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Senator Pamela Wallin appears at a Senate committee hearing on Parliament Hill on August 12, 2013. (PATRICK DOYLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Senator Pamela Wallin appears at a Senate committee hearing on Parliament Hill on August 12, 2013. (PATRICK DOYLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

The Wallin affair shows why Ottawa needs to clarify the meaning of 'resident' for senators Add to ...

What has been called the “unusual travel pattern” of Senator Pamela Wallin, resulting in her dubious expenses claims, has demonstrated the importance of clarifying what it means for a senator to be “resident” in a particular province, as required by the Constitution Act, 1867. Some kind of balance is needed between a senator’s fulfilment of parliamentary duties in Ottawa and his or her active, concrete presence in the province represented.

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Consequently, it is a welcome development that Gerald Comeau, the chair of the Senate’s standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration, together with other members of the committee, has reportedly asked for a legal briefing on residency, which suggests a substantive consideration of the underlying issues.

As recently as February, a report from the committee said, “It is neither in our mandate nor our jurisdiction to make any findings on the constitutional question of residency.”

But rule-of-thumb criteria, relying on the presentation of drivers’ licences, health cards and other documents, do not really engage the issue.

The representation of the provinces and regions is one of the essential purposes of the Senate; the residency is no mere technicality.

By contrast, in the House of Commons, based on representation by population, a MP’s residency in his or her riding is desirable, but not necessary. Indeed, two important Canadian party leaders, W.L. Mackenzie King and Tommy Douglas, for prolonged periods represented ridings in provinces where they were not rooted, the former in Saskatchewan and the latter in British Columbia.

It is to be hoped that the legal advice sought by at least some members of the international will in due course lead to a principled articulation of the residency question.

The Conservative government’s Bill C-7, which is concerned with the selection of senators and term limits, could benefit from a sequel, or even an amendment, that would expand on the Constitution’s brief use of the word “resident.”

Senators’ residency matters. Senator Wallin’s troubles may yet make a positive contribution to parliamentary in Canada.

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