Feminist law reform efforts involving the Senate have become more prominent in recent years. This is largely attributable to changes made to the Senate appointment process, which has resulted in the appointment of more feminist Senators and the creation of the Independent Senators Group. It and other non-partisan groups in the Senate work on issues of common interest and can facilitate cross-party support for engagement in feminist law reform.
This module discusses the opportunities that have opened up for feminist law reform in the Senate, and highlights examples of recent work that feminist Senators, activists, and allies have undertaken at the Senate level to advance a wide range of women’s equality rights issues.
"Despite the gains of the past decades, the struggle for equality continues. Parliamentarians have a responsibility to bring awareness to intersectional women's issues in the Senate and the House of Commons. Women's issues are community issues. Women's issues are parliamentarian's issues."
in "The Struggle to Empower Women Continues"
About the Senate and its Committees
What is the Senate?
The Senate is the Upper House in Canada’s bicameral parliamentary democracy. It unites a diverse group of accomplished Canadians in service of their country.
Parliament’s 105 senators shape Canada’s future. Senators scrutinize legislation, suggest improvements and fix mistakes. When the Senate speaks, the House of Commons listens — a bill must pass the Senate before it can become law.
Senators also propose their own bills and generate debate about issues of national importance in the collegial environment of the Senate Chamber, where ideas are debated on their merit.
Created to counterbalance representation by population in the House of Commons, the Senate has evolved from defending regional interests to giving voice to underrepresented groups like Indigenous peoples, visible minorities and women.
What are the Senate Committees?
Committees study proposed legislation or bills, government expenditures, and conduct special studies. When a committee has completed its work, or part of it, they will present their findings, recommendations or decisions in a report to the Senate.
Committee work is important because it gives senators an opportunity to look into the subject in detail. This usually includes hearings, which allow senators to question groups and individuals on their views.
There are two types of select committees: standing committees permanently established by the Senate Rules and special committees appointed to study a specific order of reference. Select committees can establish subcommittees as necessary. In addition, the Senate and the House of Commons can create standing joint committees or special joint committees.
The average Senate committee ranges in size from 12 to 15 members. Committee membership generally reflects the standings of the political parties in the Senate itself.
What is the Independent Senators Group?
Formed on March 10, 2016, the Independent Senators Group (ISG) is a parliamentary group in the Senate of Canada. This group provides non-affiliated senators with representation on committees and funding equivalent to those who sit in the two partisan caucuses.
The vision of the Independent Senator's Group is that the independent senators contribute to a senate that reflects the needs and the views of diverse Canadians and give voice to all weighty and arduous matters of concern to Canadians.
The ISG currently holds 50 seats in the Senate.
The growing pains of an independent Senate
Feminist Senators are critical actors in women's representation
The Struggle to Empower Women Continues
How a Senate bill becomes law
Participating in a Senate Committee Study: Giving Oral and/or Written Evidence
The renewed Canadian Senate
When the Senate expenses scandal hit in 2012, it left the parties scrambling to reform the deeply unpopular institution. Then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper had taken small steps over the past several years, but was hitting major constitutional roadblocks. Justin Trudeau took a different approach: in 2014, he removed the Liberal senators from caucus and asked them to sit as independents. Then in 2016, his government introduced a nonpartisan appointment process.
These attempts to decrease the Senate’s partisanship and increase its legitimacy have had mixed results. On one hand, the Senate is operating less on party lines, with senators from all groups more active in introducing legislative amendments; on the other, the process by which legislation moves through the senate has become much more complex.
Walking us through the effect these changes are having on Canada’s upper chamber is an all-star panel of guests: Yonah Martin, the deputy leader of the opposition in the Senate; Ratna Omidvar, one of the first new senators with the Independent Senators Group; Emmett Macfarlane, associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo and author of the IRPP study, The Renewed Canadian Senate: Organizational Challenges and Relations with the Government; and Leslie Seidle, director of the IRPP research program Canada’s Changing Federal Community.
Engage & Discuss
What are some differences between the Senate and the House of Commons? What aspects of the Senate do you think make it a useful partner in advancing feminist law reform?
Can you identify current Canadian Senators who have been helpful in advancing feminist law reform and might be useful allies for your work?
Can you identify a bill that was initiated in the Senate, or that was amended by the Senate, to address issues of feminist concern?