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Word to the wise (owls): procedure shouldn’t trump policy

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Recent years have seen plenty of debate over the constitution of the Senate of Canada and the role it should rightly play in the federal legislative process, including over how far it’s appropriate for the Upper Chamber’s 105 unelected members to go when amending government legislation.

As the Chamber becomes increasingly independent—debate over the genuineness of that stated independence aside—such questions are increasingly relevant.

Whether or not widespread Senate reform is needed—or as the NDP would have it, complete abolition—is a question for another editorial.

But legislative wrangling over key government bills and backbench legislation unanimously endorsed by the House of Commons in the Red Chamber suggest a real need to consider smaller reforms to the Senate’s day-to-day operation.

Unlike the House of Commons, where procedural rules set out structured legislative debate, time limits and all, debate in the Senate is more “organic,” open-ended, and overruling.

Recent weeks have seen multiple pieces of significant legislation, like the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, Bill C-48, and NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s Bill C-262, on implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), to name two, tied up in the Senate thanks to scheduling conflicts and debate over process.

In the case of Saganash’s bill—the ratification of which would respond to calls from both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls—it has sat on the Senate’s Order Paper since May 2018. It only just finished clause-by-clause review in committee on June 11, and will now await third reading.

Now, in the dying days of this Parliament, advocates are raising the alarm over the very real risk of the bill dying on the floor of the Upper Chamber.

Not, when it comes down to it, because of vigorous sober second thought, but because of procedure.

The Indigenous Languages Act (C-91) and the Indigenous child welfare bill (C-92) are among the eight other government bills currently before the Senate. While both have been criticized as lacking, both have nonetheless been lauded as important steps forward for Indigenous people in Canada, as Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde writes in a column in this issue, urging Senators to “call these important bills to a vote and let democracy prevail.”

“This is an opportunity to make history and celebrate success on issues that we have grappled with for decades,” he writes. “Now is the time for action.”

National chief Bellegarde is right, and Senators on all sides should heed his words.

And in the near future, serious consideration should be given to introducing more structure to the operations of the Senate of Canada—not to stymie debate, but to streamline it.

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