OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has named nine new, non-partisan senators, bringing him within reach of his goal to transform the discredited Senate into a more reputable, independent chamber of sober second thought.
The five women and four men hail from a wide variety of backgrounds, from an art historian to a renowned human rights lawyer to a conservationist. All will sit as independents in the Senate.
They are the first senators to be chosen under an arm’s-length process that saw more than 2,700 people apply to fill the 21 vacancies in the 105-seat upper house.
Trudeau is poised to announce two more batches of appointments within days, filling the remaining 12 empty seats — six from Quebec, six from Ontario — and, for the first time, putting senators with no partisan affiliation in the driver’s seat.
When he’s done, independent senators will hold a plurality of 44 seats, outnumbering the Conservatives’ 40 and the independent Liberals’ 21.
Trudeau called the appointment process “merit based and open.”
“It is part of our ongoing efforts to make the Senate more modern and independent and ensure that its members have the depth of knowledge and experience to best serve Canadians,” he said in a statement Thursday.
But while a premium is supposed to be put on merit, the new process does not preclude people who’ve been involved in partisan politics. And at least three of the newcomers have some links to federal politics, although none would qualify as “hacks, flacks and bagmen,” the sobriquet that used to be routinely applied to senators.
Manitoba lawyer and human rights activist Marilou McPhedran has regularly contributed small donations to Trudeau’s Liberal party and to various Liberal riding associations, totalling just over $4,000 in 2015 and $825 so far this year, according to Elections Canada’s contributions database. But she also gave $1,100 to the NDP last year.
Another Manitoba appointee, art historian Patricia Bovey, is the widow of the late John Harvard, a former Liberal MP who served as the province’s lieutenant governor.
Prince Edward Island conservationist Diane Griffin, meanwhile, appears to have donated $250 to the Green Party in 2013 and just less than $250 to the Conservative party in 2014.
The other new senators do not appear to have donated to any federal party over the past five years. They are:
— Yuen Pau Woo, former president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and currently senior fellow in public policy at the Asian Institute of Research at the University of British Columbia.
— Winnipeg psychiatrist and palliative care expert Harvey Chochinov.
— New Brunswick francophone Rene Cormier, president of the Societe Nationale de l’Acadie, the lead organization for the international strategy for the promotion of Acadian artists.
— New Brunswick women’s issues expert Nancy Hartling.
— Nova Scotia social worker and educator Wanda Thomas Bernard, the first African-Canadian to be promoted to full professor at Dalhousie University.
— Daniel Christmas, senior adviser for the Mi’kmaw First Nation of Membertou, N.S.
Trudeau took the first step toward transforming the Senate in January 2014, when he kicked senators out of the Liberal caucus in a bid to diminish the hyper-partisanship he maintained had destroyed the Senate’s intended role as an independent chamber of sober second thought.
Shortly after taking power last fall, Trudeau created an arm’s-length advisory board to recommend nominees to fill Senate vacancies.
In the initial phase of its work, the board accepted nominations of potential senators from organizations across the country. It recommended 25 of them to Trudeau, from which he named seven independent senators in March, including veteran bureaucrat Peter Harder to be the government’s representative in the upper house.
Thursday’s nine are the first to be appointed under the second, permanent phase, under which individuals can apply directly to the board to become senators.
In addition to the independents so far appointed by Trudeau, some senators have left the Conservative and Liberal Senate caucuses to join the ranks of non-aligned senators.
With their imminent plurality in the chamber, Harder said the independents will be able to hasten the evolution of the upper house, whose operation has traditionally been geared to senators belonging to a governing party caucus and an opposition caucus.
He said the “highest priority” must now be given to changing Senate rules to recognize that “all senators are equal” and to give the non-aligned senators their fair share of budgets and membership on Senate committees. He noted that the independents now hold about 43 per cent of the seats in the Senate but only make up 17 per cent of the membership of committees, where the Conservatives continue to hold a majority.
“It’s a work in progress,” Harder said of the Senate’s evolution. “You don’t with one flick of the switch change a culture or change a public perception.”
He added: “It’s for us to demonstrate that we can, in fact, be a chamber that is modern, that has changed, that earns and has earned public respect that this institution deserves and has not always enjoyed.”