Booted from caucus, but not from the family, Liberal senators spend weekend at party convention

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau addresses his party's policy convention biennial convention Thursday, February 20, 2014 in Montreal.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau addresses his party's policy convention biennial convention Thursday, February 20, 2014 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — Even after they were abruptly booted from caucus, with their leader Justin Trudeau defiantly proclaiming “there are no more Liberal senators,” several ousted senators still felt the love at this weekend’s convention in Montreal.

“I haven’t had anybody look at me quizzically and say, ‘why are you here?'” Ontario Sen. Jim Munson said in an interview. “I’ve been welcomed by … my colleagues who are in the Commons caucus and the delegates have been very kind to me.”

Leading up to the convention, many wondered whether any senators would show up, what kind of reception they would receive and whether their presence might cause any distraction. The opposition parties were certainly ready to attack, armed with material to push their message that Trudeau’s move to boot the senators from caucus was nothing more than a gimmick.

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The NDP, for example, was handing out bingo-style cards with head shots of the 32 ousted senators, asking delegates, “Can you spot them all?”

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The Conservatives, meanwhile, planned to snap photos of senators showing up at the convention site and post them online, according to leaked documents reported in the Toronto Star last week.

Undeterred, at least seven of the senators, who now identify as Senate Liberals rather than Liberal Senators, filed through the doors of the Montreal convention centre, surrounded by fellow Liberal supporters.

“I’ve gone to conventions for years, I wanted to come to this one, and I came,” said Nova Scotia Sen. James Cowan, who leads the Senate Liberal caucus. “I think most people are pleased to see me.”

Just because he and his peers were told they are no longer welcome to weekly caucus meetings or to fundraise and campaign doesn’t mean they simply stop supporting the party, its leader and his policies, Cowan said.

Trudeau’s swift move to cut ties with senators last month — as the chamber continued it’s year-long immersion in scandal — caught everybody, including the senators, by surprise. The leader explained it was a way for him to suppress partisanship in the Senate and help the chamber move back toward being an independent chamber of sober second thought.

Under the Liberal constitution, however, senators remain members of the national caucus and enjoy some privileges, including automatic delegate status at party conventions.

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When Trudeau made his announcement in January, the deadline for proposing amendments to the constitution had passed, so the party put forward a symbolic resolution asking delegates to approve Trudeau’s move until the constitution can be formally amended at the next biennial convention.

Regardless of his and his peers’ status, Ontario senator David Smith, who joined the party in the 1960s, said he will always feel welcome among Liberals.

“I’m a family member,” said the former Liberal campaign manager. “People are as friendly as they’ve ever been. They’re coming up to me and saying, I’m really happy you came … When you’re part of the family for so long, I don’t think people want to think you’re not part of the family.”

– With a file from The Canadian Press

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