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Quebec opposes Harper proposals to alter Senate




From Thursday's Globe and Mail


June 5, 2008 at 5:12 AM EDT


OTTAWA — Quebec is threatening to haul Ottawa before the Supreme Court of Canada over what it believes are unconstitutional Senate reform measures proposed by the Harper government.


Raising the ghost of the failed Meech Lake accord, Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoît Pelletier said the Senate reform proposed by Brian Mulroney in 1987 was preferable to Stephen Harper's two Senate reform bills, which require provincial residents to elect candidates from which Ottawa would pick.


The Meech agreement gave provincial governments the power to fill Senate vacancies as an interim measure toward larger reform.


Appearing before a House of Commons committee studying the proposed changes, Mr. Pelletier said the Meech model would be more in line with the Senate's original mandate to represent provincial interests. All three parties in Quebec's National Assembly oppose the two federal Senate reform bills and want them scrapped immediately, he said.


Failing that, Mr. Pelletier said Ottawa should at least clear up questions of the measures' constitutionality with a reference to the Supreme Court. As a last resort, Quebec will consider taking the issue before Canada's highest court.


"It's an option we have to look at," he said, pointing out that Quebec would not have joined Confederation had it not been for the assurance of a strong Senate voice.


"It's an institution that goes to the heart of the federal compromise of 1867," Mr. Pelletier told MPs.


The government legislation, known as Bill C-20, spells out a system in which elections would be held in each province to produce a list of names for the federal government to choose from in appointing senators to fill vacancies. It is separate from a second Conservative bill, C-19, which seeks to replace the current system where senators are appointed with term limits of eight years.


Quebec's presentation in Ottawa on Senate changes took place the same week the province slammed the Harper government over its policies on climate change. Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced they would be going it alone with a cap-and-trade system aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.


The increasing polarization between Central Canada and the federal government is in contrast to recent developments in Western Canada.


Premier Brad Wall's new conservative-minded Saskatchewan Party government recently said it hopes to introduce legislation this fall that would allow for provincial elections of Saskatchewan senators. The process would be similar to the one already in place in Alberta, which has already sent two elected senators to Ottawa.


The NDP government in Manitoba is also moving in that direction, with plans to hold provincewide hearings to consult residents on how to elect senators. British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell has said he'd prefer to see the Senate abolished, but could support Senate elections provided Ottawa pays for them.


The one elected Alberta senator who is still in the second chamber, Bert Brown, has been touring provincial and territorial capitals to get others onside.


Mr. Pelletier later told reporters that even if the Conservative bills go nowhere, Quebec's concerns could materialize if many other provinces start holding their own Senate elections to produce names from which the Prime Minister would choose.


"That would completely change the Senate and would confirm our point," he said. "This reform is so important that it should follow the formal rules of the Constitution."



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