The Senate consists of 105 members, appointed by the Government, on a regional basis with 24 from Quebec, 24 from Ontario, 24 from the Maritimes and 24 from the West with the remainder being allotted to Newfoundland and the territories. It was deliberately set up to give the regions equality of representation; hence the provision that Senators must reside in the province for which they are appointed (in Quebec, they must reside or have their property qualification in the particular district for which they are appointed).
The Maritime provinces and Quebec insisted on equality in the Upper House to counterbalance the weight of Ontario in the Lower House, where representation was to be based on population. Without the Senate, and a Senate based on regional equality, there would have been no Confederation. The Senate was intended not only to protect the less populous regions but also to protect the long-term interests of the country against rash, hasty or ill-considered legislation passed by a House of Commons carried away by gusts of popular passion. It was to provide "the second thoughts" of the country. For that reason, the British North American Act provided that Senators must be at least 30 years old, and must have what was in 1867 a considerable property qualification: $4,000 worth of real estate free of mortgage, and $4,000 worth of real estate and other property free of all debts. These requirements still hold. All bills must be passed by the Senate before they can become law and it has the constitutional right to reject any bill, and keep on rejecting it as often as it sees fit. It can also amend any bill, although it cannot initiate or increase the amount of any bill dealing with taxation or expenditure.
Most of the Senate's legislative work is done by its committees. Once a bill has been accepted in principle, it almost always goes to one of the standing committees set up each session. There it is examined in detail. The Minister and officials concerned are questioned, in public, and, if the committee thinks it necessary, any person or organization wishing to be heard can submit a brief, or appear and make representations. On very important or complex bills, the Senate committee may receive as many as a hundred briefs and hear over a hundred witnesses. This may result in a large number of amendments, none of them, as a rule, affecting the principle of the bill, but many of them substantial: clarifying, simplifying, making the measure fairer and more workable.
For such work the Senate is notably well qualified. Many of its members are former Ministers (federal or provincial) or former members of the House of Commons or provincial legislatures. many others have long Experience of business or law or both. The Senate is, in fact, a reservoir of men and women or proven capacity; it is not under the same day to day pressure as the House of Common; and party lines are nothing like so strongly drawn as in the Commons.
In recent years, the Senate has increasingly taken another function of great importance, which the Fathers of Confederation did not contemplate. This is the investigation of public questions of high importance on which the Government is not yet prepared to act. Any Senator can raise any question for discussion on the floor of the House, and this discussion often ends by referring the matter either to the appropriate standing committee or to a special committee set up for the purpose. These committees equip themselves with a staff of professional experts on the subject concerned, and make a study in depth, sometimes taking more than a year in the process. Their reports, which are conspicuously free of partisanship, are usually comprehensive and thorough, and often propose far reaching new departures in public policy.
The existence of the Senate provides, incidentally, a special safeguard for the smaller provinces. The Canadian constitution guarantees to every province, regardless of its population, at least as many members in the House of Commons as it has in the Senate. Thanks to this provision, Prince Edward Island still has four members in the Commons instead of the single member it would get on the basis of population.
The Senate was never intended to be anything like the equal of the House of Commons. No one ever suggested that the Cabinet should be responsible to the Senate, or should resign or ask for dissolution of Parliament because of a defeat in the Senate. Until about 1900, however, the Senate played a much more important role than it does now. The first Cabinet had five Senators to eight Commoners; twice (1891-1892 and 1894-1896) a Senator was Prime Minister; by 1896, every portfolio except finance had been held by a Senator, and there were usually three or four Senators in the Cabinet. Since 1911, as a rule, there has been only one Senator in the much larger modern Cabinets. this has helped to take the Senate out of the mainstream of politics, especially since most legislation is now initiated by the Government, and involves the expenditure of money. Ministers prefer to introduce their bills in the Commons, even though, since 1947, it has been possible for Ministers from the Commons to speak, though not to vote, in the Senate.
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