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An eye for detail: Upon his retirement, Senator Day talks budgets, borrowing and fixing bills
January 24, 2020

In his more than 18 years in the Senate, Senator Joseph A. Day has advanced the interests of veterans and promoted international trade and human rights. Known for his keen eye to detail, Senator Day was hailed by his Senate colleagues for poring over lengthy government bills — and fixing errors along the way.

When he wasn’t in the Red Chamber he served in various diplomatic roles, including as international vice-president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and as co-chair of the Canada-China Legislative Association. In his last three years in the Upper Chamber, he was the Senate Liberal leader; he also chaired the Senate Committee on National Finance for almost a decade.

Upon his retirement in January 2020, SenCAplus asked the senator to reflect on his Senate career.

You were appointed to the Senate more than 18 years ago. What was the moment like for you when you got the phone call from the prime minister in 2001?

I had dared to hope that I might be considered for recommendation to the Senate by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien but you never know on these matters. I was working in my office in Hampton, N.B. when I received a call and the lady said, “Can you take a call from the prime minister?”

You almost don’t believe it; you think it’s somebody playing a joke on you. I took the call and I began to recognize Mr. Chrétien’s very distinctive voice. He said, ”Hello, Joe!” He went on to ask me if I would consider serving in the Senate. I told him that I was extremely honoured. Then I realized that I was going on talking to him without saying yes and I said, ”Yes, I accept.”

The first person I told was my wife. It was just huge excitement, anticipation and extreme pride that I would be considered for recommendation to the governor general to appoint me to the Senate.

You’ve got an eye for detail. Can you tell us what happened when you found a mistake in a government money bill?

That was an amazing moment. We must not rush through the borrowing of billions of dollars. The tendency had been — and as chair of the Senate Committee on National Finance for many years I discouraged this — to move these bills through very quickly without proper debate and without proper consideration. So, this supply bill came forward and I looked at the bill and I said, well, number one, I think all of these bills are deserving of our scrutiny and we should be looking at them, but, secondly, this bill does not have any attachments to it.

I looked to the table officers and then I mentioned this to the Speaker. I said I can’t agree to unanimous consent and go ahead with this because this bill is not in proper form. There was no indication as to where the money would be going. Then, all of a sudden, people realized I was right.

The table officers who look after these matters for us checked and said this is the way we received it from the House of Commons. Then, the Speaker suspended our sitting to try to sort this out and we found out the House of Commons had passed this bill without any attachment as to where the money was going. Senate Chamber people looked and said, “Oh my God, he’s right. What have we done?” In all my 18 years in the Senate I had never seen anything like that.

You’ve reintroduced a bill to amend the Borrowing Authority Act to limit the circumstances under which the government can borrow money. Can you explain what that means and why it was so important to you to introduce this legislation?

 I introduced it three times. Why it was important was because of the way we, as senators, were treated in relation to this specific subject matter of the government borrowing money without proper scrutiny.

In 2007, centuries of tradition and practice were overturned. Slipped into the middle of a long omnibus budget bill was a small, one-sentence clause that gave away Parliament’s authority over borrowing by the government. The clause sounded so innocent that no one noticed it at first. I have always prided myself in going through those long documents and catching whatever items stood out and explaining that to the Senate. My colleague sitting beside me, Senator Tommy Banks, said, “Well, what does this mean?”


Senator Day awards a Senate 150th Anniversary Medal to Guy Chapdelaine, Chaplain General of the Canadian Armed Forces, on April 9, 2019.

We went over to Senator Lowell Murray, and the colour in his face just went pale. He hadn’t seen it either, but he said, “My gosh, that shouldn’t have gone through.” We all felt there should have been some debate on this and there wasn’t.

The current Borrowing Authority Act still gives cabinet and the minister full authority to borrow money in any amount and in any way they consider appropriate and, most notably, without any need to go for Parliament’s approval.

I have spent a lot of my time in the Senate on finance matters and I think it’s critically important for parliamentarians to know about deficits and debt. I’m not against borrowing, but what I am against is not being fully open and transparent about the reasons for the borrowing. I think the public is deserving of that. I hope someone will pick up my notes and carry this bill forward.

You were the rapporteur for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Security and Defence Committee. What is a key contribution made by the assembly?

In that role I presented and engaged in debate on reports. We’ve done several reports during the five years that I was in that position, dealing with Afghanistan and our role there, and, more recently, missile defence. We made a trip to South Korea to talk about missile defence because of what was going on in North Korea. That’s the kind of work we were doing with NATO. I was also chair of the committee and later international vice-president of the Assembly and led delegations to several countries over the years.

I played a huge role in a lot of different areas in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and I very much enjoyed doing that. Canada has made Canadians proud by entering into these missions. In Latvia, we now have a NATO presence. It’s very important that we, as one of the 29-member countries, play a role in helping to maintain peace and security in the world.

Piracy was one area that I was involved with at one time, making sure that Canada made a contribution there from the point of view of protecting trade and commerce on the high seas.

Senator Day is joined by Senator Cordy at the 64th Annual Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Halifax on November 20, 2018.

It’s so important for Canada to expand our trading partners and trading relations with countries other than the traditional ones. We slowly moved away from England and the empire during the past 50 years and became more heavily dependent on the United States. We’ve got to expand our trading relationships with other countries of the world. You don’t do that overnight. It takes a long time in Asia to build relationships, you don’t just go in one week and say, OK we’re now friends and let’s get on with things. I have, over many years, developed respect for my counterparts in Asia and I do hope and expect that my colleagues will pick up where I have left off to carry on and help expand Canada’s role in the world.

Why should more Canadians care about what goes on in the Senate?

When I arrived in the Senate, I didn’t realize how important our role was. It’s a balancing role with the House of Commons. The very nature of the House of Commons is a four-year mandate; members have to get re-elected so they’re looking for how they can maintain support in their area. And I fully understand that. That’s the system. But what we need is a balance, a longer-term perspective as well. You need both. We need a body that looks at legislation over the longer term and we achieve that by the appointment process with senators who tend to stay longer than four years.

You’re also leaving your role as member of the Canada-China Legislative Association. What is the value of this association, in your view?

I had an interest in Asia and China, and I had visited China and Hong Kong before coming to the Senate. My work in intellectual property law tends to be international in scope and that was a growing area of concern in Vietnam, India and China when I came to the Senate. I decided that I would concentrate on Canada-China matters. I became co-chair of the Canada-China Legislative Association.

By having the longer perspective, senators can look at minority rights, they can look at making sure the House doesn’t overreact on the short term and that minorities aren’t oppressed by the majority point of view. And that’s what the House of Commons is — a majority point of view on legislation and regulations.

The Senate’s role must not be underestimated. It is also critically important to provide regional representation, support for minorities, and support for Indigenous affairs. If we didn’t have a Senate, a lot of the progress that we’ve made on Indigenous affairs and Northern affairs would not have been achieved.

I still have energy and an interest in public service where I might be able to influence matters that I think are important to Canadians. I decided not to continue practising engineering and law matters once I went to the Senate and now I will finish my time in the Senate doing as good a job as I can on Senate matters as I wind things down over the next while.

I’m not actively pursuing anything at this stage. My wife and I will continue to maintain our primary residence in Hampton, N.B., the birthplace and the burial place of John Peters Humphrey, who wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We’re pretty proud of our little community there. It’s where I grew up and we have a cottage not far from there. In the summer I love


Senator Day meets with the Usher of the Black Rod, J. Greg Peters, in the Usher’s office in the Senate of Canada Building on December 13, 2019.