Politics

7 new senators sworn in, opposition jumps on their independence

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first batch of Senate appointees took their seats for the first time Tuesday and faced grilling from the opposition over their self-declared independence.

Murray Sinclair says he's more 'wowed' by mothers' concern for their children than his new Senate surroundings

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      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first batch of Senate appointees took their seats Tuesday and faced grilling from the opposition benches over their self-declared independence.

      The seven new senators include former senior civil servant Peter Harder, Justice Murray Sinclair, paralympian Chantal Peticlerc, university administrator Raymonde Gagné, former Ontario NDP cabinet minister Frances Lankin, refugee advocate Ratna Omidvar, and La Presse columnist André Pratte.

      The new senators are the first in three years and the result of a new selection process established by Trudeau's Liberals in a bid to transform the scandal-plagued Senate into a more "independent, non-partisan" institution.

      The Conservative opposition focussed its attention on Harder, the government's new representative in the Senate, during the chamber's decidedly more subdued question period.

      "My question to you, how is it possible to be the Liberal government leader in the Senate and an independent at the same time?" Conservative Senator Linda Frum asked of Harder.

      The former top public servant assured Frum he comes to the Upper Chamber with an "independent spirit," and he does not see himself as a partisan but rather as a semi-bureaucratic leader who would field questions and report back with answers.

      "It's easy for me [to be independent]. It may not be easy for others to see this. I have, on the basis of personal experience and conviction, decided that I would wish to sit as an independent. I'm sure that this is a work in progress that we will all have to work through as we seek new ways of working together," he said.

      Conservative Senator Don Plett of Manitoba was also skeptical of Harder's loyalty to the Prime Minister's Office, noting he actually led the Trudeau government's transition team after the Oct. 19 election.

      "Mr. Trudeau must have been pleasantly surprised when he saw your name on the list of nominees for the Senate. I guess one may wonder if he was really surprised?" Plett said.

      Harder batted away the suggestion.

      He said that nobody from the government had contacted him either before or after he filed his application for a Senate position, noting it was actually the Institute for Research on Public Policy that recommended him to Trudeau's advisory board for appointment.

      Changes to Parliament Act possible

      Claude Carignan, the former Conservative government's leader in the Senate, asked how exactly the new representative would fulfil his role if he wasn't a member of cabinet nor a member of the Liberal caucus.

      Harder reassured his new colleagues he would take their concerns to the cabinet table when appropriate, and the newly-adopted practice of ministers answering questions from senators would continue — and the time allotted extended.

      Senators will now be able to ask selected cabinet ministers questions for 40 minutes, once a week.

      Some members of the Red Chamber bristled at calling Harder the "representative," with one senator calling it an "American" term that's not fit for our Westminster-style system of parliamentary democracy.

      Harder said there could be changes to the Parliament of Canada Act to reflect his new title as well as further legislative changes to how the chamber functions. He provided no other further details, adding it would be subject to discussion around the cabinet table.

      "It's not unusual in government practice to have titles change as a result of the stylized preferences of the prime minister," Harder said.

      'I'm not wowed': Sinclair

      Sinclair, a former top judge and the commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools, told reporters after taking his seat that he wasn't exactly bowled over by his new Senate surroundings.

      "I'm not wowed by this place. I think this place is a place that I have to be at. But I'm more wowed when I sit with mothers in a circle and listen to them talk about what it is that they need to be helped to do for their children," he said in a scrum with CBC News outside the chamber.

      He said he would use his lofty position to continue his work for Indigenous peoples, arguing his presence would ensure their issues would sit on the front burner.

      Sinclair sworn in Tuesday as an Independent representing Manitoba 1:07
      A Senate employee slides the names of the 7 new senators into the official list of sitting members of the Red Chamber on the day of their swearing-in ceremony. The maker of the original board painted the name of the speaker onto the board itself, thus current Senate Speaker George Furey's name is affixed to the board by magnets. (Chris Rands/CBC News)

      About the Author

      John Paul Tasker

      Parliamentary Bureau

      John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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