Fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo to answer questions during Senate question period

Canada's Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo will take a seat in the Senate today to field questions during the upper house's question period. Senators are trying to deal with the problem of not having a government representative in the upper house.

With no one to speak for the government in the upper chamber, senators get creative

Federal Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo will field questions from senators on Wednesday during Senate question period. (CBC)

Canada's fisheries minister will take part in a unique experiment Wednesday by taking a seat in the Senate.

Hunter Tootoo is the first cabinet minister invited to attend Senate question period to speak on behalf of the government.

It's something senators have agreed to try out since there are no Liberal senators to represent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government in the upper house. Since Parliament reconvened after the last election, Senate question period has been rather uneventful, with senators occasionally posing questions to committee chairs.

Trudeau removed Liberal-appointed senators from his party's caucus in January, 2014 in a bid, he said at the time, to make the chamber more independent and less partisan.

Senators continue to deal with the procedural repercussions. There is now no leader of the government in the Senate to introduce bills, speak for the government during debates or answer questions during Senate question period.

The way it will appears it will work Wednesday is that after question period wraps up in the House of Commons, Tootoo will head down to the Senate and take a seat at a desk set up in the middle aisle of the red chamber.

An earlier plan had the minister sitting on the front bench of what has been known as the "government side" and taking the spot of Liberal-appointed Senator Joan Fraser, who is deputy leader of a group of senators that call themselves Senate Liberals. 

For half an hour, Tootoo will stand and answer questions from senators on any topic related to his department. Unlike in the House of Commons, there is no time limit on the length of questions or answers.

"We want to try to have something different, more substantive answers and fewer of the usual talking points," says Conservative Senator Claude Carignan, leader of the opposition in the Senate.

The Conservatives will ask the first few questions, but with several Independent senators in addition to the Senate Liberals, Carignan says there remains some work to do in figuring out how many questions each "side" will get.

Conservatives' Atlantic presence

While the entire Senate had a part in inviting Tootoo to the Upper House, Carignan says the Conservatives are particularly eager to hear from the fisheries minister.

"First to demonstrate that we are paying attention to the Atlantic provinces and the Northern territories, where we don't have MPs. So we want to highlight the issues of those areas."

Carignan says he wants to learn more about how the government intends to proceed when it comes to increasing marine-protected areas.

Going forward, Carignan hopes to have a cabinet minister come answer questions once a week until March, when he expects Trudeau will have named his first five senate appointments and selected one of them to serve as the government's voice in the Senate.

In December, Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef made it clear that even with a new appointment process in place for selecting senators, the government would not appoint a government leader in the Senate but rather a "government representative."


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