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Government leader in the Senate, Senator Claude Carignan speaks to the media in the Senate foyer on Parliament Hill October 29, 2013 in Ottawa. Mr. Carignan proposed an amendment to the assisted dying law to set up safeguards for the vulnerable.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

In a chamber this quiet, it is hard to think of the legislators as anything but docile. But this week, the Senate nearly had a revolution.

This was not just a few rogue senators joining the Opposition to block part of a government bill. This was more.

As they wrestled with the controversial bill on medically assisted dying, senators worked across caucus lines – Conservatives, independent Liberals and independents – and not just to vote down a government provision. They were trying to organize a rewrite of the Trudeau government's legislation through co-ordinated amendments, to replace the government's balancing act of measures with their own. This was the Senate taking a step into the legislative business of governing.

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It fell short. But it was a little revolutionary moment. There is some question about whether it will be repeated. And another question about whether it should.

On Thursday, it was the Conservative leader in the Senate, Claude Carignan, the balding, bespectacled Quebec labour lawyer, who proposed an amendment to set up safeguards for the vulnerable: to require, in some instances, the approval of psychiatrists and a judge before a medical professional can help someone end their life.

The setting was stodgy, not revolutionary. The Senate is a room of red carpet and wood panelling, and when Mr. Carignan held up the text of his amendment, a bow-tied page was standing by dutifully.

But something different was happening. The senators who spoke to back Mr. Carignan's amendment included independent Liberal caucus leader James Cowan, and Frances Lankin, a former Ontario NDP cabinet minister appointed as an independent by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Two days before, on Tuesday night, Mr. Cowan had called a meeting, co-hosted by Mr. Carignan and Ms. Lankin, attended by more than 25 senators. One goal was to organize the complicated voting on amendments on the Senate floor. But there was also a key conversation about co-ordinating the content.

That was important. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould had insisted the government had struck a delicate balance on the bill – and warned senators against upsetting it.

The Supreme Court had struck down the law prohibiting assisted dying, allowing it for adults facing "grievous and irremediable" suffering. But the government's Bill C-14 limited it to those heading toward a "reasonably foreseeable" natural death. Many critics, including many senators, considered that an unconstitutional restriction that would exclude patients whose conditions were not terminal. But Ms. Wilson-Raybould had warned that opening up the bill wider could leave some people vulnerable to coercion.

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So senators co-ordinated amendments. Senator Serge Joyal, who was a Liberal MP under Pierre Trudeau known as a constitutional legalist, would move an amendment that would allow access to assisted dying for all suffering grievous and irremediable conditions. As a companion piece, Mr. Carignan would follow with an amendment to require judicial approval for those not near the end of life.

It was a balance many senators seemed to support. Mr. Joyal's amendment passed on Wednesday. But once details of Mr. Carignan's amendment circulated, some senators changed their minds, believing it would create obstacles. The amendment was defeated.

If the co-ordination fell short, there is still rebellion. It is a circumstance partly of the PM's making. Mr. Trudeau kicked Liberal senators out of his caucus in 2014, so he can no longer require them to support the party. He expanded the ranks of independents by appointing seven.

Mr. Trudeau's government hoped senators might not coalesce to amend C-14 because some think the bill is too restrictive, and others see it as too broad. But senators started to co-ordinate.

Other bills face a rough ride in the Senate, but it is not clear if co-ordination will recur. Few bills are like the assisted-dying legislation, a complex matter of conscience, and a question of unconstitutionality – many senators see it as their role to "fix" faulty bills. But the rebellions will raise questions about the Senate role.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose warned the public is concerned about the unelected Senate overturning bills passed by MPs. Her Senate leader, Mr. Carignan, differed: The Constitution provides for the Red Chamber to offer sober second thought on laws. What else is a senator to do?

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That will be tested when the Senate's amended bill returns to the Commons. If MPs strip out all the Senate amendments, then Senators will have to decide whether to stick to their guns, or bend to show deference to the elected. But now each Senator chooses. And even if the revolution slows to evolution, this week marked a shift in the Senate.

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