This Tuesday, the government’s proposed law on doctor-assisted suicide, Bill C-14, will return to the Senate floor from committee and go through third reading and a vote in the Red Chamber by Wednesday. Strangely enough, no one really knows what will happen, despite the fact that this vote is epical — on a par according to some senators with titanic past votes on issues like capital punishment.
So why the uncertainty on such a momentous change in the law that touches matters of life and death, medical ethics, and personal religious beliefs? It is because the Senate is now a horse designed by a committee — a humpy back camel which is is no longer docile, but positively ornery. The more you try to whip it, the harder it kicks.
If you’re wondering what has changed, it’s that there are really three Senates now, all of them at feuding despite a “veneer of civility” as one senator put it. There are the Harper-appointed CPC hacks who sold out the institution to the Harper PMO and are temporarily still in the majority; disgruntled ex-Liberal senators who were kicked out of caucus by the young Trudeau before the Auditor General’s report on senators’ expenses was made public; and the new, non-partisan class of senators, the so-called Independents, created when Trudeau ditched the bagmen, rainmakers, and loyalists of a bygone era in favour of Justin’s truth angels.
In the Harper regime, the PMO simply pulled the strings of its partisan majority in the Senate and the PM’s obsequious puppets jerked into whatever motion the boss required — including the baseless witch-hunt against Senator Mike Duffy and others. To Harper, the Senate was just another tool to bypass democracy and due process.
To underscore his contempt for the place, Harper appointed people to it while they were under regulatory investigation by Elections Canada (Irving Gerstein and the late Doug Findley), introduced legislation in the Senate, and even used it to sink bills that had already been passed by the House of Commons.
But while Trudeau has rejected Harper’s crass debasement of an ultra-partisan Senate, his own approach is certainly not without politics. Take for example his position on amendments to Bill C-14. The bill came out of the House of Commons with 16 amendments — all of them from the Liberals. All nine opposition amendments were defeated, a continuation of the Harper mantra that held that the opposition were know-nothing busy-bodies whose views were of no importance.
But by the time Bill C-14 reached the Senate, the government was letting it be known that it might now accept further amendments — as long as they were “thoughtful”.
Don’t be surprised if those amendments come from newly minted, and most thoughtful, Independent senator Frances Lankin. This is what she was emailing to her colleagues on June 2, 2016, including Elaine McCoy, Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, Ratna Omidvar and Chantal Petitclerc, about how she would like the government bill changed.
“For your information, I intend to submit amendments to; 1) establish another review process focusing on Informed Consent and the social conditions and social determinants of health issues that can limit peoples’ real options and lead them to considering MAID because other alternatives of support are not available…and 2) to establish an end date for the reviews of eighteen months from the date of commencement…I will continue to discuss Senators Cowan and Carignan’s amendments with them (and engage Andre and Murray) and will let you all know how that is proceeding. Frances”
If the Trudeau government accepts amendments from Lankin, it would serve its political agenda. It would demonstrate that independent senators can carry out their sober second thought and have it accepted by the government — even on such an emotionally charged and profoundly important issue as this one.
The same strategy is being followed with Bill C-7, the RCMP union bill, which would give the Mounties the right to collective bargaining. That bill is being carried in the Senate by former Liberal, and now independent senator, Larry Campbell. Another new independent appointee, Sen. Andre Pratte, is likewise steering the government’s Air Canada bill through the Red Chamber. As one senator put it to me, “In all cases, the newbies are being given a chance to shine.”
The independent senators know they are the wave of the future. But they also realize they are being discriminated against by the traditional factions still in control of the Senate. In a June 1, 2016 letter to Sen. Donald Plett, Chair of the Selection Committee, Sen. Elaine McCoy, demanded fair representation on Senate committees for Independent senators.
“Senator Plett, Further to the conversation Senator Lankin and I had with you yesterday, I understand you are still seeking some assistance in compiling a final list of committee assignments for Independent Senators. As you know, we provided you with a complete list on May 5th. We heard nothing from you or the Selection Committee for two weeks…For the record, know that these appointments do not satisfy the principles of equality, proportionality, and fair share of the work that govern the conduct of business in the Senate of Canada. As we said on May 5th, if these principles were fully applied, independent senators would fill 48 seats at this time. With these new assignments, we will have a mere 33 seats. Although we will not contest the issue of full compliance with the the principles at this time, please note that we reserve our right to pursue this issue when we return after the summer break. Sincerely, Senator Elaine McCoy, QC”
So Wednesday the rubber hits the road.
If Harper is still pulling strings in the Senate, Conservative senators will oppose Bill C-14. Some of those will vote against it because of pro-life principles. Others, the ones with a well-developed sense of humour, will oppose on the grounds that the legislation isn’t Charter-compliant, something that never bothered them when they passed bill after unconstitutional bill — all of which were rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada.
If former Liberal senators are still feeling bitchy after being jilted by Trudeau, some of them may vote against C-14 to remind the PMO that there is a cost attached to amputation without anesthetic. Like certain Conservatives, they might also cite the Charter, and possibly the Supreme Court ruling, the Carter decision, that made new legislation necessary.
Are they still feeling bitchy? Resoundingly yes. When former Pierre Trudeau cabinet minister, Sen. Serge Joyal, heard current Health minister Jane Philpott refer to senators as “you folks” during her testimony last Wednesday, he shot back, ‘We are honorable senators, not you folks.’
As tempting as it might be for Conservative and dumped Liberal senators to keep throwing toys out of the pram in a display of political colic, it would serve them to remember that over 80 per cent of Canadians want this legislation passed.
If voters get the idea that suffering Canadians are being denied death with dignity because of a corrupt and unelected cabal of self-interested plum-suckers, it could be the final nail in the coffin of the Senate.
Which may not be such a bad idea.
Author: Michael Harris