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James Cowan, flanked by other newly declared independent senators, speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill on Jan. 29, 2014. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
James Cowan, flanked by other newly declared independent senators, speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill on Jan. 29, 2014. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Liberal senators make plans to carry on after Trudeau’s shakeup Add to ...

Liberal senators say they are moving on after Justin Trudeau’s decision to cut them loose from the party’s national caucus, but many have no plans to break from the political affiliation that has been a central part of their identity.

The Liberal leader’s surprise announcement on Wednesday that he was expelling all 32 senators from his caucus caused significant anxiety for some long-time party members, who complained about the abrupt nature of the announcement. But even senators who were initially offended said on Thursday they were ready to move on.

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“I was hurt yesterday morning, but I was healed in the afternoon,” said Dennis Dawson, a former Liberal MP who was appointed to the Senate in 2005. “I agree on the move; I don’t agree on the process.”

Mr. Dawson added that he is a Liberal “and I will be sitting in the Senate and I will continue being a Liberal.”

After several years of watching Liberal fortunes slide, one Senate staff member said he still wants to be part of the revival now that the party is finally up in the polls and fundraising. “You cannot leave national caucus and remain unmoved,” he said.

Long-time Liberal Senator Serge Joyal said he supports Mr. Trudeau’s change, noting that it should give senators more freedom to speak their minds without having to take the party’s views into account. But he said Liberal MPs would also lose the wealth of experience and resources some of their Senate counterparts can provide.

Mr. Joyal is a former Liberal policy chair for Quebec, and, until this week, was part of a joint caucus committee that reviewed legislation and worked on determining how Liberals should be instructed to vote. He has also helped prepare Liberal leaders for election debates, including former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

From now on, he said, “I will watch the debate as any citizen [would] in my living room. With friends, making comments and sharing views.”

A source close to Mr. Trudeau said he and his advisers were well aware they would be losing resources and party workers by expelling the senators from the Liberal caucus. But all of that was immaterial, the source said, and it was agreed that it should not factor into the policy decision.

Like Mr. Dawson, several senators said on Thursday they agreed with the decision to cut them loose from the caucus, but they did not agree with the surprising way it was handled.

The Liberal members of the Senate arrived as usual for the weekly caucus meeting on Wednesday morning and were told to go into a separate room from the Liberal MPs. Mr. Trudeau then walked in and told them they were no longer part of his caucus and that they were free to sit as independents, both from the party and from his own leadership.

“Basically, Justin walked in and fired 32 people, 32 members of his caucus,” one Liberal said.

Still, some senators had nothing but praise for the move. George Baker, a senator and former Liberal MP from Newfoundland, called Mr. Trudeau’s announcement “the most courageous thing I have ever seen done since I’ve been on Parliament Hill.”

But others were devastated. A couple of the long-time Liberals in the Senate who felt abandoned by their party called Mr. Trudeau’s office to air their discontent. They were told it was nothing personal.

After Mr. Trudeau left the room, James Cowan, the veteran senator from Nova Scotia who has been the leader of the Liberals in the Senate for more than five years, told his colleagues the move, which also caught him by surprise, meant he was no longer leading a caucus in the Senate.

The senators quickly decided to form their own caucus so they could sit as a group, according to people who were in the room, and they asked Mr. Cowan to lead it.

Mr. Trudeau’s idea did not come out of the blue, a Senate staff member said. Some Liberal senators have been saying for several years that all senators should sit as independents as a way of dissociating themselves from partisanship. But the announcement still came as a shock.

It also created questions about what would happen to resources that the Liberal caucuses in the House and the Senate had shared, and basic questions such as who would be able to sit on Senate committees. Several Liberals pointed out that the party increased its reliance on senators after the 2011 election, when its ranks in the House of Commons were significantly diminished.

“We have what I would call a compensatory role,” Mr. Joyal said. “We’re more involved because they can’t do everything and we try to help.”

Mr. Trudeau and his advisers have made it clear that they do not want the senators to use the Liberal brand. But the senators decided to call themselves the Liberal Senate caucus, and some of them said on Thursday they were not inclined to choose another name.

“We’re definitely the Senate Liberal caucus and it would beg the question of our independence if Mr. Trudeau were to tell us what to call ourselves,” explained Grant Mitchell, who was appointed eight years ago to sit as a Liberal senator from Alberta, and said he agreed wholeheartedly with Mr. Trudeau’s decision.

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