Politics

Canadian Senators Group forms to focus on regional interests

A new group is being created in the Red Chamber with the aim of allowing senators to better represent their regions and get work done more efficiently.

Members come from throughout Canada and across political spectrum

Alberta Sen. Scott Tannas says he is concerned about vast regional differences across the country. (CBC)

A new group is being formed in the Canadian Senate, with 11 like-minded members saying they're getting together ⁠to better represent regional concerns across the country.

Senators signing up for the Canadian Senators Group (CSG) said they aren't looking to whip votes or take over the Red Chamber. Rather, they said they want to become more research-oriented in their approach to decisions on legislation and to treat each region equally.

The founding members include senators Larry Campbell of British Columbia, Doug Black of Alberta, Robert Black of Ontario, Stephen Greene of Nova Scotia, Diane Griffin of P.E.I., Elaine McCoy of Alberta, David Richards of New Brunswick, Scott Tannas of Alberta, Josée Verner of Quebec, Pamela Wallin of Saskatchewan and Vernon White of Ontario.

"What unites us is our approach to the work and the belief that each region should be treated with dignity and respect," said Campbell, who used to be part of the Independent Senators Group (ISG).

"I think a broad-based but smaller group will enable us to do that."

Members come from all parties and regions. Tannas left the Conservative caucus to become the founder and interim leader of the CSG after taking time over the summer to reflect on what he described as a tough last session of the Upper House, during which he felt "damage was being done."

Sen. Diane Griffin of P.E.I. left the Independent Senators Group to join the Canadian Senators Group. (Christian Patry/CBC)

Tannas said it was extremely difficult for him to reconcile and accept the passage of C-48, the legislation that bans oil tankers in northern B.C., and C-69, the legislation that overhauls Canada's environmental assessment process, which is seen by many in Western Canada as anti-pipeline.

"What I did notice in those debates is that we were talking past each other a lot and I felt that some of those votes were very, very close," Tannas said.

"If I were a strong, independent voice, could I have influenced better one or two more people? Maybe. That was one of my considerations, strong considerations."

Tannas said he still supports Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and remains a loyal party member.

"I voted for him and I'd vote for him again tomorrow," Tannas said.

Minimizing 'group-think'

While he said he will continue to advocate for western concerns, Tannas added the CSG is not focused on promoting the interests of any one particular part of the country.

"I'm concerned about the vast differences when you go region to region," Tannas said in an earlier interview with CBC News.

"I think we have our job cut out for us in the Senate."

Tannas said group members can vote freely, regardless of political affiliation or membership in the group.

The CSG will be capped at 25 members.

Eleven senators have decided to form a new independent group in the Senate called the Canadian Senators Group. (CBC News)

One of the tenets of the new group is for members to be transparent about voting intentions so both the government and the opposition side can see where things stand, said Tannas, adding the group will not come up to a consensus on decisions.

"We think that an important part of independence is to do what you can do to minimize group-think and also to not control the Senate," he said. 

"The idea is to unite around the approach to work, as opposed to the political affiliation or thinking."

The CSG plans to meet once a week for lunch on Tuesdays. 

Tannas said he expects the group will hold leadership elections next fall once more members join.

Across Canada and political spectrum

Griffin said the new group will work in a similar manner to the ISG, which she used to work with, but with fewer people so no group has a "monopoly on independence."

"The advantage this new group has is that there's already a precedent for an Independent Senate group," Griffin said.

"We should be able to get the group up and running much more quickly."

The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa in February 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Griffin left the ISG after receiving an invitation to join the CSG nine days ago.

Griffin said he liked being part of the ISG, but the CSG was an attractive option because it's smaller and has members who align with her centrist views.

"This is not a case of me being a frustrated senator running away from a group," Griffin said. "Far from it."

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, facilitator of the ISG, said the creation of the CSG is consistent with and supportive of the reforms made to the Senate.

In 2014, before Justin Trudeau became prime minister, he expelled every single Liberal member of the Upper House from the party caucus — a gesture aimed at making the Senate less partisan.

After coming to power, Prime Minister Trudeau introduced a system to appoint independent senators named by a nonpartisan review panel.

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, facilitator of the Independent Senators Group, welcomes the creation of the Canadian Senators Group. (CBC)

"I welcome the creation of this group as another member of the family of non-partisan, non-whipped Senate parliamentary groups," Woo said.

"We should be concerned about the long-term viability of the Senate rather than the long-term viability of any individual group in the Senate."

Protecting regions and minorities

Tannas said he thinks this upcoming session of Parliament will show how well the Senate treats each region equally and respectfully.

"We were established to protect regions and to protect minorities," he said.

"And this Parliament appears to be built for us to make sure that we have our best game going in the Senate, in order to make sure that governments and whoever they combine to get legislation through are thinking of all the regions, not just one or two."

Tannas told CBC News earlier that he would be willing to offer advice to the Liberal minority government on how to address western alienation, but wouldn't work with the Liberals in any official capacity and would not cross the floor. 

Tannas said his focus is on ensuring Alberta's interests are advanced and protected. 

"That's going to take some action rather than some symbolism," he said. 

"I hope the government is earnest in what they said they want to do, and they will take the time and spend the energy to actively listen and consider points of view that exist in certain regions of the country."

olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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