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‘We fought tooth and nail’: Senator Joyal revisits the trials and triumphs of his storied Senate career
January 31, 2020

Senator Serge Joyal was appointed to the Senate in 1997 to represent the Kennebec division of Quebec after serving as an MP and cabinet minister. An expert in Canadian constitutional law, Senator Joyal has been a member of the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs since he became a senator and has personally intervened multiple times before Canada’s highest courts on cases related to human rights and parliamentary institutions.

He is also the author of several books, including Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew, and has personally donated numerous works by Indigenous artists as well as Royal portraits to the Senate’s extensive art collection.

Ahead of his retirement on February 1, 2020, SenCAplus asked the senator to reflect on his two decades in the Senate.

You were appointed to the Senate in 1997 on the advice of then-prime minister Jean Chrétien. How did you feel when you learned you were going to the Senate?

It was, for me, a professional and personal challenge to strive for what I truly believed could be a direction that Canada could take, one that would benefit all Canadians. I was appointed after the referendum in Quebec that took place in 1995, where I was directly involved in representing the Liberal Party of Canada on the “No” committee. I outlined to the prime minister that the Senate would allow me to continue contributing to the public debate in Canada in relation to national unity and the fostering of nation building through the implementation of the principles and values of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At that time it was almost inevitable that we would have another referendum; I wanted to take part in that challenge because I believe strongly in Canadian unity and the values Canada stands for. And I had an opportunity to discuss with Prime Minister Chrétien about the various capacities in which I might serve.

Senator Serge Joyal donated several portraits of French monarchs of the colonial period that hang on the walls in the Senate.

You’re known as an avid art collector. You’ve donated portraits of French and English kings and an extensive collection of Indigenous art that hang in the Senate. What are some of your favourite pieces and what is their significance to you?

When I entered the Chamber in 1997, there were a number of paintings of British monarchs hanging in the Senate foyer, and at that time there were discussions to remove them on the basis that some senators might perceive them as remnants of the colonial era. But, in my opinion, Canada is a constitutional monarchy that has evolved substantially in the last 50 to 60 years since the advent of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Instead of removing the paintings, I asked: why don’t we hang all the portraits up so that we see where Canada came from?

The answer was, there was no money for that. So I committed to personally find them and pay for their acquisition, to complete the entire line of succession, from King François Ier in 1534 to the present.

There was also an Aboriginal Peoples Room on the ground floor of Centre Block with a plaque on the door. But when you pushed the door open there was nothing inside, nothing on the walls. In order to fill that void, and the fact that we had never really substantially addressed Indigenous identity within our institutions over the last 150 years, I said let’s put a representation of Indigenous identity on the walls. But the answer was the same: we have no money. So I offered to donate the art to the Senate to fill the void and show the way ahead in terms of how Indigenous people can take their place in the Canadian fabric. That was the motivation behind that.

It’s difficult to say which one is my favourite. I would say one of them is the portrait of George IV by Sir Thomas Lawrence because a similar portrait hangs in the private living room of the Queen at Windsor.

The other one is the painting of Louis Riel, the Metis Leader who was elected in 1873 to sit in the House of Commons as an MP but could not take his seat because there was a warrant out for his arrest. I commissioned his portrait by Cree artist from Alberta Jane Ash Poitras. I believe it is fitting that Riel finally has his place in Parliament.

Before your retirement, you introduced two bills: Bill S-202, which would ban the advertisement of conversion therapy services (treatments designed to change a person’s sexual orientation or to reduce sexual attraction to people of the same sex), and Bill S-203, which would protect the heritage character of the parliamentary precinct. What motivated you to introduce these bills at the end of your Senate career?

I had previously introduced, in the spring of 2019, the first version of the conversion therapy bill (S-260) and it went to Second Reading, but Parliament was dissolved in the summer and the bill died on the Order Paper. Fortunately, the Liberal Party introduced in its platform a commitment to prohibit conversion therapy in the Criminal Code. But when I heard the 2019 throne speech in the Chamber when we reconvened, the banning of conversion therapy wasn’t mentioned. So I felt that I should introduce the bill again to signal that this is a very important issue, because it deals with human rights and equality for all. I thought that the current government should be brought to live up to its commitment.

On S-203 and the protection of the parliamentary precinct, I had been involved last spring in the public debate against the expansion of the Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa, in the way it was proposed. I reflected during the summer on how we were finding ourselves in a situation that would never happen in Washington, D.C. with Capitol Hill, or in France with the National Assembly, or in London with the Westminster buildings. Why don’t we have the legislative tools to prevent that? I felt that the only way was to amend the National Capital Act to give the National Capital Commission the power to regulate construction and to establish a protective area around Parliament Hill and around national, historic monuments.

I’m not against the expansion. But there is almost unanimity that this one is ill-conceived. There was no sensitivity to the historical and aesthetic character of the surrounding area in which the expansion would take place. In fact, I have often intervened in the past on issues of protecting our architectural heritage. In the summer of 2018, I intervened with Phyllis Lambert to prevent the demolition of the neighbouring area in front of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, the gem by indigenous architect Cardinal Douglas, where massive condo towers would have been erected.

Senator Serge Joyal poses next to the calendar which he took the initiative to commission marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The calendar placed on the Clerk’s Table was inaugurated in 2013. It was funded by private donations from past and current senators, table officers and senior staff of the Senate. Constructed of bronze and brass, it has gilded royal and Canadian decorative symbols.


You were a long-time chair of the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs and you’ve introduced countless bills and proposed amendments to many others. Of all your accomplishments as a legislator, is there something of which you’re particularly proud?

I would say my amendment on Bill C-14, the medical assistance in dying bill. I sought to amend it by removing the criterion that a person’s death must naturally be reasonably foreseeable for that person to be eligible for medical assistance in dying. I argued that this was contrary to the Carter decision by the Supreme Court and to section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I convinced the Senate that that criterion should be removed from the bill, but the government rejected the amendment in the House of Commons. Then, last summer, the Superior Court of Quebec declared that same criterion unconstitutional! We lost almost four years and we’ve abandoned the most vulnerable people in our society, some having incurable diseases, with no capacity to relieve their pain.

When the will of the House of Commons is to let people die in an undignified condition, I think the Senate has a constitutional duty to oppose the dictatorial will of the majority in the Commons.

It was a comparable situation with the Extradition Act, Bill C-40, in 1999. There was a section of the bill that allowed the minister of Justice to let people be extradited to a country where the death penalty could be imposed. The minister would decide that on his or her own capacity, with no mechanism to protect the rights of the person being extradited. Strangely enough, nobody in the House of Commons saw that gap and felt that this section of the bill indirectly reinstated the death penalty in Canada, and put that power back in the hands of one person. We, especially myself and former Senator J. Grafstein, fought against that tooth and nail in the Senate.

We lost — the government used all of its might in the Senate to refuse the amendments that we had introduced. But a year later, the Supreme Court of Canada vindicated our position. In its decision (United States v. Burns [2001]), the court referred to the debate that took place in Parliament. To have played a role in ensuring that the legislation in Canada reflects the values of section 7 of the Canadian Charter, i.e. to prevent the reinstatement of the death penalty, is, in my opinion, one of the most important contributions that I made in the Chamber as a legislator.

In one of your final speeches, you said the Senate can be “a powerful forum to embody the motto of the Order of Canada, ‘They desire a better country.’” Can you elaborate? Why should more Canadians care about what goes on in the Senate?

Senators can introduce private members’ bills like I did on three occasions (2009-2014-2016) on the recognition and promotion of Indigenous languages, which the government finally moved, and Parliament adopted last spring.

The Senate is well positioned to reflect on the challenges that confront Canadian society; we can do it very openly, and without the pressure of electoral interests. The Senate has done so in the past, with great impact, like we did within our report Delaying Justice is Denying Justice. It provides a way for Parliament to reflect on the challenges that lie ahead for Canada, to debate the difficult issues and to study their implications. We should be able to capitalize on the intellectual resources of the Senate and the awareness and wisdom of those within the Chamber to be able to reflect on where we are going as a country.

You described your retirement as “the end of an exceptional trip but not the end of my commitment to this country” — what’s next for you?

I am presently involved with advocating that UNESCO recognize six sites in France and in Belgium, where the Canadian army served in the First World War, as World Heritage Sites. This is important for the future of Canada because our ancestors fought for freedom in those countries; I think Canadians need to value such sacrifice, and I believe it has to be recognized on the world stage.

I’m also working on the biography of the first prime minister of United Canada, Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, because for 30 years I’ve been fighting in Montréal with others for the restoration of his residence. We have succeeded in having the exterior restored and are now considering interior restorations and future use. I am looking forward to working on his biography because he really is a forgotten prime minister, the first one to understand how important the partnership of French- and English-speaking Canadians is for the survival of the nation, even though his monument with Robert Baldwin stands on the Senate side of the Hill. The equality of both languages is one of the founding principles of our country and I have always fought for it without any reservations.

I will be the same person the day after I retire from the Senate. My convictions and values won’t change or disappear and my commitment to the future of Canada will be as vivid as it is now.

Senator Joyal is pictured in the Senate Chamber in Centre Block one last time on November 29, 2018, before Centre Block closed for a major rehabilitation project that will last at least a decade.