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John Ibbitson concluded his entertaining recent proposal for bribing everyone on Prince Edward Island to abolish the Senate with two pointed questions: "And does anyone have a better suggestion for Senate reform? One that might actually work?"

As hopeless as the subject does often seem nowadays, these questions ought to prompt a few vaguely more optimistic responses. By way of example, here is one of them.

To start with, if you really want to reform rather than just abolish the Senate, you have to think outside the box of Canada's now quite archaic Constitution Act, 1867. The four Senate regions that grew from this historic legislation do not reflect Canada today.

A better place to begin is still Alberta's so-called "Triple E" Senate-reform proposal of the 1980s. This was really just a fancy way of urging that Canada adopt the same kind of "elected, effective, and equal" regionally representative institution that has long existed in such other geographically vast, democratic federations as the United States and Australia.

The next step in 2005 is to recognize that over the past century-and-a-half, Canada has evolved into its own more diverse kind of democratic federation. The raw American-Australian formula has to be adjusted somewhat to fit the Canadian case.

Thus, the Triple E model says that each province in today's Canadian federation should have an equal number of Senate seats. This presents crucial difficulties for the French-speaking majority in Quebec. As Jacques Parizeau liked to stress during the last bout of serious debate on Senate reform, in the early 1990s, Quebec is "not a province like the others."

Yet, as Mr. Ibbitson has also urged elsewhere recently, we in the rest of Canada are somehow soon enough just going to have to accept that Quebec is, and will remain, somewhat different, in various respects. What better way to finally make this official than to give Quebec more seats in a reformed Senate than any other province?

So let's say that every province starts with three seats. To underline the point of Quebec's unique provincial role, let's give it 12 seats - four times as many as the base allocation. (If your first reaction is that this is far too many, please read just a little further.) The next big problem with the equal provincial representation formula is that Canada is more polarized between demographically large and small provinces than either the United States or Australia. Currently, the six smallest Canadian provinces, which would together have a majority in a provincially equal Senate, account for only about 14 per cent of Canada's population.

To compensate here, let's give every province outside Quebec with 10 per cent or more of the total Canadian population twice as many seats as the base allocation.

Using current provincial populations, this would create a Senate with 12 seats for Quebec; six seats each for Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario; and three seats each for Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, PEI and Saskatchewan.

Taking a leaf from Mr. Ibbitson's musings, you could add an additional one seat each for the three northern territories. And perhaps there could be an additional three seats again to represent registered aboriginal peoples of Canada.

This would finally give a compact 54-member elected and effective upper house of Parliament, that at last fully represented all of Canada's sprawling and magnificent regional geography, within the real federal corridors of power in Ottawa.

Of course, who can finally say whether any such arrangement really would work in the end? But it "might actually work." And that is all Mr. Ibbitson's pointed questions require.

Presumably, that is, all of Western Canada, Ontario, and Quebec would have their own good-enough reasons for agreeing to some reformed Senate of this sort - much as in the case of Mr. Ibbitson's proposal for just abolishing the institution altogether.

It may still be true that Atlantic Canada, uniquely favoured by the present unreformed arrangements, would demur. And here it may still be necessary to invoke Mr. Ibbitson's deft proposal for bribing every PEI resident with a $100 cheque, to ensure the support of the seven provinces required for the requisite constitutional amendment. In this case, the bribe would be in aid of democratically reforming and not abolishing the Senate. However charmingly down-to-earth it may seem, abolishing the Senate is just a counsel of weakness. Is that the best we can hope for in the 21st century?

Surely Canadians haven't given up altogether on what Alberta's original Triple E Senate reform report called "Strengthening Canada," just yet?

Randall White is the author of Voice of Region: The Long Journey to Senate Reform in Canada and Ontario Since 1985.

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