Opinion-Policy Nexus

A new year is the time for new beginnings, isn’t it? A time to accept new challenges and seize new opportunities.

So, if anyone is interested in a really new beginning in 2019, here is a suggestion.

Why don’t you apply for a seat in the Senate of Canada?

Yes, you can! It is no longer your grandfather’s Senate: a refuge for defeated candidates and clapped-out cabinet ministers and a reward for generous donors to the party in power. But it’s still a good gig, with an annual salary of $150,600 plus expenses and a pension on mandatory retirement at 75.

Under changes introduced by the Trudeau government in 2016, any Canadian citizen between 30 and 75 may apply for a seat to represent the province where they reside. There’s even a website – just ask Google to take you to “Senate of Canada applications” – where you will find a list of vacancies, an explanation of the process and a kit of the required materials: application form; c.v. template (long-winded resumes are discouraged); specifications for three required reference letters; and a background-check consent form.

I asked an old Toronto friend, Donna Dasko, to describe the process leading to her selection as a senator for Ontario last year. Dasko, who has a PhD in sociology, has been a prominent pollster (senior vice-president at Environics), co-founder of Equal Voice (the organization dedicated to electing more women in Canada) and a volunteer in many community causes.

She submitted her application on March 31, 2018. It went to an Independent Advisory Board in the Privy Council Office. Chaired by Huguette Labelle, a retired senior public servant and former chancellor of the University of Ottawa, the board has three non-partisan permanent members who review all applications. They are joined by two ad hoc members from the province where a seat is to be filled.

For each vacancy, the board is required to provide the prime minister with an unranked list of five suitable candidates, presented in alphabetical order. He then chooses whichever one of the five he prefers.

On May 25, the PCO asked Dasko for “enhanced” background information (more questions about her life and career), plus proof of residency, citizenship and ownership of $4,000 worth of “real property” (an archaic constitutional requirement).

She sent the material along, not realizing initially that she had made a short list. The penny dropped on June 5 when she received a phone call from a PCO official who spent an hour going over background information in exquisite detail.

Had Dasko ever employed a nanny for her children? She had. Had she paid the nanny the wage required by law? Had she provided the requisite benefits? And had she reported all this on her income tax return? She had.

An hour later, she got a second call from the PCO. Would she be available to take a call from an unnamed person at 6 p.m.? She would.  At 6:40 p.m., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called. He had a couple of questions. Could Dasko support his objective of returning the Senate to what it was originally meant to be: a chamber of sober second thought? She could. Would she agree to sit an as independent senator? She would. The position was offered and accepted.

Next, Senator Peter Harder, the government’s representative in the upper house, called to ask if she could be in Ottawa the next morning, June 6, to be sworn in. No, she replied. She wanted time to get her daughter and son to Ottawa. The following day, June 7, she was sworn in.

It must be said that the new-look Senate is still a work is progress. The independent senators, who now occupy a majority of the 105 seats, are still feeling their way, unsure of their power.

Meanwhile, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has promised to undo the Trudeau reforms and return the Senate to its good old patronage days. If he wins next fall’s election, that is.


Monday, January 7, 2019 - 07:58