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The ‘Heart and Soul’ of the Senate
HOW & WHY
The ‘Heart and Soul’ of the Senate
August 11, 2017

Muriel McQueen Fergusson, the first female Speaker of the Senate, described committees as the Senate’s “heart and soul.”

It’s easy to see why.

Committees seek solutions to complex problems.

And they scrutinize legislation to make it better.

The work done by Senate committees serves Canadians by generating well-researched reports on timely and important issues. Committees provide recommendations to the government on actions it can take to improve the daily lives of Canadians. Committee reports can also serve as the seeds for new legislation that either the Senate or the House of Commons can initiate.

Committees are groups of between five and 18 senators who focus on a particular subject. For example, there are committees that study national finance, foreign affairs and issues affecting Indigenous peoples.

At the beginning of each parliamentary session, the Committee of Selection — which includes members from all of the Senate caucuses and groups — meets to determine who will sit on which committee.

Committees have two main tasks: to review bills (proposed laws) and to study matters of importance to Canadians.

When reviewing bills, senators call witnesses to testify before the committee to determine whether the proposed law is appropriate and to see if it can be improved.

Committee members often propose amendments to bills with the aim of strengthening them; these recommendations then get debated in the Senate Chamber.

Committees also choose to study matters that affect Canadians directly and seek to make suggestions that improve their lives.

For example, in 2017, senators brought to light the issue of inadequate housing in Canada’s North, identified gaps in Canada’s military readiness and completed a comprehensive, well-received investigation into criminal court delays and how to reduce them. In 2013, a committee’s report on harassment in the RCMP also helped push the Mounties to transform their culture.

These studies were bolstered by testimony from expert witnesses and by fact-finding missions where senators were able to hear from people in their communities to get firsthand accounts of what needs to be improved.

In the past, the Senate’s reports have been hailed as landmarks. The report on mental illness led to Canada’s first and only national Mental Health Commission. A forward-looking report on Bitcoin also anticipated the role cryptocurrencies could play in the economy of the future.

Committees show the Senate at its best as it fulfils its critical role not just as a chamber of sober second thought — but also as a catalyst for action.

Committees demonstrate how the Senate plays an important role in parliamentary democracy by evaluating the impact of legislation and working together to initiate change.

Click to learn more about Senate committees.