Another Vision for the Canadian Senate

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Pierre Trudeau with Paul and Mary Yuzyk, 1971. Image from

Pierre Trudeau with Paul and Mary Yuzyk, 1971. Image from

By Jonathan McQuarrie

Lately, the Senate has dominated political headlines in Canada. This must mean that it did something wrong, since the only time that the Senate attracts headlines is when things go wrong. And indeed, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau have all disrupted the tightly controlled messaging of the Conservative Prime Minister’s Office emphasis on fiscal responsibility and electoral accountability. To a lesser degree, reports of the now retired Mac Harb’s expense account unsettled the Liberal party. The NDP, sensing political gain and voter anger, has made abolishing the Senate one of its core messages, launching a ‘Roll up the Red Carpet’ campaign. Once again, the place of the august Red Chamber, populated by patronage appointments and part-time legislators, finds itself at the forefront of public discussion.

In a recent editorial, National Post columnist Jonathan Kay provided an interesting counterpoint to the recent discussion of the Senate, citing the work of the former Liberal Senator Yoine Goldstein. For Kay, Goldstein was a model Senator, writing a number of reports on technical yet important topics such as insolvency and patent law. A 2008 Toronto Star article credited Goldstein for advancing a bill against spamming—a law welcomed by many a person with an overburdened inbox. The general point is that, despite the multiple and pressing problems with the Senate, some Senators can indeed rise above the partisan fray to work in a broadly defined public interest.

In this spirit, it is worthwhile to recall the career of Senator Paul Yuzyk. Appointed by John Diefenbaker, Yuzyk served as a Progressive Conservative Senator from 1963 to his death in 1986. He came with impressive credentials, holding a PhD in History from the University of Minnesota, and he taught at both the University of Manitoba and at the University of Ottawa during his tenure as a Senator. His academic focus orientated around the Ukrainian experience in Canada, particularly focusing on the role of the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church.

I first learned of Yuzyk during a graduate course on Pluralism and Multiculturalism in North America as an early proponent of multiculturalism. Yuzyk, I found, played a key part in expanding the terms of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism launched by Lester Pearson. He used his position as a Senator to insist on the idea of the ‘Third Element’ in Canadian development—people who were neither of British or French descent. By his definition, given during his inaugural speech to the Senate on March 3, 1964, this ‘Third Element’ constituted all other ethnic and cultural groups present in Canada (a collection of his speeches was published as For a Better Canada, in 1973).  Yuzyk pointed to a number of factors in emphasizing the importance of this ‘Third Element,’ including demographic realities and cultural contributions by people who were neither from British or French roots. Yuzyk was partial to quoting excerpts from the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, whose statute stands outside the Manitoba Legislature, as evidence of the cultural impact of Ukrainians in the Prairies.

Insisting on the ‘Third Element’ as a demographic and cultural reality, Yuzyk called for the extension of Trudeau’s famous call for a ‘just society’ to include recognition of the various ethnic and cultural groups in Canada. Just as Trudeau articulated in his work and speeches on multiculturalism, Yuzyk cast multiculturalism as a means to establish a new and inclusive Canadian identity. As he baldly put it in another speech published in his Ukrainian Canadians: Their Place and Role in Canadian Life in 1967, “Canadian identity is multiculturalism.” He encouraged the formation of the Canadian Ethnic Studies journal, founded in 1969, as a way to back this statement with scholarly detail.

Yuzyk’s legacy as a Senator has continued well past his death. Since 2009, the Paul Yuzyk Award for Multiculturalism has been granted by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration to a person “who have made exceptional contributions to multiculturalism and integration of newcomers.” Among Ukrainian Canadian groups, Yuzyk enjoys a high reputation as a person who helped to raise the profile of their community in Canada. Also in 2009, two Ukrainian organizations came together to form the Paul Yuzyk Institute on Youth Leadership.

Let me be clear. This account is not intended to credit Yuzyk with exclusively forming multiculturalism in Canada; Trudeau, of course, had also written extensively on nation and identity prior to becoming prime minister. Nor is the idea of a ‘Third Element’ unproblematic; aboriginals, who Yuzyk included in this group, have had historical experiences with colonialism that do not readily fit into the immigrant experience narrative. Indeed, Yuzyk relied on the well-worn and damaging trope of pioneer history when he credited Ukrainian and other immigrant groups with settling “the vast empty lands” of the Prairies in his book Ukrainian Canadians. Further, scholars have overturned the homogeneity of immigrant experiences by producing specialized works on particular peoples and their myriad experiences. The very idea of multiculturalism finds itself criticized, both for its limitations for forging a unified Canadian identity and for the cultural assumptions it can impose on people from an identifiable ethnic group.

Allow me another caveat. Yuzyk’s contribution remains more of an exception than a rule; it is difficult to find many other Senators with the same broad impact as he had. This leads to the legitimate criticism that the measurable and positive impact of the unelected Senate remains limited. The fact that unelected legislators can disrupt the proceedings of the democratically elected (if not particularly proportionate) House of Commons seems an odd vestige of a time when people had less faith in the political reason of the electorate. The fact that the Senate so rarely blocks bills seems an admission of this anomaly. The recent expense scandals in the Senate only emphasize the pressing need to reform the upper chamber in order to provide it with the long sought public legitimacy.

Although I appreciate the motive, I wonder about the utility of abolishing the Senate. Leaving aside the rather daunting Constitutional battle this action would no doubt entail, there remains appeal to the idea of a body that provides ‘sober second thought.’ In our increasingly and frustratingly partisan world, the image of a Progressive Conservative Senator raising an issue that re-orientated an important commission, then working with a Liberal Prime Minister to form a sweeping legislative change seems novel—and refreshing. Senator Yuzyk had a vision of Canada that was neither perfect nor unique, but still a powerful one that developed over several years of Senatorial discussion. Ultimately, it remains up to our elected officials, and indeed, the electorate itself, to ensure that the Senate, should it continue, functions as a place of measured deliberation rather than as a mere partisan perk.

Jonathan McQuarrie is a PhD Candidate at the Department of History, University of Toronto. He tweets about things historical and not at @jrmcquarrie. 

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