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‘I fell in love with working in the Senate’: Senator Eaton looks back on 10 years in the Red Chamber
January 21, 2020

For the past decade, Senator and Speaker pro tempore Nicole Eaton has represented Ontario in the Senate and served on a number of Senate committees, including national finance, and foreign affairs and international trade. She has also made significant contributions to her community through her involvement on various boards and with charitable organizations.

Ahead of her retirement in January 2020, SenCAplus asked her to reflect on her time in the Senate.

You were appointed to the Senate just over 11 years ago. How did you feel in 2009 when you got that phone call from the prime minister?

It was a couple of days before Christmas and I didn’t expect it. It’s something I never really wanted — I didn’t understand what the Senate did. I was on the Conservative Fund in those days. But when Prime Minister Stephen Harper phoned, I couldn’t say no to him. So, I said, “Oh, with pleasure.”

It was very moving when I was sworn in. My mother was still alive in those days. I just remember being unprepared because it’s not something I ever aspired to do.

I led a very nice existence in Toronto, where I was on several boards and I could come and go as I pleased. And then, all of a sudden, it was like, at nine o’clock you’re doing this, at 10:30 you’re speaking to that person, and so on. But after six weeks, when I began committee work, I realized how fascinating it was and then I fell in love with Senate work.

In recent years, you’ve served as Speaker pro tempore (in essence, the deputy Speaker) in the Red Chamber. What was it like to be in that important role?

It’s interesting because I didn’t get it because of my great mind or sparkling personality. I got it as an accident at first.

Senator Carignan, who was leader of the government in the Senate at the time, came up to me one day at lunch and asked if I wanted to be Speaker pro tempore. He said in French, “Tu es une femme, tu es bilingue et tu représentes l’Ontario et non le Québec (You’re a woman, you’re bilingual and you represent Ontario and not Quebec).” I said I wasn’t interested at first.

Two weeks later, he came to me and said, “I would really like you to be Speaker pro tempore.” And I said OK. But then I quickly realized how comfortable the chair was. It fit me perfectly. When I sat at my desk I was used to being highly partisan, but once I was in the Speaker’s chair, I looked at it as refereeing a game. I didn’t feel I was partisan at all. I enjoyed the experience.

In 2018, you were on a fact-finding mission in the North with the Special Senate Committee on the Arctic. How did that help shape your perspective of the Canadian Arctic?

I think it’s such a region of possibility. Imagine if they had fibre optic cables? Imagine if we encouraged their own self-government? It should be a dynamic part of the country, not a part of the country that we’ve kind of forgotten. I hope the Special Senate Committee on the Arctic’s report, Northern Lights: A Wake-Up Call, can help with that. I hope they push that report on the new minister of Northern Affairs. The Senate should really take the Arctic under its wing because I think it could be a strong voice.

In your role as a senator you advocated for improvements in military procurement, particularly with regard to Canadian fighter jets. Why was that issue so important to you?

I think a lot of it came out of the Arctic committee and my time in the Arctic. Also, Senator Elizabeth Marshall and I went to a maritime security conference and the navies from Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, India and Japan were there. We saw what they were doing to protect themselves against the Chinese and to keep the South China Sea open to navigation. We need to be more conscious of the threats to our sovereignty in the Arctic.

Senator Nicole Eaton sits in the Speaker’s chair in the Red Chamber. She served as Speaker pro tempore from 2015 until her retirement in January 2020.

Senator Eaton, centre, visits a greenhouse in Kuujjuaq, Que. with senators Joseph A. Day and Mary Coyle on September 7, 2018, during a fact-finding mission to Northern Canada with the Special Senate Committee on the Arctic.

The Chinese are building nuclear submarines to go under the ice; the Russians are building up their polar fleets. It really brought home to me how little we were doing. In the most coastal nation in the world, we heard witnesses at the Arctic committee saying we have no worries about the Northwest Passage. Really? And yet another witness from the University of Calgary said, “Yes, we have huge worries.”

I once sailed from St. John’s, N.L. to Halifax on a destroyer. One night, I had dinner with the captain who was once a submarine captain. He was telling me that after the war, Canada was considered to have one of the major submarine navies in the world. We were considered the great experts. And, in fact, this captain had gone to Australia to help them set up their submarine school.

So, we were once very respected in that field, yet now we’ve got two submarines that we bought second-hand from England. We had nothing that could go underneath the Arctic ice. Why does it take 16 years to replace our ships? I love this country a lot and I have great respect for our military, but I feel that we are really lackadaisical.

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

When I left the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, we were doing a study of child suicide. I was also on a committee that studied military procurement and on one on the Arctic, as I mentioned. When we do those studies, we become a non-partisan voice for the overlooked or the overseen in Canada, or the forgotten. That’s why Canadians should care about the Senate; they would be more informed.

I will continue chairing the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and I’ll continue my work on the board of St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation. I’ll also continue chairing development at the George R. Gardiner Museum.

I like staying busy. In fact, I think it’s a shame they force you to retire at 75!

Senator Eaton, third from left, observes a war painting that had been hanging in the Senate’s permanent home in Parliament’s Centre Block building. Senator Eaton was a member of the Senate’s Artwork Advisory Working Group, which oversaw the move of dozens of historic war paintings from Parliament Hill while Centre Block is undergoing a major rehabilitation.