3 min

In government’s dying days, attention shifts to Senate

Senators offer advice on C-389 and C-393

With two important bills for the queer community before the Senate – Bill C-389 on trans rights and Bill C-393 on cheap AIDS drugs for the developing world – letter-writing campaigns are in full swing.
While it may be one thing to call up your MP and threaten not to vote for them, that doesn’t really work for senators. For some groups advocating positions, it means a change in tactics.
“It’ll be a different approach in that it will be a much more wise approach, and a discussional approach, with them to say this is really what Canadians want – let’s do it now,” says Rachel Kiddell-Monroe of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, on Bill C-393.
The Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign has also been lobbying senators intensely on C-393 over the past week. Liberal Senator Claudette Tardif, the deputy opposition leader in the senate, says that her office has received 3,000 emails in the past week on the issue.
But how best to approach senators to tell them that you support bills like these?
Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth lays out some ground rules to start – like learning some Senate rules and procedures and getting to know senators on both sides of the chamber.
“First of all, they’re two separate chambers,” says Tardif. “What happens in the House is not unrelated, but the Senate functions according to its own set of rules and its own traditions and its own precedents, so what happens in the House doesn’t necessarily transfer over to the Senate per se.”
But it is perhaps Nancy Ruth’s next piece of advice that is the most salient: “Stop insulting senators.”
For example, right after C-393 passed the Commons, NDP MP Paul Dewar told the press, “They have to pass this. If they don’t, what they’re saying is they actually are holding the whole idea of parliamentary democracy in contempt, in my opinion.”
That argument doesn’t fly with Tardif. “Our constitutional duty now is to look at legislation, use the sober second thought, take the time to look at it,” Tardif says.
“People may not understand that, but that is the fact, and I have no qualms about saying, No, I’m doing the work that’s set out for me by the 1867 Constitution of Canada, which is that we have two separate chambers,” says Tardif.
Tardif points out that in the ’80s, it was because of the Senate that an abortion bill passed by the Commons was killed, leaving the medical practice decriminalized.
What senators do appreciate are thoughtful letters or emails written with respect.
“Civil discourse is to be preferred,” says Progressive Conservative Senator Elaine McCoy. “Where I would really like to end up is respecting another person’s point of view. You don’t need to agree with it, but I want to respect it.
“If that person is being respectful and serious, then I will walk away from their letter with respect for them, and that’s where I would prefer to end up. If it’s rude, especially if it’s a form letter and it’s rude, I wouldn’t even read 20 of them before I shrug and turn away.”
McCoy, who points out that she makes an effort to read and respond to letters she receives, gives a few other pointers: “Everyone just refers to a bill number, and I don’t mind that in the subject [line], but it would be very helpful in the first line of the email to say what bill it is,” says McCoy. Because bill numbers are recycled between parliaments, so when people write to senators about bills that have not yet reached the upper chamber, clarity is always appreciated.
“They want to make their point, and that they can certainly do in the first paragraph, but it’s helpful if they point out either what is really good or what is not good in their opinion and why,” McCoy adds. “Offer more assistance and more information if the senator wants to follow up, and often we do.”
Nancy Ruth offers a few other reminders: a single senator cannot override a government’s agenda; one group’s urgency won’t necessarily be the government’s; and the press affects public opinion and therefore some individual senators and sometimes a government.
And while senators may not be elected, they do appreciate hearing from the public, nevertheless. McCoy adds that even if a bill doesn’t pass immediately, sometimes the statute books lag behind public opinion and it’s important for senators to know that.
“I would encourage people to express their views and to continue to press them, because that, over time, will help,” McCoy says.
“Representation is important, and I would encourage people to make their view heard,” Tardif says. “It does still have an important effect.”