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The Speakers of the Senate of Canada

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Introduction

The Speaker of the Senate presides over sittings of the Senate and has important procedural, ceremonial, and protocol responsibilities and duties. The office was instituted at the time of Confederation, when the Senate was created as the successor to the Legislative Council of Canada.

Like the various members of the Senate, the men and women who have served as its Speaker since 1867 come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. The Senate’s Speakers have all approached and performed the office in their own way, depending on their personalities and the challenges of the times. Collectively, they provide an important perspective on the Senate through the years.

Senate of Canada

The Origins of the Speakership of the Senate

Constitution Act, 1867

Under the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly known as the British North America Act, 1867), the federal legislative power rests with the Parliament of Canada, which consists of the Queen, the Senate, and the House of Commons.

In the negotiations leading up to Confederation in 1867, more time was spent discussing the powers and role of the Senate than almost any other aspect of the proposed union. In the end, the Constitution established the Senate as an amalgam of the British House of Commons and the House of Lords. It was to be a regionally based chamber of sober second thought, performing a revising role, and acting as a counterweight to the House of Commons. Senators were to be appointed for life.1 Section 18 of the Constitution Act, 1867 authorized the Senate and the House of Commons to claim, by statute, the same privileges, immunities and powers possessed by the British House of Commons.

The Constitution Act, 1867 also specifies that there shall be a Speaker of the Senate who is appointed, but the act does not set out any specific powers or responsibilities of the office, not even that of presiding over the Senate.

Appointment of the Speaker

The Speaker of the Senate is appointed by the Governor General, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The Senate is not formally involved in the process; however, the Prime Minister may consult with senators informally to seek their opinion on the matter. Several attempts to change the appointment process have been proposed over the years, with motions being moved in the Senate as early as 1868. The most recent proposal was contained in a bill introduced in 2003 and again in 2004. None of these attempts at reform have been successful.

The office of Speaker of the Senate is characterized by a relatively frequent turnover. Leaving aside those Speakers in the early years who were appointed to fill a temporary vacancy, the tenure of Speakers has usually been of short duration. In the first 50 years following Confederation, all Speakers served for one Parliament at most. After 1922, most terms have lasted up to two Parliaments. Only two Speakers have served for a period of three Parliaments.

Various conventions have been claimed over the years with respect to a rotation of Speakers in the Senate, but few of them have been followed rigorously and the existence of some is disputed. For example, there was a suggestion in the 19th century that the Speakership had been intended to rotate among the senatorial divisions of the country;2 however, a quick examination of the Speakers and the regions they represented makes it clear that this approach has never been followed.

In many instances, an anglophone Speaker of the Senate has been succeeded by a francophone, and vice versa. However, this too is not a hard and fast rule. For example, when a Speaker has had to be replaced during a Parliament, the successor has almost always been selected from the same linguistic background. This occurred in 1888 when Speaker Allan succeeded Speaker Plumb; in 1930 when Speaker Hardy followed Speaker Bostock; and again in 1943 with Speaker Vien replacing Speaker Parent. Since 1980, the pattern of alternating linguistic groups has not been maintained, with five consecutive francophone Speakers (Marchand, Riel, Charbonneau, LeBlanc and Molgat) being followed by two anglophone Speakers (Hays and Kinsella).

Most Speakers have had considerable experience in the Senate, and have had an opportunity to become familiar with its procedures and traditions before being appointed to preside over the chamber. Indeed, many Speakers have been appointed near the end of their parliamentary careers. One was a member of the Senate for 32 years before being named Speaker. Most appointees have had more than five years’ experience in the Senate, and nearly half have had more than 10 years. Nevertheless, an appointment to the Senate and to the Speakership can occur simultaneously, and this has happened on four occasions.

Traditionally, when a Speaker leaves office he or she is made a Privy Councillor, if not already a member.

Partisanship

Canadian flag

In keeping with the Speakership’s roots in the British system of government, the Speaker of the Canadian Senate was originally expected to be partisan, not impartial. The Speakership of the Senate was a political office, to be filled by the government. Some notable examples include two Speakers who were Cabinet ministers without portfolio while in the chair, and some others who moved directly to the Speakership from the Cabinet or a provincial premiership. Even in recent years, all Speakers of the Senate have had – and have generally retained – ties to a party.

One of the most important features of the office is that, because the government in power chooses the Speaker, it can ensure that one of its own members fills the post, even if the governing party does not hold the majority of the seats in the Senate.

The Constitution Act, 1867 and the Rules of the Senate both assume that the Speaker will take an active part in political life. The Rules permit the Speaker to participate in debate, provided that he or she speaks from the floor, not the chair. Moreover, the Speaker retains the right to vote on all matters before the Senate. This is a deliberative or original vote, and not a casting vote. In other words, the Speaker is not entitled to vote in order to break a tie in the Senate.

In the early years of Confederation, Speakers routinely voted. More recently, however, they have tended to refrain from engaging in debate, usually restricting themselves to administrative or non-contentious matters. Similarly, Speakers have increasingly hesitated to vote, unless the outcome is expected to be particularly close or the matter is an important one for the government.

Roles and Responsibilities of the Speaker

Presiding Officer

The office of the Speaker of the Senate was patterned on the United Kingdom office of the Lord Chancellor, who was, until 2006, the presiding officer of the House of Lords but also a member of the Cabinet and a judicial officer. Unlike the House of Commons, where the Speaker was intended to “speak” on behalf of the members, the House of Lords was reluctant to surrender any more of its powers to the Lord Chancellor than was absolutely necessary. Thus, he or she traditionally performed a fairly minimal role in presiding over the sittings of the House of Lords.

Similarly, the early Speakers of the Canadian Senate were perceived as having a limited role in guiding the proceedings of the chamber. As Robert A. Mackay wrote in 1926: “[T]he Speaker of the Senate is in reality but a chairman or presiding senator, not the spokesman of the house in dealing with the Crown as the Speaker of the Commons is historically, nor yet a president who sits above the party struggle.” Furthermore, the Speaker of the Senate has never been a judicial officer nor played any judicial role in the way that the Lord Chancellor used to.

Since all senators were regarded as equal, the Senate initially sought to conduct its business by consensus, and the Speaker of the Senate was not originally given any specific powers or responsibilities to maintain order or to enforce the Rules of the Senate. He was authorized to explain the Rules and practices of the Senate only when called upon to do so. In this respect, during the 19th century, the Senate was largely self-regulating, and the need for the Speaker to intervene was infrequent.

Until 1906, the Senate consciously referred to the House of Lords tradition whereby the Lord Chancellor intervened in debate to rule on a procedural question only at the request of a member. However, during the 1890s and the early part of the 20th century, the occasional rowdiness of a few senators led to a movement to break with House of Lords tradition and give the Senate Speaker more authority. The 1906 revision of the Senate Rules gave the Speaker increased powers and explicitly authorized the Speaker to preserve order and decorum, and to decide questions of order.

The adoption of the new Rules did not have an immediate or profound effect, as there seems to have been some uncertainty about the extent of the powers conferred and the circumstances under which they could or should be used, and some hesitancy on the part of the Speakers to resort to them. From the 1930s on, both Speakers and senators on occasion alluded to the existence of an “unwritten” rule that Speakers did not intervene until requested to do so by a senator. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, however, some Speakers became more active in their interventions and did not always wait for their attention to be drawn to breaches of the Rules before intervening.

Uncertainty about the role of the Speaker persisted until the adoption of revised Rules in 1991. Proposed and adopted in the aftermath of a turbulent debate over the Goods and Services Tax, the 1991 amendments to the Rules of the Senate were the most extensive since 1906. The new Rule 18 clarified the role of the Speaker in the Senate. It specifies that it is not necessary for breaches of order and decorum to be drawn to the attention of the Speaker, and that he or she may interrupt any debate to restore order or to enforce the Rules. In the case of “grave disorder” the Speaker is explicitly empowered to suspend the sitting of the Senate for up to three hours. The Rule also allows the Speaker to determine when sufficient argument has been heard to decide a question of privilege or point of order.

Even as the role of the Speaker changed, certain features remained constant. In keeping with the egalitarian nature of the Senate, all rulings of the Speaker are subject to an appeal to the full Senate for confirmation or rejection. The Senate reserves for itself the final authority over the interpretation of its Rules and practices. The equality of all senators is further illustrated by the practice of senators addressing each other directly, rather than through the Speaker.

The right to appeal a Speaker’s ruling was used successfully for the first time in 1873. Appeals have been infrequent except when the mood of the chamber was particularly partisan and hostile. The open political affiliation of Senate Speakers, and the fact that they do not necessarily come from the majority side, means that there may be dissatisfaction with their rulings; generally, however, Speakers have shown impartiality in their rulings, and appeals are in fact rare.

The Speaker plays an important role in facilitating the conduct of business in the Senate chamber. He or she calls out items during the daily Routine of Business and items on the Notice Paper, as well as “recognizing” senators who wish to speak. The Speaker reminds senators about time limits for different categories of activity, including Senators’ Statements and Question Period, and presides over any vote taken in the Senate. The Speaker reads messages from the Governor General and the House of Commons, and introduces visitors in the galleries. The Speaker is responsible for ruling on all questions that are raised with respect to parliamentary procedure in the chamber or with respect to the privileges, rights and immunities of the Senate or of individual senators as they carry out their duties. He or she also rules on applications for emergency debates.

While the Speaker’s authority and powers in presiding over sittings of the Senate have been enhanced, this development has generally not been matched by any similar increase in administrative responsibilities. Given the partisan antecedents of the office, and how it was originally envisioned and characterized, it is perhaps understandable that the Speaker’s administrative role was limited and has remained so.

Over time, the Speaker of the Senate has come to more closely resemble the Speaker of the House of Commons – for instance, in assuming a more proactive role in preserving order in the chamber, and abstaining from debate and voting. This is, in part, a reflection of the changes to the Rules of the Senate adopted by the Senate – especially those of 1906 and 1991 – and of the behaviour of various incumbents of the office. It also reflects the experiences and expectations of senators, many of whom come from a background in the House of Commons or provincial legislatures.

Ambassador

In addition to presiding over the Senate’s deliberations, modern Speakers have a significant role in representing the Senate and senators on formal occasions of state both nationally and internationally. The Speaker ranks fourth in the Table of Precedence for Canada, after the Governor General, the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In keeping with this status, the Speaker often receives diplomats and other parliamentary officials. As well, the Speaker is frequently asked to represent the Senate, and sometimes the government, at national events and at foreign legislatures. The Speaker also spends a great deal of time meeting and addressing groups to provide insight into the parliamentary process and the important role of the Senate.

Tradition and Innovation

The absence of explicit constitutional or statutory provisions governing the Speakership of the Senate has allowed the office to evolve. As Professor W. F. Dawson wrote in 1969, traditions have grown up that set the Senate Speaker apart from other presiding officers in the parliamentary system: “Such issues as appointment and removal as well as political partisanship and the position of the Speaker in the House have all acquired a distinctively Canadian flavour, and have combined to change the nature of the Speakership into something that was clearly not contemplated in 1867.”

While conscious of its history, the Senate has also been innovative. It was the first chamber on Parliament Hill to have a female Speaker with the appointment of Muriel Fergusson in 1972; she was succeeded in 1974 by Renaude Lapointe, the first female francophone Speaker.

This collection of short biographies of the 42 Speakers of the Senate since Confederation illustrates the wide variety of regional, professional and personal qualifications of the incumbents. For most of these distinguished individuals, their period in the chair – however long or brief – was just one of many highlights in lives that were marked by achievement in various areas. Although success in law and politics is a common denominator that links many of them, others have had noteworthy careers in the military, in business, as educators or as journalists; some achieved prominence in as many as three or four different fields. Indeed, appointment to the Senate and later to the Speakership of the Senate can be seen as the apex of many successful careers.

Unlike other legislative bodies where the Speakers have often played a prominent role in the conduct of proceedings, the Speakers of the Senate have historically exercised their authority under greater restraint. The Senate, as an appointed body that is smaller than the Commons and usually less partisan, has traditionally prided itself on being largely self-governing. Many of its routine proceedings are still managed informally by consensus. Nevertheless, the Speaker of the Senate performs an important role, and this overview of the 42 men and women who have occupied the office provides a useful perspective on the history of the Senate since 1867.


  1. Lifetime appointments were abolished in 1965 when an amendment was made to the Constitution requiring mandatory retirement at age 75 for all senators appointed after June 1 of that year. [ Return to text ]
  2. See Debates of the Senate, January 24, 1884, p. 64. [ Return to text ]