In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Update on Bill C-279: Fighting for the Rights of Transgender People

Posted 7/30/2015 by Grant Mitchell


Very sadly, Bill C 279 died on the Senate’s Order Paper when Parliament ended for the upcoming election. This bill would have included gender identity in the Human Rights Code and the Criminal Code, recognized the equal rights of transgender people and increased the punishment for crimes committed against them because they are trans.

After passing in the House of Commons with unanimous opposition support and 18 Conservative MPs’ votes, the bill got as far as moving through the Senate’s First and Second Reading, and Committee Stage. However, at Committee Stage, Conservative Senators added an amendment that would have had the effect of discriminating against trans people in the use of washroom and locker room facilities. Just for the record, there are no credibly documented cases in any jurisdiction where trans rights have been entrenched in law of problems in locker rooms or bathrooms.

So, the Conservative Senators did not allow the bill to come to a vote at Third Reading and it died when Parliament rose for the coming election.

Being the sponsor of the bill in the Senate has been an honour and a remarkable, if often frustrating and saddening, experience. I have met so many amazing trans people and their families and supporters who live every day with discrimination and a feeling of “being outside” that few of us have ever experienced or can even really imagine. To see an 8 or 12 year old girl standing up to the powers that continue to deny them rights and protections is truly inspirational. I was so impressed by Jesse Thompson who won his case with the Ontario Human Rights Commission to be able to join his hockey team “buddies” in the locker room. I have been inspired too by the many trans people who have led the charge, rallied their supporters, made the legal arguments and sustained their determination in the face of great resistance and odds.

I feel so lucky to have met and worked with so many wonderful people on such an important issue. I am a better person for it.

The sadness comes from the loss of the chance to truly change lives for the better and to strengthen, once again, those essential Canadian values of acceptance and fairness. Now we have to wait until we get another government that will reintroduce this bill and get the Conservative majority in the Senate to pass it. That may, I hope, happen after the October election.

The uplifting news is that over the two years that the bill worked its way in the Senate and the period before in the House, I believe that the issue of trans rights has been elevated and that Canadians, as they have grown to know more about it, have come to increasingly accept trans rights and trans people.

Canadians always do the right thing on rights even if it sometimes takes time. I hope we can simply fast forward, in this case, right after the election.

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Senate reform

Posted 6/22/2015 by Grant Mitchell


Several months ago, the Faculty of Law at University of Alberta held a weekend conference on Senate Reform. They attracted some of the country's foremost experts on Parliamentary institutions and the Senate. The rapporteur was Roger Gibbins, former head of the Canwest Foundation, and a strong advocate for Senate reform (I know this statement begs the question of who isn't?). 

Dr. Gibbins summarized the discussion very well and in a surprising fashion. He said given the constraints, the Senate will have to reform itself. Interestingly, there are all kinds of changes that can be made without changing the constitution. It is just hard to understand why the Conservatives had said we are stuck with the status quo. Have a look at this article:

I agree and there are a number of things that could be done right now with great effect. Here are what would be my priorities:

1. The Conservative senators should leave their national caucus where they meet alongside their MPs. The Senate Liberals already have at the direction of Mr. Trudeau. 

While I knew this was the right thing for Mr. Trudeau to do, coming from a party background and having been, among other things, the Leader of the provincial Liberals in Alberta and Leader of the Opposition there, I was not sure how I would react over time to his decision. In fact, I am entirely convinced now of the value of senators being independent of their national caucuses. The effect has been that I definitely view the public policy world in a less partisan manner. I feel far less compulsion to consider the political rather than just the policy implications of issues. That is what the Senate can bring to the public forum.

It is not that my liberal values have changed. I am a liberal; I simply cannot help it. These are my values. I happen also to be a Liberal party member. It is not even that I think that partisanship is bad - partisanship in the extreme where everything is subordinate to winning is bad. But, plain old partisanship is just another way of saying people have different views on issues. Being allowed to express them freely is the foundation of a democracy. And even without caucus affiliation, senators' positions will be informed by their deeply held values; some will be liberal and some will hold conservative and other value sets. Good.

The problem is that the Conservative senators still labour under the constraints we did up until January 2014. While Senate Conservatives are good and dedicated people, driven by their genuinely held views, there is inevitably a constraint and influence from the elected side, I can say now given my experience with independence.

Helen Forsey has just published an excellent book on Senate Reform, "A Peoples' Senate", that makes this point and many others about what the Senate can become and how it can be improved.

2. Televise the Senate. This will enhance openness, transparency and public awareness and inevitably involvement in the public debate. It will also enhance the Senate's credibility because people will be impressed by the level of debate and decorum in the Senate.

3. Publish all Senate expenses by each senator and for the Senate Administration every quarter and in detail. 

4. Set up a special commission to screen prospective senators and make recommendations for the Prime Minister's selection process. This could resemble the kind of processes used now for the selection of judges and Order of Canada recipients.

There are many other possibilities. These are a few that would represent a really good start. And, none of them require constitutional reform.


Please click here to read this blog in French / Veuillez appuyer ici pour lire ce blogue en français


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Update on Bill C-51: observations and amendments

Posted 5/29/2015 by Grant Mitchell


On Tuesday, May 26, the Senate Defence committee moved to clause-by-clause analysis of Bill C-51, Anti-terrorism Act, 2015.

In order to address concerns about the bill, I introduced four amendments which would have:

  • ensured the guarantee of the protection of Charter rights;
  • implemented a sunset clause of five years on the entire bill so that we could re-examine the usefulness of the legislation in time;
  • ensured that Special Advocates would have access to the information they needed; and
  • ensured that government departments only have access to information which is necessary to their mandate, not more.

Unfortunately the Conservative dominated committee voted against those amendments and I voted against the bill.

The legislation is now at third reading stage and next week, on Tuesday, June 2nd, I will speak to the bill and introduce additional amendments to address other flaws in the legislation. As a whole, I believe these amendments, and the others that I introduced, would strengthen the bill.  In the absence of support for my amendments, I will vote against the bill.

As the critic of the bill in the Senate and the Deputy Chair of the committee studying the legislation, I agreed to observations which the committee made in its report because if the government were to accept them, it would at least improve the bill. These included, amongst others:

  • The government should develop statutory authorities among the national security bodies, in order to provide for the exchange of operational information, referral of investigations, conduct of joint investigations and coordination in the preparation of reports; and
  • the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence will, with the approval of the Senate, conduct a review of Bill C-51 within five years of it receiving Royal Assent.

In addition to the observations that we agreed to as a committee, there are a number of other issues that I continue to pursue in debates at Third Reading and with amendments that I moved in committee and will move in Third Reading, including:

1. Definition of threat:

  • That the definition of “National Security” be consistent across all agencies so that there is no confusion of what constitutes a threat to national security.

2. Lack of Strategy:

  • That the government develop a comprehensive anti-radicalization strategy that moves beyond legal powers to the pre-criminal space of prevention and rehabilitation at the community level.

3. Privacy:

  • That all agencies sharing or receiving information create Memorandum of Understanding (MOU’s) covering its use and that the same be done with all foreign agencies with whom information might be shared; and that the privacy commissioner have the power and resources to audit MOU’s and audit the shared information on a regular basis.

4. Rights:

  • That the definition of ‘terrorist propaganda’ be more clearly delineated and include defences to exclude legitimate public interest, education and religious discussion so as to limit the potential chill on freedom of speech.
  • That changes be made to the judicial warrant provisions under the CSIS part of the bill to ensure they are consistent with Canada’s rights' guarantees.
  • That individuals placed on the no-fly list have access to the allegations against them and to all related information or, where necessary, the right to a Special Advocate who can represent their interests in proceedings where information cannot be revealed for national security reasons.

5. Oversight and Review:

  • That a Parliamentary oversight body be created.
  • That the powers and resources of SIRC be extended to permit SIRC to review all national security and intelligence-related agencies that currently have no independent review agency.
  • That there be a five year sunset clause in Bill C 51.
  • That the regulations which will be developed to facilitate the implementation of the bill be reviewed by Parliament before the bill is proclaimed.

6. Resources:

  • That the government perform a comprehensive analysis of the budgetary requirements of the country’s national security and intelligence agencies and departments to determine the adequate level of funding for them to perform their duties and fulfil their responsibilities.
  • That the government analyze the budgetary requirements of a Parliamentary oversight body and the extension of SIRC’s powers of review over all national security and intelligence agencies.

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Why I cannot support Bill C-51

Posted 5/15/2015 by Grant Mitchell


Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015 arrived in the Senate this week from the House of Commons.

As the official critic of the bill, I gave a speech in the Senate on Wednesday and explained why I will be voting against this deeply flawed legislation.

The key issue is that in a properly functioning democracy, if police and national security powers are enhanced, then an abundance of care and caution has to be exercised to be sure that the balance with civil liberties and rights is maintained. This bill fails that important test.

What is left is classic big government with increasing power to intrude in citizens’ private lives and legitimate rights, but without the restraints we would expect and demand to ensure the protection of Charter rights and freedoms.

Here is an overview of the specific problems of this bill:

1. Assault on Rights:

a. Perhaps the greatest threat to rights in the bill is the creation of a new class of warrants that will allow CSIS to undertake disruptive action. Not only is such action not adequately defined, but it means that illegal activities that contravene the Charter of Rights can (and will) be warranted. This means judges will be put in the position of authorizing illegal activity. It is unprecedented in Canadian law and completely inconsistent with democratic values and principles.

b. The bill will extend powers related to individuals being placed on a “no fly” list, information that will be shared all over the world, and the government will not be required to tell them why they have been put on the list so that they might be adequately informed to appeal.

c. The bill creates a new and broad definition of advocating terrorism “in general” and specifies that you do not have to do it wilfully. There are all kinds of problems in this. Most pernicious from a rights perspective is that it will mean that activities that may be illegal but still within the bounds of legitimate protest, legitimate civil disobedience, (eg. an Aboriginal or environmental group blockading a road) will be defined as terrorist acts. In addition, it will put a real chill on free speech to the extent that academics and the media may not be able to discuss terrorist activities without falling into the net cast by these provisions. An added disadvantage from the policing point of view is that it may limit community members’ inclination to describe to police what they or others might be thinking, once again for fear of being caught in the broad net.

d. With respect to immigration and security certificate hearings, up until this point, a Special Advocate has been permitted to represent the individual’s interests and has had access to a broad range of security information. With this bill, the information that will be available to the Special Advocate will be determined not by the judge but by the government, which may lead to a Special Advocate missing sensitive information that is pertinent to a case.

2. Threat to Privacy:

It is a given now, after several commissions of inquiry, that there needs to be greater ability for government agencies and departments to share information that might be relevant to national security. What is not acceptable is that this sharing would be done without adequate respect for legitimate privacy protection. This bill will permit information sharing, but with many excesses that will threaten privacy rights, including:

a. Agreements (Memorandums of Understanding) between information-offering government agencies and departments and the 17 designated recipients of it are not required.

b. There are no particular restrictions on what the information can be used for, and the information can be passed along to other entities once it is received. This conjures up the possibility of repeating the Arar case.

c. There is not even a guarantee that the information has to be terrorism related.

d. There is no limit on how long any information can be held before being destroyed.

e. The CRA will be able to share information. It is not impossible that they could do a broad “sweep” of their databanks to identify donors to a given charity (possibly an environmental group) and then pass that along to whatever authorities they choose.

3. No Strategy:

We are not going to “arrest our way out of the terrorism threat.” All this bill does is give police and intelligence authorities, among other things, more policing-type powers, the power to exchange information but without safeguards, more arbitrary rules concerning “no fly” lists and an overly broad definition of terrorism advocacy. Some of these are of questionable necessity; most of them are too broad and ill-defined; and all of them are under-supervised.

To counter terrorist threats successfully, anti-terrorism legislation like C-51 (and C-44) must be part of a bigger strategy. A successful anti-terrorism strategy must include additional research to acquire a better understanding of terrorism and its causes; police and community preventative programs that apply to the “pre-criminal space” where individuals have only begun to radicalize; adequate police, intelligence service and community resources; and care to avoid stigmatizing certain groups or religious affiliations in ways that are both counter-productive and intolerant.

The strategy must also strike the balance between increased powers and safeguards for rights. These include adequate oversight, review and accountability of police and intelligence service activities, and clear definitions limiting powers to actual terrorism-related activities.

4. No Checks and Balances:

Many of the bill's flaws (although not all of them) could be addressed by proper oversight and review of police and national security agency activities. But no such provisions are made in this bill and the government continues to resist any. Oversight is on-going supervision, advice, and policy input and development by an independent group over a police or national security/intelligence agency. Review is after-the-fact evaluation by a group, or individual, of what has been done by a police or national security/intelligence agency. Neither is adequately considered in this bill:

a. All of Canada’s “Five Eyes” intelligence partners have Parliamentary Oversight bodies with high level security clearance. Canada does not.

b. Only 3 of the specified 17 agencies and departments with intelligence, national security or policing authority even have a review mechanism. CSIS has the underfunded Security Intelligence Review Commission (SIRC); CSEC has a lone Commissioner with 11 personnel; and the RCMP has the Civilian Review Complaints Commission (CRCC) which has to review all of the RCMP’s activities, not just national security related activity. No other agency, including CBSA, DND and DFATD, has any supervision or review at all.

5. Limited Resources:

One great irony is that while the government is happy to give the police and national intelligence/security agencies more powers, they are not funding them properly so that even if these were legitimate tools, they would not have the resources to use them properly and effectively. The RCMP has reassigned 600 personnel from other major crime files to terrorism investigations. Replacing those 600 personnel, to continue their original work, would come at an estimated cost of $110 million. And that amount still would not cover the additional cost estimated for surveillance of already identified persons of interest. CSIS too has indicated that they are past their limit to function fully under the terrorism pressures. It is not clear how much they need or whether the new budget has met their requirements. In the budget, the RCMP may receive an additional $20 million per year, however there is no indication of how the money will be spent, and it still falls short of the $110 million that would be required to replace those 600 personnel.

6. Lowering the bar for the restriction of freedom

The bill also lowers the bar on preventative detention and on peace bonds. At the moment, individuals can be detained for three days. Now, they will be able to be detained for seven days. With respect to peace bonds, the legal requirements to obtain a peace bond have been lowered.

The onus should be on the government to prove that lowering the bar on preventative detention and on peace bonds is necessary, and there simply isn't an adequate indication that this is the case. In fact, there is a question of whether the police actually do need to lower the bar for acquiring either tool in the first place, as they have been unwilling or unable to utilize them so far.

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Top Reasons why the "Bathroom" Amendment to the Transgender Rights Bill C-279 Is Wrong

Posted 3/13/2015 by Grant Mitchell


1. It is inherently discriminatory.       

  • No other element in the Human Rights Act or the Criminal Code is limited in a negative way.
  • It implies that somehow being transgender is a choice and that going into a given washroom is a choice; but a trans woman who simply is a woman - it is who she is and it is how she feels - feels just as awkward walking into a men's washroom as any man does when they have mistakenly walked into a women's washroom.
  • So, at a deeply personal and emotional level this amendment takes away everything the bill would otherwise give. It is important to remember that even more than extending rights, this bill should extend the hand of acceptance and recognition and even as it does that this amendment takes it away.

2. It will not actually change behaviour. Trans men who look perfectly masculine, could well wear a beard, dress and act like any other man will now be forced to go to women's washrooms. How are women going to feel about a trans man, let's say a lawyer, in a beautifully tailored men's three piece suit, sporting a beard, well-muscled physique, entering their washroom or change room? 

Or, what is going to happen to a trans women, every bit as feminine in her demeanour, bearing, world view and dress as any woman, wearing a beautifully tailored dress and accessories to match, entering a men's washroom? 

In fact, who is going to stand at the door of the washroom to determine who is what gender?

3. It is legislative piling on. Already the Criminal Code will deal with anyone, trans or not, who acts in any way inappropriately in a washroom, locker room or any other facility specified in the amendment. It is interesting that Conservatives who hate red tape and legislation would actually pass an amendment that only does what another piece of legislation, the Criminal Code, already does. 

4. There is no evidence that, in any jurisdiction where gender identity rights have been recognized in law, there have been any trans people who have tried to use these rights as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour. There is one case referenced in the US involving the policy of a small US college that it turns out was reported only by Fox News. What is much more significant is the number of US universities that have embraced the rights issue and have developed polices whereby trans people can choose their pronoun of official choice on important documents, change their name for university records and receive support, counselling and official recognition in university policies. What is equally significant is the profound fear that transgender people have of being "discovered" and verbally or physically abused and brutalized because of it. 

5. The amendment is implicitly based upon the assumption that trans people would be the aggressor in any inappropriate/threatening situation, rather than cisgender people who have been the bullies and antagonists against trans people.

6. There have been literally no reported problems in Canada in those 5 provincial jurisdictions where transgender rights have been recognized in laws that fall within provincial jurisdictions. Policies have been developed in schools and many other public institutions that simply make it work.

7. How is it that governments should tell people what their gender is? 

8. Conservatives used one central argument against gun control: that law abiding gun owners should not be held responsible for the actions of non-law abiding gun owners who might do crimes with guns. So, how is it that law abiding transgender people should be held accountable for the potentially criminal activities in washrooms of people who may not even be transgender in the off chance that these people would think to try to use this bill as a way to justify criminal activity in a washroom? 

9. Women's Shelters: One witness who is a women's shelter official said that her shelter had concerns with trans women being allowed into their facility in that they might be a threat to other women there. Currently, one other shelter I spoke to indicated that they consciously hire men so that woman can have the experience of understanding that all men are not violent toward them or lacking in respect. Moreover, shelters all across the country work out policies to deal with anyone who might be threatening whether trans or not. That ability exists now and would not be changed by the recognition of gender identity rights. 

Come on. It is time we stop fighting and let trans people live their lives fully accepted into our society. It is so consistent with central Canadian values to do that. It took so long to recognize gay marriage fighting the silly arguments that somehow it would undermine values and the family. Post gay marriage recognition, what has happened? Society is unaffected and a whole bunch of people are happier than they ever could have been without this recognition.

Please click here to read this blog in French / Veuillez appuyer ici pour lire ce blogue en français

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Canadian Bar Association supports removal of ‘bathroom’ amendment from Bill C-279

Posted 3/12/2015 by Grant Mitchell


Yesterday, I received an email from the Canadian Bar Association, expressing their support of the removal of the ‘bathroom’ amendment to Bill C-279.

Please click here to read that email.

I spoke in the Senate on Tuesday and introduced an amendment that would delete this discriminatory amendment.

You can read that speech here: Speech at Report Stage for Bill C-279

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Clarification regarding amendments to Bill C-279

Posted 2/27/2015 by Grant Mitchell


Over the past two years, my Senate Liberal colleagues and I have worked alongside the transgender community to pass Bill C-279 so that it can become law. The bill – known as the gender identity bill - would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include gender identity as a prohibited ground of discrimination, as well as protect gender identity in the Criminal Code. I have also had the pleasure of working with Randall Garrison, the NDP MP who initiated this bill.

On February 25, a Conservative-dominated committee introduced amendments to the bill that would limit that protection so that members of the transgender community would not be protected in single-gender spaces, including bathrooms, correctional facilities or shelters.

This is deeply troubling for the transgender community and for all of us. Bill C-279, along with human rights legislation and the Criminal Code, are designed specifically to avoid discrimination, but the clause is itself inherently discriminatory. To be clear, Senate Liberals will do everything we can to defeat this amendment at third reading and then pass the bill without it.

As Amanda Ryan of Gender Mosaic Canada has noted, “it’s insulting” that the amendment does not take into consideration that “a transwoman is a woman”, despite their biological makeup at birth.

Following the committee meeting, there was speculation in social media and by other parties that Senate Liberals had voted in favour of the offensive Conservative amendment. This is patently false. Every Senate Liberal in attendance at the meeting voted against that specific amendment.

Just for the record, it is our understanding that the confusion arose because there was a Conservative sitting among Senate liberals, as is often the case in Senate committees; therefore some people assumed it was a Liberal Senator voting in favour of the amendment.

Despite this setback, I remain hopeful that that the legislation can still be passed as it was intended. Even if we can’t remove the amendment regarding bathrooms, because of the other technical amendments the bill will still have to go back to the House of Commons before it can become law. Surely, when it reaches the House of Commons, members of parliament will do their utmost to prioritize the legislation so that it can move as fast as possible to a vote, at which time the offensive amendment could also be removed.

This debate has come a long way over the past few years. And, while I am very disappointed that an amendment of this nature was introduced, the bill is much more than a discussion about bathrooms. Protecting transgender Canadians from violence and enshrining that protection into Canadian law will be a big step forward for the transgender community. I now urge all members of the House of Commons to strike down the bathroom amendment so that the legislation can pass as it was intended to be.



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Progressives' Agenda Items

Posted 9/24/2014 by Grant Mitchell


Sometime after the 2006 election it appeared to some that the Liberals were never coming back.   A thought emerged from the "ether" that perhaps their demise was really a reflection of the possibility that the progressive, liberal agenda had run its course and that there was nothing left to do.   At the time (now I don't know what I was thinking), it struck me that there might be something to this idea.

However, today, as I sat thinking about politics, it struck me that the Canadian progressive agenda is full and pressing. Here are some of what I think it should and does include:

1. Fighting climate change, with a priority on pricing carbon. And, leading the world in the battle.

2. Missing and murdered aboriginal women. This is a sociological problem AND a crime, but it is not going to be solved with the criminal justice system. That system despite years of Conservatives' "tough on crime” fixes has simply failed miserably. It is a deep problem, with deep sociological roots and cannot be solved by simplistic "solutions". It at the very least needs a broad public inquiry. 

3. Poverty in Canada remains a challenge.

4.  Foreign policy: Canada needs to reestablish its reputation in the world so  we can have real influence over issues of foreign policy that persist, including hunger, climate change adaptation in the third world, women's equality in the third world, and peace in the Middle East.

5. In Canada, women's equality remains an issue as do transgender rights.

6. Building balanced and diversified economic growth while preserving the environment and fighting climate change.

7. Solving the cultural problem that has plagued the RCMP and contributes to persisting harassment, sexual and otherwise in their ranks.

8. Interprovincial free trade.

9. The health and equality of Canada's aboriginal population, in particular building on the momentum from the truth and reconciliation commission at this time.

10. Addressing obesity and its impact on healthy living.

11. Rectifying the issues that plagued the public health care system.

12. Sustaining and building bilingualism and biculturalism as well as multiculturalism.

13. Creating an economy that works for all Canadians.

14. Finding ways to help develop our arts and our artists.

15. Determining the causes of gang culture and fixing it. 

16. Legalizing marijuana.

There are surely many others. This is just a start at a comprehensive list. 

Veuillez appuyer ici pour lire ce blogue en français / Please click here to read this blog in French

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The Honourable Roméo Dallaire

Posted 6/27/2014 by Grant Mitchell


I have had many remarkable experiences as a Senator for which I am very grateful. One of the particularly special experiences has been the chance to work for 9 years with Senator Roméo Dallaire – we were appointed on the same day in March 2005.

Roméo Dallaire is so widely known, nationally and internationally, for all the remarkable things he has done and continues to do. Clearly, we all know his history in Rwanda and the remarkable work he has done since following from that horrifying and terrible experience. We know it because he wrote an enormously widely read book, a book that was captured in a feature movie, and because he works so hard at advocating for so many important causes related to genocide, peace, nuclear disarmament, child soldiers, PTSD, and veterans. He is in many ways a Canadian icon with a huge international following.

But, because he is so well known, listing his accomplishments in a tribute runs the risk of being redundant. So, in order to mitigate this risk, I thought that I would highlight some facts and observations about Senator Dallaire that might not be so widely known:

1. Despite the fact that he has become a Canadian icon, he was not born in Canada. He was born in Holland in 1946 to a Canadian military father and a Dutch mother.

2. Coming from a military family forged in WWII may in part explain why he chose a military career, but he did so very young. In fact, as a boy, he used to recreate some of the great battles of history with toy soldiers and toy military vehicles. He was and is, to say the least, intensely focused.

3. He rose quickly to the general ranks of the army and he is amongst the youngest generals ever commissioned in the Canadian military.

4. He has received 37 national and international honourary doctorates and fellowships.

5. Roméo Dallaire runs a special foundation which, among other things supports, in partnership with Dalhousie University, an institute to fight the scourge of child soldiers. Another helps vulnerable youth in Quebec and still another runs an institute on genocide at Concordia University in Montreal.

6. He defied a direct order to leave Rwanda and stayed in the thick and horror of it with a handful of Ghanian soldiers, all at profound personal risk, to do what he could in the face of that overwhelming genocide in which 800,000 people were murdered in 3 months.

7. He was instrumental in redefining the culture of professional leadership and the curriculum offerings needed to do that to bring the military out of its crisis in the 1990's following the Somalia scandal.

8. His book, Shake Hands with the Devil, has sold over 1,000,000 copies in many different languages. In fact, not all that long ago, I was talking to a cab driver and when Roméo Dallaire somehow came up in the conversation, the driver reached under his seat and pulled the book out. He was reading it, he said, between fares.

9. He is a special advisor to the UN Secretary General on conflict areas in Africa.

That reflects perhaps one of the most important things that I have observed about Roméo Dallaire over the 9 years we have worked together – that he resonates so powerfully at a human level. While it is his actions that speak for his courage and his character, somehow it is his humanity that defines what it is about him that is so compelling to people. He has dedicated his life to protecting and uplifting the vulnerable in so many different ways.

It is Rwanda that also defined him in a tragic and important way. He was severely injured there, suffering sometimes debilitating levels of PTSD as a result of his experience. And, he lives with the gripping, visceral pain of this affliction. Yet, somehow he has wrenched from that pain the energy and commitment and determination to fight for others’ safety and security, for peace, for children made to be soldiers, for veterans, and for so many other vulnerable people.

I remember several years ago he said to me that his doctors were making him take a break because he was succumbing to the PTSD.  I looked and him and said, Roméo I cannot even imagine what you go through every day, but in some way you have somehow been chosen to do what you do, to undertake this huge responsibility to defend the most vulnerable, and you have clearly exceeded expectations.

Over those 9 years, I have admired, respected and honoured Roméo Dallaire so much. To use a military analogy, I would follow him out of the trenches into any battle he deemed necessary to engage. In fact, as I think about it, he seemed every day to be inspiring me and so many others to follow him into any number of battles over things important to and for Canadians.

Most of us talk about and many try really hard to make the world a better place. Senator Dallaire has truly done it and continues to do it. It has been a great privilege to know and work with him over this time in the Senate.

Veuillez appuyer ici pour lire ce blogue en français / Please click here to read this blog in French

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Senate Reform

Posted 4/29/2014 by Grant Mitchell


The Supreme Court of Canada did not kill the possibility of meaningful Senate reform with its recent ruling on term limits, elections and abolition. Don't let anyone tell you that it did.

1. Independence of the Senate: Release all Senators from their National Caucuses

One key thing that electing Senators would do would be to increase their independence from their party caucus and their leaders in the House of Commons. There is a lot of upside to that, in particular, that they could better fulfill their role of balancing the power of the executive (read Cabinet or more particularly, the Prime Minister), which is an explicit reason why the Senate was created. 

There is also a lot of downside to electing Senators. Elected Senators would be much more inclined, and in fact obligated, to exercise their complete veto over House of Commons legislation, including budget bills, that unelected Senators are not. They could hamstring Parliament, particularly since there is no way in our constitution to break an impasse between the two Chambers. Regional imbalances would also be exacerbated for provinces like Alberta, which has a greater percentage of the seats in the House of Commons than it does in the Senate. 

The good news that remains after the Supreme Court ruling is that greater independence for Senators can still be achieved in large measure without electing them. Mr. Trudeau has already demonstrated this with his decision on January 29, 2014 (Independence Day for Liberal Senators) to remove Liberal Senators from the National Liberal Caucus. This has already had a definable impact on the Liberal Senators. They have started holding caucus meetings open to the public; they have instituted a program of asking the government side in the Senate questions submitted by members of the public; and they are no longer "whipped" for votes. And, they do not ever hear arguments from the Liberal Leader or elected MPs that they should be voting one way or another.

Moreover, they have this independence without the downside of electing them before the problems of resolving impasses between the Chambers and seat distribution can be rectified; a situation which would require a constitutional amendment that it seems impossible to achieve and that no one wants to undertake. 

The irony is that Mr. Harper, who wanted to give the Senators the ultimate means of gaining independence, electing them, seems not to want to release Conservative Senators from his national caucus. But it would be easy to do and it would be an effective way of reforming the Senate. If that were really his intention, then he would jump now to release his Senators from his caucus. 

2. Selection Process

The effectiveness of the Senate and the reduction of suggestion of its being too partisan can be achieved by the kind of independent selection process envisioned by Mr. Trudeau. This is the kind of system that has served Canada very well in the selection of judges. A group of distinguished Canadians could be easily selected to review applicants/nominees for the Senate and propose a list of those who qualify to the Prime Minister for selection.

3. Televise the Senate

The Senate is the only legislative Chamber in the country that is not televised. Its committee proceedings are, but not the actual Chamber debates. This would allow Canadians to see the Senate Chamber in action and would elevate their appreciation of the Senate and the Parliamentary process generally, when they would see what is a remarkable level of respectful debate in the Senate. It is also consistent with the government's continuous claims that it wants to increase the transparency of the Senate. What better way than to televise it and let Canadians actually see what it does?

4. Arrange the Seating in the Senate Chamber by Province and Region

Currently, seating is arranged by party affiliation. So, the Conservatives sit with Conservatives, Liberals with Liberals and independents with independents. While it might seem cosmetic, seating Senators by province would engender relationships and discussion that would inevitably change perspectives and diminish the presence of partisanship. What Senators hold in common would get more emphasis than the partisan divide that is now entrenched by the partisan seating model. If you need proof of this, consider how effectively the committees function in the Senate, where Senators work very closely and almost always produce consensus reports. 

5. Electing the Leadership

The Senate Liberal Caucus has begun electing its three critical leadership positions, Leader, Deputy Leader and Whip (no longer whipping votes but still having certain management functions that need to be fulfilled, like allocating Senators to committee membership) since Mr. Trudeau has forfeited that role along with removing Senators from his caucus. So, why does Mr. Harper not do the same thing? There is no need for him to continue to appoint these positions in his Senate caucus unless he really continues to want to control it. And, of course, the one thing he would have done with electing would have been to reduce his control of his Senators. So, why not do what he can to give them their independence?

Veuillez appuyer ici pour lire ce blogue en français / Please click here to read this blog in French

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