Kevin Patterson is a Canadian novelist and internist. He has practised medicine in Kivalliq for 20 years.
Canadians are giving up on the Senate. Corrupt and ineffective, in recent years it has done little except serve as a way for the governing party to reward sympathetic journalists and long-time party functionaries with salaries, expense accounts and a simulacrum of importance.
The wonder is that anyone ever thought that it might be useful. Modelled on the United Kingdom's House of Lords, in the aristocracy-averse New World, there would never be actual earls and barons needing to feel influential – its only purpose was to provide a kind of symmetry with the Motherland's parliament. The bicameral Westminster system had worked relatively well for the U.K., and so the model was exported to the colonies, undemocratic encumbrances and all. The notion that it constituted a chamber of "sober second thought" (as Canada's first prime minister put it) was a clumsy post hoc justification. Could it not have been expected that parliamentary deliberation would be, well, deliberate? And if the House of Commons wasn't, how could the Senate, appointed by prime ministers, really restrain it? Did it stop Trudeau's War Measures Act in 1970? The internment of the Japanese-Canadians in the Second World War? Bill C-51?
As big an issue as its ineffectiveness is, its disposal now becomes at least as large a problem. But the constitutional arguments that would attend an attempt to abolish the Senate would be just suffocating. We went through this in the nineties. An entire nation yawns as one merely thinking about it.
The Senate may never have worked for this country, but the worst that could be said about it was that it was expensive and useless. For the original landed class, the First Nations and Inuit, it is the country itself that has never worked. In a time of unprecedented Canadian prosperity, when the average house in Vancouver is worth nearly $2-million, in the Inuit community of Repulse Bay on the Arctic Circle so few homes have been built that as many as 20 people may sleep in a single house. In Attawapiskat, on James Bay, obtaining access to adequate drinking water and sewage disposal has been an unending struggle. Attawapiskat is only one of the more infamous of the boreal forest reserves, but developing world conditions also prevail in Saint Theresa Point, Wasagamack, Lac Brochet and Cross Lake – even these place names are unfamiliar to southerners. The national embarrassment that the living conditions there represent is hardly thought about at all.
Consider the numbers: An Inuk man has an average life expectancy of around 64. The incidence of tuberculosis among the Inuit is at least 50 times higher than that seen in the south. Unemployment and post-secondary education rates are multiples and fractions, respectively, of that known in the south. The suicide rate among First Nations youth is five to seven times higher than it is among non-aboriginals. First Nations men are more likely to go to jail than they are to university.
Recently, there has been considerable discussion around the residential schools experience with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report. Everyone who has spent time on reserves, or in the inner city of Winnipeg or Regina or Saskatoon, understands that the marginalization of indigenous people continues unabated, a quarter century after the residential schools closed.
The residential schools tragedy played a role, and serves today as a touchstone for First Nations' anger, but it wasn't really what so impoverished indigenous Canadians. It was that the country itself was constructed with no regard for their needs and rights – only for what could be taken from them. The nation erupts with treasure: gold, nickel, lumber, oil, salmon. And think-tank economists draw tight circles around their villages and then argue that there is no economic basis for their existence. That it is no wonder the people who live there are poor.
So if the Senate, like a landfill-rejected mercury-laden light bulb, cannot be practicably disposed of, then repurpose it. Direct it toward Canada's signal failure as a nation. Retire the Red Chamber's current members and invite the First Nations and Inuit to elect representatives to sit in the Canadian House of Lords and review legislation that is to be submitted for royal assent. And if they have ideas about ways the systematic concentration of the country's wealth into the hands of certain city dwelling Canadians may be slowed, then let them propose and debate bills to address this. By all means, let them direct their scrutiny to the efforts of the state to vilify and isolate brown people who wear headdress and worship an unfamiliar god. And let those who understand the truth of the statement that a job is the best social program ever devised, form policy around job creation and economic diversification.
In the last decade, the financiers have taught us that the rich are not rich and the poor are not poor because of their worth but because of their proximity to influence. The poor are poor because they lack power. Power has been assiduously withheld from the indigenous people of the country since its founding and the economic consequences of this have been predictable.
The Senate, a purposeless vestige of a faraway aristocracy, could, oddly, help remedy Canada's central failing. The irony of that image – of this relic of Victorian-era classism working toward some degree of justice and equality for the people deemed least important throughout the country's history – becomes an argument for keeping it. There aren't many others.