Indigenize the Senate

I agree with those who say this is an era of Matriarchs.

The appointment of Inuk leader Mary Simon as Canada’s 30th governor-general is a vital step towards recognizing the significance of Indigenous Peoples in Canada’s past, present and now future. A northerner with decades of experience and a woman grounded in culture, she represents a true shift in Canada, and beyond.

We are all celebrating. Just last week, the first ever woman, and 2SLGBTQ+, became Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer. And now Roseanne Archibald is the first-ever woman to be Assembly of First Nations National Chief.

These paradigm shifts give me hope, especially after a Canada Day unlike any other. There were fewer fireworks and less flag-waving. Orange shirts certainly outnumbered red ones. The nation took pause to reflect on the disturbing recovery of over 1000 buried children who have revealed themselves long after their deaths at residential schools. Indigenous people and allies took to the streets and social media and pressed for real change; municipalities announced their willingness to find new, more inclusive names for schools, streets and parks.

Canadians are at last recognizing the horror of their country’s deep rooted colonial past and have begun looking for and demanding remedies. Now is the time for change.

Kluane Adamek. | Photo courtesy of Sentae of Canada

One place where significant and meaningful change is immediately possible is in the Canadian Senate. It’s time to Indigenize the Senate.

Canada’s Senate may be this country’s ultimate colonial institution. A remnant of the undemocratic legislative councils that governed the colonies before Confederation, the Senate was created both to represent the provinces, but more importantly as a check on elected government. Like the House of Lords in Britain, the Canadian Senate was created to safeguard the interests of propertied elites.

But the Senate’s best days may still lie ahead: Parliament is a ready vessel for the constitutional change Canada urgently needs. Deep rooted structural changes are required for real reconciliation and true changes – changes concerning how Canada is governed and power is shared.

In 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau wisely recognized the Senate could neither be elected nor abolished. Instead, and to the surprise of his party, the Prime Minister disbanded the Liberal caucus in the Senate. In its place, he vowed to appoint only independent senators recommended by the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments. The effect has been positive and already he has appointed 55 senators – a majority of its members – in this way.

Further Senate reform should be Trudeau’s next step. He can reform the Senate to be not only independent but also Indigenous.

Trudeau has the opportunity to fill as many as 12 vacant Senate seats before this autumn’s anticipated election. He should ask the Advisory Board to recommend only exceptional Indigenous candidates who are well-regarded by recognized Indigenous communities.

This would be an immediate step towards an Indigenized Senate that makes modern sense.

Transforming Canada’s Upper House to truly reflect and include a majority Indigenous representation, for current and future Senators, would be a significant gesture towards reconciliation. It would have natural legitimacy as a custodial body safeguarding the land and all peoples. In using his discretion to establish this new convention, he would set Canada on a new and more equitable constitutional path.

This could be among the Prime Minister’s most consequential legacies.

Of course, Indigenous perspectives vary and not all will welcome a dedicated parliamentary chamber. An Indigenized Senate would grapple with adequately representing the diversity of Indigenous perspectives, Nations and interests while preserving Canada’s constitutional commitment to bilingualism and the representation of the provinces.

Though its ability to scrutinize and improve legislation would remain considerable, the Senate always has and would continue to defer to the House of Commons. At the same time, an Indigenous Upper House would place Indigenous perspectives at the heart of parliament and at the centre of our national conversation, exercising its responsibilities on behalf of all residents of this land – not only Indigenous ones.

With today’s 105 senators serving until age 75, the transition to an Indigenized Senate would happen over several decades. This would allow the Senate’s newest members to learn its traditions while also providing time for new practices to evolve.

In an interview before retiring from the Senate, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner and former judge Murray Sinclair referred to his vision of the Senate as a “’council of Elders,’ … as a thoughtful, conscientious body providing oversight of the government.” An Indigenized Senate takes Justice Sinclair’s vision at face value and to heart.

Ultimately, reconciliation will mean ceding and sharing power. The Prime Minister, acting of his own initiative, could and should demonstrate his commitment to Indigenous people with this act of political imagination.

Kluane Adamek has served as the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Yukon Regional Chief since January 2018. She is a proud northerner and citizen of Kluane First Nation. Regional Chief Adamek belongs to the Dakl’aweidi (Killerwhale) Clan and comes from a diverse background with Tlingit, Southern Tutchone, German and Irish origins.