FAQ | Who are Senators and what do they do?

28 February 2008

Canada’s Senate is made up of men and women with a wide range of career experience. Scan the ranks of the Senate and you will find business people, lawyers, teachers, surgeons, aboriginal leaders and journalists. Other senators have experience in fields such as agriculture, the environment, manufacturing, the oil and gas and fishing industries, unions, economics, police and military work, and, of course, federal, provincial and municipal politics. With this expertise, senators can get to the heart of complex bills and committee investigations. They understand the issues, focus on the key points and can respond to the needs of the people and organisations affected.

Former cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, provincial premiers and party leaders bring an understanding of law-making and the business of government to the Senate.

For example: in 1983 a special committee of the Senate examined a bill to create a Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The Chair’s previous experience as Clerk of the Privy Council had given him expertise in security matters. The committee recommended so many changes that the House of Commons withdrew the bill and rewrote it. The House of Commons and the Senate then passed the new bill which incorporated the improvements initiated by Senators.

Increasingly, the Senate reflects our multicultural society. Senators come from many different ethnic backgrounds and religions. Canada’s aboriginal First Nations and Black communities are represented in the Senate, as are Canadians of Arab, Greek, Italian, Jewish, Ukrainian and other origins.

The founders of Confederation wanted senators to have extensive experience before reaching the Senate and so restricted membership to persons 30 years of age or more. In order to let them gain parliamentary experience, senators were given lifetime appointments. In 1965, Parliament introduced retirement at age 75, based upon the model for judges. In 1997, the average age in the Senate was 64, compared to about 52 in the Commons. A complete changeover in Senate membership takes place about every 17 years. This continuity creates a kind of long-term institutional memory. Senators can track issues over time, form lasting working relationships and develop a thorough understanding of Parliament.