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Politics The last senator sitting: Denise Batters is roused to reform the Red Chamber

As of this coming Wednesday, it will be two years since Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed a senator.

That would be Scott Tannas of High River, Alta., who replaced retired senator Bert Brown. Both were first selected by the people of Alberta.

Prior to that, on Jan. 25, 2013, the Prime Minister named David Wells to represent Newfoundland and Labrador, Lynn Beyak and Victor Oh for Ontario, Doug Black for Alberta and Denise Batters for Saskatchewan.

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Ms. Batters, who jokingly calls herself "the Baby of the Senate," would have to retire at age 75, which she will not reach until June 18, 2045. At that point she could be, theoretically, the last senator standing – or, if you prefer, sitting.

There are currently 18 vacancies in the 105-seat Senate of Canada. Just prior to Christmas, the Prime Minister suggested there was no national appetite for new appointments, despite Speaker Pierre Nolin's concerns about the diminishing effectiveness of the Senate.

Indeed, following the expense scandals of Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb, there appears little if any appetite for anything whatsoever to do with the Senate.

Say the Prime Minister simply stops serving up names for the Governor-General to appoint. And say, again, that this Prime Minister somehow wins another majority this fall and has named none by the set date of the next federal election: Oct. 21, 2019. By then, another 27 senators will have reached retirement age. And, perhaps, Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau – currently suspended without pay – will have followed Mr. Harb into retirement or exile. That would make for 48 vacancies. A handful more from death, voluntary retirement or jail and the Senate would be at half strength or less. And given that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau booted all Liberal senators out of caucus more than a year ago, what would be the point of repair?

Neither abolishment nor reform would be needed for an institution vanishing by attrition.

At the moment, the youngest senator is Mr. Brazeau, who would hold his position until Nov. 11, 2049. He may go well before that, which would leave Ms. Batters with the longest potential shelf life. Not surprisingly, she would hate to think there could ever come a time when there is no Red Chamber.

"This," she says, "is what I've wanted to do since I was 12 years old. Sort of a strange thing to want to do when you're 12, but every Saturday night I used to watch my two favourite shows – This Week in Parliament with Don Newman and Hockey Night in Canada. I knew that I probably wouldn't be a professional hockey player, but I did think about the Senate."

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Denise Lesiuk of Regina would go on to play the organ at the Regina Pats junior hockey games. She would study law and, at the provincial Progressive Conservative Party's 1989 convention, she would meet another young Tory named Dave Batters, who became her husband and, eventually, the Conservative Member of Parliament for the federal riding of Palliser.

In 2008, Mr. Batters went public with his battle with depression and chose not to run again. A year later, at the age of 39, he committed suicide.

His wife became an outspoken advocate for public awareness of mental-health issues.

A golf tournament in her husband's name has raised more than $120,000 and pays for 30-second television spots that tell sufferers of depression that they are not alone and should "reach out" for help.

"Sitting in the Senate gives me a national platform," Ms. Batters says. "I can speak to Canadians from coast to coast and openly about the still-too-often stigmatized issues of mental illness and suicide."

She calls her late husband "an early trailblazer" in that he openly acknowledged his problems while still sitting in the House of Commons.

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"It's difficult enough for people who were suffering with those illnesses 20 years before and have since successfully conquered them to talk about it," she says. "But when someone is currently suffering from it and is an MP, that was really a brave thing to do. And it spurred me on to be able to talk about it. I still contend that suicide is the final frontier of stigma. That's one thing that still needs to be talked about."

Ms. Batters says she could have run for public office rather than accept an appointment. Her husband had even given her "right of first refusal" when supporters began pressing one of them to run in Palliser.

"The Senate was my calling," she says. "It is where I wanted to make my public contribution."

Ms. Batters sits on three committees and is joint chair of one that looks into government regulations. She has been Senate sponsor for three different pieces of legislation that have passed. She has been to Ukraine to monitor an election. And she is part of a small, internal working group that is reviewing and hoping to improve Senate communications.

"Something that is definitely needed," she adds somewhat wryly. "Not enough people understand the important work that we do."

She knows a great many Canadians look at the $138,700 salaries and the $100-million-plus it costs to maintain the Senate and wonder what they are getting for their money apart from newspaper headlines and outrage.

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"It's a valuable Canadian national institution that accomplishes so many crucial tasks for Canadians," Ms. Batters argues. "The Senate represents and protects minority and regional interests. We amend legislation – for example, my committee helped amend the Fair Elections Act – so we provide that 'sober second thought.'"

When she accepted the appointment, she agreed to supporting reform that would include a democratically accountable Senate. Ironically, her own province has now passed legislation calling for an end to the Senate and, while she disagrees with abolishment, she does concede that "status quo is not an option."

The Senate has to change or it may as well die by attrition.

"We have the opportunity to build lasting, meaningful parliamentary reform," she says. "We should seize that opportunity to build something positive rather than putting our energies into destroying one of our founding institutions.

"People just want to have a better sense of what we do in the Senate. Then they would understand, and think it's a valuable institution. But in a vacuum they may not understand that much."

First fill the vacuum and reform the institution. Then, possibly, Canadians might be open to filling up the seats again.

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Editor's note: an earlier version of this story published online and in Saturday's newspaper incorrectly said Senator Doug Black represents Ontario and Senator Lynn Beyak represents Alberta. In fact, the reverse is true. Sen. Black is from Alberta and Sen. Beyak from Ontario.

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