Vacancies pile up in the Senate with Trudeau slow to appoint new members

Canada's Senate is nearly 20 per cent vacant as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has allowed some seats in the upper chamber to go unfilled, in some instances for years at a time.

Nearly 20 per cent of Red Chamber's seats are empty

The Senate of Canada Building has room for 17 more senators that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to recommend to the Governor General for appointment to the Red Chamber. (Brian Morris/CBC News)

Canada's Senate is nearly 20 per cent vacant after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau allowed some seats in the upper chamber to go unfilled, in some instances for years at a time.

Of the 105 seats in the upper house, 17 are unoccupied and some provinces — most of them west of Quebec — have been left without the representation they are entitled to expect under the Constitution. Four more senators are slated to retire in the next year when they hit the mandatory retirement age of 75.

The Senate hasn't had a full complement of senators since late 2018, which means fewer senators to carry out the chamber's duties proposing new laws or making amendments to government legislation.

Under the Constitution, the Governor General appoints individuals to the Senate. By convention, senators are appointed on the advice of the prime minister.

Former B.C. Conservative senator Richard Neufeld retired 965 days ago and the government still hasn't found someone qualified to take his place. That leaves just five senators in the upper house to represent the country's third most populous province and its 5.3 million people.

Nova Scotia has also been waiting a long time for a full contingent of senators to represent its interests in Parliament — former Conservative senator Tom McInnis retired in April 2020.

Saskatchewan's Lillian Dyck, a former member in the Progressive Senate Group, was forced into mandatory retirement 673 days ago and her replacement has yet to be named. Other seats in Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador have been vacant for more than 500 days.

There are five vacant seats in Ontario, leaving only 19 senators on hand to represent the province's 15 million people in federal matters. Two of P.E.I.'s four seats are empty.

'The decision-makers in government don't seem to care'

In fact, it's been nearly a year since Trudeau named anyone to the Red Chamber with the last batch of Liberal appointees being named in July 2021. The only province that is fully represented is Quebec as all of its 24 Senate seats are currently occupied.

Paul Thomas is a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba and a Senate watcher. In an interview with CBC News, Thomas said the growing vacancy list shows the government has little regard for the upper house and its work.

"It contributes to an impression that the Senate is an embarrassment — that it lacks legitimacy. It seems the decision-makers in government don't seem to care, it's unimportant in their eyes and they're not getting around to finding people to serve," Thomas said.

"To have this many vacancies at one time means you weaken the Senate's performance and it can't do the job the constitution assigns it to do or it can't do it well. This neglect impairs the functioning of the system and its ability to offer sober second thought and scrutinize legislation."

(CBC News)

Quebec Sen. Marc Gold, the government representative and Trudeau's point-man in the Senate, wasn't available for an interview.

Quebec Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain, the "facilitator" or leader of the Independent Senators Group (ISG), the body's largest group and one that is mostly composed of Trudeau appointees, said the prolonged vacancies have not had any meaningful effect on the chamber's ability to represent every region of the country — but she's hopeful the prime minister will name new members soon.

"I think it's important that those seats are filled in a timely manner. I trust the prime minister will recommend some names to the Governor General — that will obviously be welcomed," she said in an interview.

Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain of Quebec is the facilitator of the Independent Senators Group. (Chris Rands/CBC News)

"There's a lot of work to do and we need to share this work between the greatest number of possible members. Right now, it's not an optimal situation," she added

When the Liberal government was first elected in 2015 it promised to rid the Senate of partisanship by ending the decades-old Liberal and Conservative duopoly in the upper house.

Trudeau's push for an 'independent' Senate

The government said it would only appoint "independent" senators who are, in theory, non-partisan.

Some of Trudeau's picks have had a history of Liberal party membership and donations while others were political neophytes plucked from academia, business or the charitable sector.

The Liberal changes, which were enacted after years of scandal in the Red Chamber, were designed to make Senate appointees less beholden to the prime minister of the day — transforming the place into a sort of council of elders.

To that end, the government appointed an independent advisory board of distinguished Canadians to help the prime minister make his Senate picks.

Governor General Mary Simon applauds Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following his speech during a ceremony in the Senate in this July 2021 file photo. Under the Constitution, the Governor General appoints individuals to the Senate. By convention, senators are appointed on the advice of the prime minister. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

There's a federal advisory board of three members that oversee the process. Each of the provinces and territories then have their own boards that review CVs to compile a list of possible appointees to send up to the federal board and the prime minister.

While designated as "provincial and territorial boards," the members are all hand-picked by the federal government — which has been a source of tension in the past.

Many of the provincial and territorial advisory boards are missing members. Eight of the 13 provincial and territorial boards have vacancies, which means these bodies aren't fully functioning. With some of these boards dormant, the appointments process has ground to a halt.

The slow moving Liberal Senate appointment process 

A spokesperson for the Privy Council Office, the department of government that serves the prime minister and cabinet, and the branch responsible for the Senate appointments process, said appointments will be made "in due course."

"Work is continuing to establish the independent advisory board for Senate appointments. Provinces and territories have had the opportunity to participate by recommending individuals from their jurisdictions to serve," Pierre-Alain Bujold said.

"Once the advisory board is established, they will decide when to start reviewing applications, and updates will be posted on their website," he said.

By dismantling the old patronage system whereby senators were often plucked from the partisan ranks, the Liberal government has farmed the work out to bureaucrats, who move much slower than party bosses, Thomas said.

"Everyone seems to think the quality of the appointees has gone up but I don't think they anticipated there would be this logjam, this failure to fill vacancies," he said.

"When you're in third place and you throw out some fresh ideas, you may not think through all the consequences of maintaining this somewhat elaborate process," Thomas said, referring to Trudeau's 2015 campaign promise to overhaul the appointments process. "It wasn't given deep thought or consideration."

While Trudeau has been slow to name new senators in recent months, after nearly seven years in power, his reforms have fundamentally changed how the place operates.

The push for more independence has resulted in a major splintering and many senators no longer fit neatly into a Liberal or Conservative caucus.

There's a hodgepodge of groups and caucuses including: the ISG, which houses many of Trudeau's picks; the Canadian Senators Group, a right-leaning group that counts some former Conservative senators among it ranks; the Progressive Senate Group, a collection of left-leaning senators; the Conservative Party of Canada caucus, which is still affiliated with Tory MPs in the House of Commons and the "non-affiliated," a group of seven senators that aren't attached to any one group or caucus.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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