January 5, 2016 5:24 pm

Group calls on Trudeau to appoint gender-balanced Senate

Governor General David Johnston (third from right) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pose with members of the gender-equal Liberal cabinet following a swearing-in ceremony, Wednesday Nov.4, 2015 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
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A group of Canadian women has asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make the Senate gender-equal.

82 women signed an open letter addressed to Trudeau, dated Dec. 21, 2015, including former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, former Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps, and Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld, among many other recognizable names.

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“We applaud you for appointing women to hold half of your cabinet positions, thereby creating the first gender-equal federal cabinet in Canadian history,” it reads.

“We call on you now to extend this principle to appointments to the Senate of Canada.”

The Canadian Senate has 105 seats. There are 52 men and 31 women sitting in the Chamber, with 22 empty seats left over.

The letter-writers want Trudeau to fill those empty seats with women, bringing the female total to 53.

“We just thought that we would seize the momentum and the opportunity,” said former Toronto city councillor Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, who helped start the letter campaign.

“Right now, the Senate is pretty – it’s sort of monotone.”

A gender-equal Senate would be more representative of Canadian diversity and would have better discussions on policy issues, says Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth, who also signed the letter.

“I think it makes a difference in terms of policy. I think it makes a difference in terms of studies that will be undertaken in the Senate. I think it makes a difference in the witnesses that will be called, and that affects the outcome of Senate studies,” she said.

“It means that more women will chair committees. He or she that chairs a committee or sits on the steering committee controls the study – so the philosophical underpinnings, the direction the study is going. …

“The Senate’s an appointment job, so hey, Prime Minister, it’s time to follow through and do it.”

Ruth says she presented former Prime Minister Stephen Harper with the names of women she thought he could appoint to fill vacancies. He ignored her list but she hopes Trudeau won’t.

Appointment process

The federal government likes the idea of more women in the Senate but won’t say if they’ll follow through on it.

“The government shares the desire of the signatories to achieve gender balance in the Senate,” wrote Paul Duchesne, spokesperson for Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, in an email.

An independent advisory board will review potential candidates and provide advice to the Prime Minister, he said.

According to published criteria, “Nominees will be considered with a view to achieving gender balance in the Senate,” among other considerations such as ethnic representation and knowledge of Canada’s legislative process.

Duchesne did not clarify whether his comments mean that the government is committing to a gender-equal Senate.

“The Board will be guided by public, merit-based criteria and nominees will be considered with a view to achieving gender balance in the Senate,” he wrote.

The Prime Minister will select the first five new Senators early this year from a shortlist provided to him by the advisory board.

Ramkhalawansingh hopes the letter encourages Trudeau to appoint more women.

“We just wanted to be able to say to the Prime Minister, ‘You’re on the right path. We support you, and keep going!’”

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