Independent senators won't transform upper chamber overnight, Janis Johnson says

A former Manitoba senator says she is hopeful the new crop of Independents appointed by the Trudeau government will encourage more collaboration in the Senate.

Former Conservative Senator retired in September after 26 years of service

Manitoba Senator Janis Johnson announced Wednesday she will retire on Sept. 27. (Janis G. Johnson)

A former Manitoba senator says she is hopeful the new crop of Independents appointed by the Trudeau government will encourage more collaboration in the Senate.

"As Peter Harder, who is the Liberal-appointed leader in the Senate, said, it's going to take cooperation on all sides to do this," Janis Johnson said.

Johnson retired from the Senate last month after 26 years in Ottawa.

Watching newly-minted Manitoba Senators Patricia Bovey, Harvey Chochinov and Marilou McPhedran accept three of nine Independent appointments on Thursday, Johnson said she was reminded of the day she was called to the upper chamber.

"When a prime minister calls you and asks you to serve your country, it's an incredible moment in your life and you never forget it," said Johnson, who knows all three of the Manitoba appointees personally.

Johnson was appointed as a Conservative senator by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1990.

Things have changed since then, with Trudeau planning to name an additional 12 Independent senators from Ontario and Quebec through the so-called merit-based process.

Johnson said "merit" has always been one of the main considerations that goes into the appointments and thinks of Trudeau's experiment with Independents as a "work in progress."

'Haven't quite got it together'

"Let's be realistic. The Senate has run since 1867 on partisan caucuses. Now this is a very big change for that," Johnson said. "It's complicated because they're calling themselves Independents, non-affiliated. They haven't quite got it together."

With the new nine appointments, there are currently 32 Independents in the Senate, 21 Liberals and 40 Conservatives. After the next round of appointments, Independents will surpass the Conservatives with the most seats.

The intended purpose of making for a more non-partisan Senate will take time, and simply adding more unaffiliated senators won't change things overnight, Johnson said.

"The modernization process is a slow process as they get their feet on the ground," Johnson said.

"The Conservatives right now are not prepared to [co-operate] it seems, and the Independent Liberals who got tossed out are not amenable either, so it's going to be fascinating to see how they pull it all together."

While she predicts the addition of Independents could make for a more well-rounded Senate, other issues could pop up and slow certain processes down.

"The other problem is that without being a bit of a partisan caucus, you haven't got control of budgets or committees," she said.

Against the grain

One of the first bills Johnson voted on was to reintroduce abortion into the criminal code — a bill proposed by her fellow Conservative senators that she voted against.

"I've also done several other votes over the years that did not go with my particular party, and I've believed that's my role as a senator," she said.

Johnson added that at the end of the day, she hopes senators will work together more across the floor, as they she says they did in her first 15 to 20 years on the job.

"I always called for more independence and less partisan choice when you made your votes and you worked on the legislation in your own caucus, not being horse-whipped into having to vote or make decisions about various things that you did not agree with or you did not think represented your region properly," she said.

"That's what I've always stood for and called for and I found it very harsh in the last few years, in the last administration, who wanted everyone to just vote exactly as they were told, and I never agreed with that."

With files from Terry MacLeod and John Paul Tasker