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Bill S-228 - Property qualifications of Senators - Second Reading

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in support of Senator Patterson’s Bill S-228, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (property qualifications of Senators). I note that Senator Patterson has a sister motion before the Senate as well, Motion No. 19, which deals with the same subject matter, and I will be ardently supporting both initiatives.

I would first like to commend Senator Patterson for reintroducing this legislation. I note this is our colleague’s third time bringing such a bill forward, championing this initiative from other parliamentarians who have come before us. I am hoping this time around, Parliament collectively will agree that the property qualifications for Senate eligibility are an outdated requirement, which is no longer consistent with modern society.

Colleagues, what Senator Patterson’s bill aims to accomplish is simple in its dual purpose: It would alter the eligibility requirements for Senate appointments by removing the requirement of owning land worth at least $4,000 in one’s home province, as well as removing the requirement of having a personal net worth of at least $4,000.

We in this chamber are not oblivious to the current state of the country and the ever-changing, unpredictable climates under which we live. We need look no further than the severe housing crisis that is impacting every region of Canada or the burgeoning levels of inflation, which are making the cost of living untenable for many in Canada. In considering today’s economic and housing realities, we must acknowledge that they represent massive barriers that are gatekeeping many Canadians from the possibility of serving their country in this chamber.

Colleagues, these property requirements are elitist and antiquated. They serve no purpose in today’s society beyond entrenching a further unnecessary divide between the haves and have-nots.

Four thousand dollars today, based on inflation calculators, would have equalled well over $100,000 when this requirement was enshrined into our Constitution. It was intended to ensure that those who took a seat in this august chamber were of the very upper crust of society, the propertied elite. Even though the value of $4,000 is not what it used to be, the sheer existence of this requirement still precludes countless Canadians, the majority of whom make up the middle and lower classes of this country, from holding the very position that we do. Based on what — solely because they rent or do not hold title for their dwelling?

I would hold, colleagues, that this chamber works best when it is truly reflective of the population of Canada. After all, we have long argued that diversity is our strength as a nation. The working class and the economically marginalized are voices that have had very little space in this chamber since Confederation. The deeply entrenched and colonial system we work under has all but assured that. However, would we in Canada not benefit from having this chamber be a better representative of the country at large?

Senator Patterson put this issue into clear perspective when speaking of his home region of Nunavut. As Senator Patterson has described, he estimates that 80% of the people in his territory would not be eligible to apply to become a senator because they do not own land. I cannot fathom excluding four out of every five people from being eligible to become a senator simply based on whether they own $4,000 worth of property.

Honourable senators, the property requirement is of particular concern for me because of what it means for First Nations in Canada. Many of you may not realize this, but countless individuals who live on reserve are ineligible for this position because they do not actually own title for the land on which they live. This is not by choice, of course. This is a by-product of colonization, which has relegated First Nations onto reserves, which are federally held land.

This issue is best described by Ms. Francyne Joe, the former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, who is currently doing important work with the National Association of Friendship Centres. Beyond serving in such high-profile roles, she has long been an outspoken advocate for First Nations, Inuit and Métis women, highlighted by her work on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls file. While she had once pondered applying to become a senator as a strong and competent voice for a highly marginalized population, she was stopped short by the property qualification.

In Francyne Joe’s own words, this was her experience:

My name is Francyne Joe, and I am a Shackan First Nations member located in B.C.’s central interior. I researched the process of putting my name forward for a Senate appointment, as there is an open seat for B.C. and I felt that I would be a good candidate for such a role. I meet most of the necessary criteria, such as age, citizenship, non‑partisanship, knowledge, good personal qualities and residency. However, the eligibility criteria related to a qualification of property are a barrier. As an Indigenous woman, I am disappointed by this criteria, and I question if it’s truly necessary and the reasons behind the criteria.

When my mother married, the Indian Act automatically transferred her to her husband’s band, Shackan, and when she divorced she had to reapply to return to her band, Lower Nicola. For funding purposes, I remained a Shackan band member. I received no housing benefits because there is very limited land on the Shackan reserve available. My mother received property on the Lower Nicola reserve. It passed to her when my grandparents died. It is a good-sized property, located within minutes of Merritt, B.C., about 10 acres that was used for farming and ranching.

My grandparents had this land for decades, and it was passed on to my mom and her brother. Houses were built on the property for my grandparents and their kids, and an outdoor arena was erected for rodeos, which supported the agricultural part of my grandparents’ business. A large garden was planted annually to produce for family and community. Corrals, barns and workshops were built. There is even a small family cemetery on the property.

But to a realtor, the property is located on reserve, so there is no value, and therefore I would not be able to use it in my application for a Senate role.

My mom would like me to transfer to Lower Nicola. Then she could put me on the certificate of possession documents as joint owner, but the difficulty is that the property needs some work, which requires money. If I put monies into our home property, which means so much to me and my two children, then I cannot purchase off-reserve property to clearly meet the eligibility requirements to be a senator. But this property obviously has value to myself, my family and even to other members.

As you can see from this personal story, colleagues, the currently held property qualification requirements pose an extra barrier for First Nations’ entry into the Senate.

Honourable senators, there had been much hand-wringing when legislation to remove this barrier was first brought before Parliament. This was largely due to the onerous threshold that needed to be met federally and provincially to fulfill the requirements of the Constitution’s amending formula.

However, greater clarity and flexibility have been given on this matter thanks to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 2014, the SCC gave their much-anticipated reply to the reference question regarding Senate reform. As was stated in the SCC decision:

We conclude that the net worth requirement (s. 23(4)) can be repealed by Parliament under the unilateral federal amending procedure. However, a full repeal of the real property requirement (s. 23(3)) requires the consent of Quebec’s legislative assembly, under the special arrangements procedure. Indeed, a full repeal of that provision would also constitute an amendment in relation to s. 23(6), which contains a special arrangement applicable only to the province of Quebec.

As Senator Patterson clarified in his March 24 speech on this bill:

. . . the decision states Parliament can, indeed, unilaterally remove the net worth requirement for all senators and the real property requirement for every senator except those in Quebec, which this bill aims to do. We do not need to invoke the amending formula and involve provinces, apart from the special situation . . . in Quebec.

Colleagues, throughout my tenure in the Senate, great pride has been taken in the ongoing modernization and rejuvenation of the upper chamber. The Senate has arguably become more accessible and more inclusive. It is up to us to continue this march, and supporting this bill represents an important step on that journey.

The property requirement is an outdated relic of the past. As Senator Patterson has argued, this is no longer an appropriate or relevant measure of the fitness of a person to serve in the Senate. Not only is it arbitrary in this day and age, it also happens to represent one of the biggest, if not the biggest, systemic barrier for Canadians applying to serve in this chamber.

It is disconcerting when I think about the number of Canadians who are ineligible to become a senator based solely on this single requirement. It frustrates me even more when it is evident that those who continue to be excluded from applying are those who historically have been — and continue to be — among the most marginalized and least represented voices in the Senate of Canada.

Honourable senators, the path forward to righting this wrong and correcting this antiquated rule is before us. The highest court in this country has provided a blueprint with which we can accomplish this feat with relative ease. I urge you to support Senator Patterson’s Bill S-228 and its sister motion so that we can remove a large barrier to entry into the Senate of Canada, thereby enriching it for generations to come. Kinanâskomitin, thank you.

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