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Topical Information for Parliamentarians

The Canadian Senate

July 11, 2006

How Are Senators Appointed?

Senators are “summoned” to the Senate by the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister.  In effect, the appointment of Senators is the prerogative of the Prime Minister.  (The Appendix provides comparative data on the composition of the Senate in the 33rd, 35th, 37th and 39th Parliaments.)

What Are the Required Qualifications to Be a Senator?

To be considered for appointment to the Senate, a person must:

  • be at least 30 years old;
  • be a subject of the Queen. Senators are now traditionally Canadian citizens;
  • own or have equity in $4,000 worth of property in the province for which he or she is appointed.  For historical reasons, Quebec is divided into
    24 electoral divisions, and Senators must have their property in, or be resident in, the division for which they are appointed;
  • have a net worth of $4,000, including real and personal property; and
  • be a resident of the province for which he or she is appointed or, in Quebec, be a resident of, or own property in, the relevant electoral division.

If any disputes arise as to whether a person is qualified to be a Senator, the issue is determined by the Senate.

Whom Do Senators Represent?

As well as providing “sober second thought,” the Senate was designed to protect regional interests.  Equality of regions in the Senate was intended to offset representation by population in the House of Commons.  However, the tendency of Senators to vote along party lines, although not as strong as in the House of Commons, has somewhat muted the regional nature of the upper house.

In 1867, the Senate consisted of three divisions (each represented by 24 Senators):  Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  When Prince Edward Island joined Confederation, the province received four of the Maritime places.  As the western provinces joined Confederation, they received varying numbers of Senators; however, in 1915, a Western Division was added and the four western provinces shared the 24 seats equally.  Newfoundland is represented by six Senators, although it is not represented in any of the four Divisions.  Neither are the three territories, which are represented in the Senate by one Senator each.

The Senate has increasingly tended to see itself as the protector of minority rights and, in particular, minority linguistic rights.

How Can Senators Lose Their Place in the Senate?

Senators can lose their place by:

  • turning 75 years old;

  • resigning their place for any reason;

  • not attending the Senate for two consecutive parliamentary sessions;

  • becoming a subject or citizen of a foreign power;

  • becoming bankrupt, applying for the benefit of any law relating to insolvency, or becoming “a public defaulter”;

  • being “attainted of treason,” or convicted of a felony or any “infamous crime”; or

  • ceasing to be qualified in respect of property or residence.

As is the case with qualifications, any dispute as to whether a place in the Senate has become vacant is decided by the Senate itself.

The Role of Senators

  • Senators participate in the day-to-day business of the Senate Chamber.

  • A large part of a Senator’s job is dealing with legislation (see TIPS-32EThe Legislative Process:  From Policy to Proclamation, by Peter Niemczak, Carolyn West and Erin Tolley), and the Senate is coequal with the House of Commons in the legislative process, except for bills dealing with taxation or appropriations which cannot be introduced in the Senate.   Any other bill may be introduced in the Senate, and the Government sometimes introduces legislation in the Senate so as to better share the procedural burden between the two Houses.  The Senate can pass, amend, delay or defeat any bill.

  • Senators participate in Committees, and these can be either Standing Committees (which are provided for in the Rules of the Senate), Special Committees on a particular topic, or Joint Committees with the House of Commons.

Some recent reports from Senate Committees have included:

The Demographic Time Bomb:  Mitigating the Effects of Demographic Change in Canada, Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce (June 2006);

Out of the Shadows at Last:  Transforming Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction Services in Canada, Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology (May 2006);

-  Wounded – Canada’s Military and the Legacy of Neglect:  Our Disappearing Options for Defending the Nation Abroad and at Home, Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence (September 2005); and

French-Language Education in a Minority Setting:  A Continuum from Early Childhood to the Postsecondary Level, Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages (June 2005); and

  • Senators may also introduce private members’ bills on a variety of topics.  A particularly notable example of a private member’s bill that gained widespread attention is Senator St. Germain’s Bill S-216 (39th Parliament, 1st Session):  An Act providing for the Crown’s recognition of self-governing First Nations of Canada.  This bill recognizes the powers of First Nations peoples inhabiting lands reserved for their communities to exercise the jurisdiction and powers inherent in their status.

Another private member’s bill that received considerable attention was Bill S-202 (39th Parliament, 1st Session):  An Act to repeal legislation that has not come into force within ten years of receiving royal assent.  This bill provides that any Act or provision of an Act that is to come into force on a date to be fixed by proclamation or order of the Governor in Council must be included in an annual report laid before both Houses of Parliament if it does not come into force by the 31 December that is nine years after royal assent.  The Act or provision is repealed if it does not come into force by the following 31 December, unless during that year either House resolves that it not be repealed.

How Does the Canadian Senate Compare to Those in Other Countries?

The nature and role of senates, or upper houses, varies from country to country.  The following paragraphs deal with only a few aspects of the upper houses of the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, and should not be taken as fully descriptive of those bodies.  However, it is interesting to note some of the similarities and differences, especially as these are the most frequently mentioned models when Senate reform is discussed.  (See TIPS‑79E, Senate Reform, by Brian O’Neal.)

United Kingdom

The House of Lords in the United Kingdom provided the model on which the Canadian Senate was based in 1867.  However, unlike the Canadian Senate, the House of Lords underwent significant reforms in the 20th century.  The first major reform was The Parliament Act 1911, which replaced the Lords’ power to reject legislation approved by the Commons with the power to only delay it.  The Act was agreed to by the Lords under the threat that the government would otherwise create a large number of new peers, thereby “swamping” the opposition, an action that would not be possible under the Canadian Constitution.  (In Canada, a maximum of eight extra Senators can be appointed, but only when the House of Commons and the Senate are deadlocked.)

The members of the Lords do not represent constituencies or regions and, although there are currently almost 700 Lords, the number involved in a given issue can vary considerably.  The largest turnout in recent years was in 1993, when a total of 621 peers voted on a bill concerning the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.  As in Canada, bills dealing with taxation and public expenditure are considered the primary responsibility of the House of Commons.


The Australian Senate, which is democratically elected and has full legislative power, is generally considered the most powerful legislative upper chamber in the world other than the U.S. Senate.  There are 12 Senators from each of the six states and two from each of the two territories, for a total of 76 Senators.

The Australian Senate provides an example of a strong upper house that can block major government bills, refuse to vote financial support to the government, and even bring down the government.  Although the Senate was originally intended to protect the interests of the less populous states in the federal Parliament, Senators tend to vote along party lines as they do in Canada.

United States

The United States Senate plays a particularly strong role in the governance of the country, but this is mitigated by the fact that the President is independently elected and is not dependent upon a majority in Congress.  The Constitution assigns the Senate and House equal responsibility for declaring war, maintaining the armed forces, assessing taxes, borrowing money, minting currency, regulating commerce, and making all laws necessary for the operation of the government.

The Senate holds exclusive authority to “advise and consent” on treaties and nominations.  Under the Constitution, international treaties become effective only when the Senate approves them by a two-thirds vote, and presidential nominations for executive and judicial posts take effect only when confirmed by the Senate.

Although the United States Senate is sometimes referred to in discussions of Canadian Senate reform, it is generally considered that the United States model is not compatible with parliamentary democracy.



What Does the Senate Look Like?


5 November 1984
33rd Parliament

17 January 1994
35th Parliament

30 January 2001
37th Parliament

10 July 2006
39th Parliament

Number of Senators





Progressive Conservatives
Canadian Alliance
Vacant seats














Average age





Number of females





Appointed by:
      St. Laurent





*  Nunavut was given a Senate place when it became a territory.


Prepared by
Mollie Dunsmuir, Analyst
√Člise Hurtubise-Loranger, Analyst
Parliamentary Information and Research Service

Senate - Current

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