Calls for reformation and even abolition of the Senate predated Muriel McQueen Fergusson’s appointment to that body as a representative for New Brunswick in 1953. As she recalled, ‘one story told me soon after my appointment was that there were two brothers, and one went to sea and the other to the Senate and neither had been heard of since.’ But her own experience taught her that ‘though senators may not be heard of very much by the general public, many of them are working hard in ways that are very important to the country,’ and she became one of the Senate’s most eloquent defenders (1954). Her defence of the Senate remains relevant today.
‘Most people in Canada who criticize the Senate’, she asserted, ‘don’t realize the reason why it was set up.’ The Senate, she explained, ‘was the price of Confederation, for the Maritime Provinces declined to enter Confederation if the law-making powers were … committed exclusively to a body constituted entirely on the principle of representation according to population. They … realized that, in such a scheme of things, Ontario and Quebec, or either of these provinces alone, would be in a position to ignore the voice of the minority from the shores of the Atlantic.’ The principle of equivalent representation with other parts of Canada safeguarded not only the Atlantic region but also Quebec and the smaller populations of the Western Provinces when they were admitted to Confederation, making the Senate ‘a symbol of National Unity in our Constitution’ (1954).
But the Upper House served another purpose: to provide what Sir John A. Macdonald referred to as ‘the sober second thought in legislation.’ The Senate, argued Fergusson, ‘would be of no value whatever were it a mere Chamber for registering the decrees of the Lower House. It must be an independent House having a free action of its own.’ The role of the Senate was ‘to study very thoroughly the legislation that comes before it, to reject what it considers on sober second thought is not in the true or best interest of the nation’ and to ensure that legislation that is passed ‘will be a true and adequate instrument of business and not merely a breeding place for litigation, which will make work for lawyers and unnecessary expense and trouble for those making use of it’ (1954).
For Senator Fergusson, an independent Senate meant both the freedom and the obligation to be non-partisan, something that could not be achieved in an elected body. Quoting a former senator, Fergusson characterized the Senate as ‘a work shop, not a theatre,’ explaining that, whereas ‘in the House of Commons the speakers on a bill address themselves primarily to the electors of the country … the Senators address themselves to the Bill and that is a much shorter procedure.’ Moreover, although ‘the hours that the Senate sits in the Senate Chamber seem to give some justification to the criticism that the Senate members are not hard worked,’ this ignores the time spent sitting on Senate committees, ‘that are doing hard work for long hours’ (1954).
By the time she became Speaker of the Senate in 1972, Senator Fergusson had honed her response to calls to ‘Abolish the Senate’, complaints that ‘It serves no useful purpose!’, accusations that it is just ‘An expensive way to pension off deserving party followers’ and characterizations of the upper house as ‘The Chamber of note and dotage.’ According to one interviewer, when faced with such critiques, ‘She points out how senators bring a wealth of experience to their government tasks. They have been scholars, doctors, teachers, lawyers, politicians, bankers, professionals, businessmen, farmers …This varied background and the fact senators are appointed and are not involved in electioneering gives them the time, she says, to study proposed legislation thoroughly…. She recalls [that] the Agricultural and Rural Development Act was the… result of a Senate committee on land use … and that the report of the Senate committee on aging formed the basis of government’s recognition of the need for income supplements’ (Irving, 1974).
Aware that women had but a precarious foothold in both Houses of Parliament, Senator Fergusson believed that ‘the absence of a reasonable number of women in our government makes Canada the poorer’ (1973). Discussing Canada’s bicameral parliamentary system in 1963, she noted that although eight women had been appointed to the Canadian Senate since 1929, when women first became eligible, deaths had reduced this number to six. By comparison, 15 women had been elected to the House of Commons since 1920, when women first became eligible. Yet by 1963 only two women had ever attained Cabinet rank and, in that year, there were only four female MPs. Recognizing shared concerns, Senator Fergusson was instrumental in bringing both senators and MPs together in a non-partisan women’s caucus in the mid-1950s.
Senator Fergusson viewed an appointed Senate as necessary to ensure that the voices of knowledgeable women would be heard in government. And in 1990, at age 91, she remained convinced that ‘keeping an appointed Senate could help the cause of women who rise to eminence in their professions … but can’t hustle votes. If we’re going to elect senators too,’ she warned, ‘then we’re going to have a lot of people that don’t know much.’ In 2012, the notion of a non-partisan women’s caucus is passé and women MPs outnumber women senators by 72 to 38. And even though, proportionately, senators retain the edge, with women accounting for 38 per cent of senators, as compared to just 23 per cent of MPs, it can scarcely be argued that today’s patronage-driven Senate is likely to play an effective role in bringing the talents of more than one-half of Canada’s population to bear on the questions of the day. Perhaps it is too late to hope for the kind of Senate Fergusson and her predecessors envisioned, for her dream of ‘wise women’ senators can, at best, be measured in the contributions of a small handful. Yet if there is anything to be learned from the way our current electoral system works, it is that an elected Senate is not the answer, for it would surely include proportionately fewer women.
Campbell, G. G. (2010). “‘Are we going to do the most important things?’ Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, feminist identities, and the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.” In J. Guildford and S. Morton (Eds.). Making Up the State: Women in 20th-Century Atlantic Canada. Fredericton, Acadiensis Press.
Irving, K. (1974, May 4). ‘Muriel McQueen Fergusson: A lifetime of service to her country,’ The Ottawa Journal.
Muriel McQueen Fergusson Papers, MS 1372, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.
Speech to Media Press Club of Canada, Ottawa, 25 October 1973, Box 98.
Speech given 1954, File Speeches, 1948-1950s, Box 51.
Speech to Altrusa Clubs International Convention as a member of the Panel on the Status of Women, Philadelphia, 22 July 1963.Waters, S. (1990). ‘At 91, former senator still fights for women’s rights.’The Evening Times-Globe.