Senators looking to join the quickly expanding ranks of the Independent Senators Group will now be subject to the approval of at least 21 of the group’s existing 36 members, thanks to a new policy governing membership.
The policy was instituted during the group’s Sept. 25 meeting, according to former facilitator and Independent Senator Elaine McCoy (Alberta).
New ISG facilitator Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo (British Columbia) said in an email that new members must have the approval of 60 per cent of the ISG membership to join. This “was agreed to by ISG members, as part of an interim ISG membership policy that will be finalized later.”
The first member to be accepted this way was newly appointed Independent Senator David Richards (New Brunswick), who was named to the Senate at the end of August.
Sen. Woo, along with deputy facilitator of the ISG, Senator Raymonde Saint-Germain (De la Vallière, Que.) were elected to lead the group of independent Senators on Sept. 25 after running unopposed.
While the group doesn’t actively recruit new appointees to the Senate to join the ISG ranks, Senators Woo and Saint-Germain said they do extend invitations and offer information.
“[Sen. Richards] expressed an interest to come to one of our meetings and we gladly welcomed him. Maybe he went to the other caucuses as well, I don’t know,” Sen. Woo said in an interview with The Hill Times. “And when he eventually applied to join, our members enthusiastically welcomed him.”
Sen. Richards was not available for an interview.
No ‘formality’ around previous ISG membership process
When it launched in March 2016, the Independent, Non-Partisan Working Group had six members. By the time the formal Independent Senators Group went public in September it had 15 members.
Sen. McCoy said membership was a more informal process up until now. Discussions began as Senators left the Conservative caucus and others were kicked out of the Liberal caucus by Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) in 2014. And as new Senators were appointed, many trickled into the ISG.
“Often, for example, amongst the 21 [Senators] who came in November, two or three of them as I recall were quite clear right from the get-go that they wanted to join and so we said ‘Sure, here’s our meetings, come and join us,’ and they did,” Sen. McCoy said.
Membership in the ISG didn’t all happen through her as the facilitator, Sen. McCoy said. “There wasn’t that kind of formality around it. They’d form a friendship with one of the newest who had joined and that person would bring that person to the next meeting and we’d all say ‘Welcome, thank you for joining us.’ It’s very egalitarian.”
Sen. McCoy added that’s she’s “neutral” on the new voting process. “That’s the majority will of the ISG as of Sept. 25, 2017. So I will go along with the majority view.”
While it’s not a rigorous procedure, prospective members of the ISG “have to accept our values,” Sen. Saint-Germain said. “We don’t have a long application process, but we have principles and values. It’s something we don’t take lightly.”
Though the ISG leadership team highlighted as key values independence and non-partisanship, the most important measure of those principles for the group comes not from an individual Senator, but from the “absence of coercion and the absence of coercive tools by which the group or the leadership of the group can influence the positions taken by a given Senator,” Sen. Woo said, adding that he and Sen. Saint-Germain can’t tell an Independent Senator to move to a new office, or that they can’t go on a trip.
There are neither rewards nor punishments linked to ISG members voting a certain way, Sen. Saint-Germain added.
“And I don’t see how, with the profile of some Senators that can be appointed—they are all strong personalities with very rich values and profound convictions regarding democracy, to freedom of speech,” she said.
Sen. Woo didn’t respond to a question about why the ISG decided to bring in the membership approval threshold now.
Under Sen. McCoy’s leadership in March, Conservative Senator Don Plett (Manitoba) questioned the ISG’s acceptance of then-Senator Don Meredith, who had previously been booted from the Conservative caucus in light of allegations the Senate ethics officer was investigating about his sexual relationship with a teenage girl. Sen. Meredith, 53, ended up leaving the ISG after the ethics officer reported that he had intercourse three times with the young woman, including once when she was 17 years old. He denied the allegations.
Legislative agenda top priority for new leadership team
Only a couple of weeks into the job as ISG facilitator and deputy facilitator, respectively, Senators Woo and Saint-Germain said their first order of business is the Senate’s legislative agenda, and specifically the “careful study” of legislation.
Independent Senators Group members are sponsoring 10 bills either currently before or heading to the Red Chamber, including Bill C-45 and C-46, which will legalize marijuana and amend impaired-driving rules, respectively.
Sen. Woo said he was looking forward to the debate on the pair of bills, and that he was hoping it wouldn’t succumb to partisan wrangling.
The fact that ISG members are sponsoring government bills shouldn’t be taken as tacit approval of the legislation, the Senators noted.
“Sponsoring doesn’t mean promoting the bill exactly as it is,” Sen. Saint-Germain said. “It means to facilitate the study by the Senate from members of all sides of such a bill. And we have seen some Senators, ISG Senators, that have sponsored bills and amended them.”
One of those was Independent Senator Larry Campbell (British Columbia)—appointed by Paul Martin in 2005—who sponsored Bill C-7, regarding RCMP labour relations, in the spring. When speaking to the bill at second reading, Sen. Campbell, himself a former RCMP officer, praised the bill as a “huge step forward in modernizing the RCMP,” but also said he “would be remiss if [he] did not state that this bill is far from perfect and needs careful study to ensure that it gets it right for the members of the force.”
By the time the bill returned to the House of Commons, it had wracked up a series of amendments, some of which were ultimately rejected.
“It’s still an experiment, I would have to say, but for practical reasons, somebody has to sponsor bills,” Sen. Woo said. “Conservatives are reluctant to do so, Liberals from time to time will do it. We stand ready to move the agenda forward.”
In June, the CBC’s Éric Grenier analyzed the voting patterns of Senators, finding that Independent Senators appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau voted with the government 94.5 per cent of the time.
Sen. Woo—who the CBC has noted has voted with the government on every bill since he was appointed in the fall of 2016—said the votes cast couldn’t be the only measure of a Senator’s independence.
Rather, he said, “it is a measure of the process by which we come to that vote and by the totality of the legislative cycle. Many things happen to a bill, not just at the vote stage, but at the debates, through the committee process, the corridor discussions and all of the activities leading up to the vote.”
Bill finds a doctor in the House
Conservative Sen. Nancy Greene Raine (Thompson-Okanagan-Kootenay, B.C.) has found a sponsor for her public bill, S-228, the Child Health Protection Act seeking to ban marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children under the age of 17.
Liberal MP Doug Eyolfson (Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley, Man.) introduced the bill in the House of Commons Oct. 6.
“As Parliamentarians, it is our duty to stand up for those who are most vulnerable in our society and no group is more vulnerable than our children,” Dr. Eyolfson said when tabling the legislation. “The protection of children from the manipulative influence of marketing of unhealthy food and beverages is predicated on a pressing and substantial concern and calls for a federal legislative response.”
The Senate is on a break week, resuming on Tuesday, Oct. 17.
Current and upcoming bills sponsored in the Senate by ISG members
C-45, Cannabis Act: Sen. Tony Dean (Ontario)
C-46, Drug-impaired driving (Criminal Code): Sen. Gwen Boniface (Ontario)
C-23, Pre-clearance at Canada/U.S. customs: Sen. Douglas Black (Alberta)
C-203, Whales and dolphins in captivity: Sen. Murray Sinclair (Manitoba)
C-25, Directors of corporations/co-operatives – new elections process etc.: Sen. Howard Wetston (Ontario)
S-202, Divorce Act, shared parenting: Sen. Anne Cools (Toronto Centre-York, Ont.)
S-234, Parliamentary Poet Laureate: Sen. Patricia Bovey (Manitoba)
S-237, Reduce criminal rate of interest; Sen. Pierrette Ringuette (New Brunswick)
C-210, National anthem: Sen. Frances Lankin (Ontario)
C-305, Criminal mischief to community centres and places of worship: Sen. Marc Gold (Stadacona, Que.)
Source: The Independent Senators Group