chamber will continue reforms that began years ago to modernize the institution and make it more transparent and accountable. But he said the appointment process Trudeau put in place is "substantially no different than in the past."

"I note that this process yielded the same type of appointments as it has previously — former judges, provincial ministers, journalists, Olympians — have all been appointed to the Senate before," he said in a statement. "Mr. Trudeau's appointments also show that he understands that previous involvement in the partisan political process cannot be discounted and those appointments do have merit."

Two Conservative MPs also slammed the secrecy and accused the prime minister of putting "fresh paint on a tired, undemocratic process."

"Regardless of the merits of those appointed, the new senators were still appointed from secret short lists, created by an unelected, unaccountable board that reports to the prime minister himself," said a joint statement from MPs Blake Richards and Scott Reid. "Despite the flowery words from the prime minister, today's announcement shows that business continues largely as usual."

'Archaic institution'

The NDP, which wants to abolish the Senate, said while the individuals appointed are experienced and highly respected Canadians, they were not elected by Canadians.

"Contrary to what was promised, the Liberal appointment process was as secretive and unaccountable as it has always been,"  said the party's Democratic Reform critic Nathan Cullen. "The NDP continues to hold a principled position that there is no need for this archaic institution in a modern democracy."

Back in January, the Liberals named an advisory board to help Prime Minister Justin Trudeau make his picks for the Red Chamber.

Only three provinces — Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec — are participating in that advisory board right now. The federal government has stated those three are involved because they have the most vacancies in the Senate.

According to the Senate's website, Ontario had eight vacancies before today's appointments, Quebec had six and Manitoba had four. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick both had two vacancies, while British Columbia and Prince Edward Island had one each.

With today's appointments, there are now 42 Conservative senators, 26 who still identify as Liberal senators, and 20 independents, including today's appointments. There are still 17 vacancies.

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British Columbia has declined to participate in the advisory board process. Premier Christy Clark said in December that the province declined to take part because it did not want to validate it. She also said B.C. — with a total of six senators allocated to it in the 105-member Senate — is under-represented.

Trudeau had promised to create the advisory body two years ago, when he kicked all Liberal senators out of his party's caucus.

Merit over party affiliation

The objective was to appoint new senators based on merit, rather than party affiliation.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper's last Senate appointment was in March 2013 — when the scandal over improper expenses claimed by some senators began to engulf his government.

He had spent three decades championing an elected Senate, but the Supreme Court ruled that reforming the Senate would require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the population.

The top court set an even higher bar of unanimous provincial consent for Harper's fallback position — abolishing the Senate altogether.

Last spring, Harper formalized his refusal to appoint senators, announcing a moratorium which he said was aimed at pressuring the provinces to either come up with their own reform proposals or conclude that abolition was the only answer.

During the election campaign, Trudeau said his approach to Senate reform was the only practical solution, one that would deliver real change without requiring a constitutional amendment.

The Constitution specifies that it's the job of the Governor General to appoint senators. But by convention, the Governor General acts only on the advice of the prime minister.

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