What’s better: American or Canadian Senate?

By dissecting the minor differences between government bodies, we can get a more nuanced understanding of how democracy actually functions.

Christian Patterson
2019-05-21
Underground Mall

Senate of Canada Building

Recently, I learned a lot about how the Canadian federal government works. Yes, it took me long enough, considering I live in a country bordering Canada, but what I do know about Canada’s still more than most Americans can say. Some of the differences between their government and the U.S. government are surprising, and some of the differences aren’t.

In this post, I’ll compare how the Senates are technically different, and how they’re practically different. I’ll contend that, even though on a surface level, the Canadian Senate is less “Democratic” than America’s, they’re both undemocratic, in different ways. Political power works in a similar way, no matter what constitutional restrictions and bureaucratic roadblocks exist. Political power, like Capital, seeks growth, and different Senate structures may provide obstacles, but doesn’t change that desire for growth. The organization of a Parliament or Congress has an impact on politics, but it doesn’t change the nature of politics. Ultimately, I will declare one Senate more democratic, but the point is more to highlight the ways they’re both undemocratic, and how they influence political movement.

The differences between American and Canadian Senate

The most striking difference between the two Senates is that the American one is elected and the Canadian one is appointed. There are other differences too.

In Canada, the Senate is not only appointed, but it’s also a lifetime appointment, with forced retirement at 75. Even though the Senate is a legislative body, the fact they’re appointed causes it to have similarities with the U.S. Supreme Court as well (the Canadian Supreme Court is an appointed position too).

Canadian Senate chamber (temporary in Ottawa Union Station)

The Canadian Senate is like the American Supreme Court, not only because of the appointment, but because they’re supposed to be nonpartisan. This is a side-effect of the fact that they’re appointed—they want to influence society as much as they can without people believing they’re “politically” motivated. Of course, this is never true, and all political organs are political, but the Supreme Court traditionally has tried not to swing too heavily on anything too partisan. Then again, what’s considered too partisan changes constantly, and it’s changing now with the number of hyper-partisan Republicans on the Supreme Court.

Another difference between the U.S. and Canadian Senate is their relation to the House of Representatives / House of Commons. In the U.S., the Senate is seen as, and typically is, more dominant over the House of Representatives. In Canada, it’s the opposite. Sir John A. McDonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, called the Canadian Senate the “sober second thought,” and this seems to be an often referenced quote about the perception of Canadian Senate.

Both common houses pass bills first that then go to the Senate. In the U.S., however, the House defers to the Senate, for several reasons. For one, the head of government is not a member of the House of Representatives, they’re part of the Executive branch. In Canada, since the Prime Minister is a member of the House of Commons, it has more political power and potency than the House of Representatives.

The House of Commons having more power than the Senate, also ties back to the fact that Senators are appointed. Because the Senate is appointed, as established, they try not to overreach drastically politically. Since the U.S. Senate is elected, they’re not burdened by this level of self-policing. They feel emboldened by the election, so they don’t feel the need to pander – “I already pandered my way here, no need to keep doing it!”

Population Distribution of Canada’s Senate

The biggest similarity between the two senates is they’re both heavily disproportionate in representation. But, the disproportion is different between the two.

There are 105 Canadian Senators. The Canadian Senate, like American, is meant to protect broader regional interests, as opposed to lower house, which represents more specified areas. To divide up these 105 senators, they took the main four regions of Canada: Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime Provinces, and the Western Provinces. All four of these regions are given 24 Senators. Newfoundland and Labrador get six senators, and the three territories receive one Senator.

Thrones in the Canadian senate chamber

But since senator distribution is divided by region, each Province receives a portion of that portion. Ontario and Quebec each receive 24 Senators. The Western provinces get 24 total senators, totaling six senators per province. The Maritimes receive 24 senators, split between three provinces: ten to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, while four go to Prince Edward Island.

Obviously, this creates a lot of disproportions. For example, British Columbia has about 5 million people, with six senators. Meanwhile, New Brunswick has a population of about 750,000, with ten senators. We can also compare BC, with about 5 million people, to Newfoundland and Labrador, with about 500,000. Both provinces have six senators.

British Columbia is the most blatant example, since it’s the third most populous province, and yet it has the same amount of senators as the second-least populated province. And yet, you could do similar comparisons among all the province and territories. Alberta has close to as many people as BC (~4.3 million in Alberta) and has the same amount, and consequently same disproportion, of senators.

In fact, every western province in Canada, even Saskatchewan, have higher populations than every east coast province.

Below, I made a graph of roughly how many senators are appointed per person, per province (it’s all based on rounding, but close enough).

Province / Territory

British Columbia

Alberta

Ontario

Quebec

Manitoba

Saskatchewan

Nove Scotia

Newfoundland

New Brunswick

NW Territories

Nunavut

Yukon

Prince Edward Island

People represented per senator

about 800,000

about 714,000

about 590,000

about 350,000

about 223,000

about 194,000

about 95,000

about 88,000

about 76,000

about 45,000

about 38,000

about 38,000

about 38,000

A couple things to point out: At first I was surprised by how disproportionately few senators Ontario has, but it makes sense, considering the province has nearly 40% of the country’s population. Another thing to note is that the disproportion follows a logical pattern. The two most populous western provinces are worst. The central two provinces next. Then, the two least populous western provinces. Then, the Atlantic states (minus PEI). And finally, the Territories (plus PEI).

I think it’s fair for the Territories get a senator, and Prince Edward Island, with four senators, is an outlier. So, for comparison, the biggest disparity in senator amount is British Columbia, with 800,000 per person, and Prince Edward Island with 38,000, meaning Prince Edward Island has 23.5 times the number of senators per person as British Columbia.

United States Capitol

Population distribution of U.S.’s Senate

The U.S. Senate is more straightforward: 100 senators total, two senators per state. I will break that down by population, for thirteen random states (compared to thirteen Canadian provinces and territories). More than thirteen is superfluous anyway.

State

California

Texas

Florida

New York

Pennsylvania

Washington

Colorado

Oregon

Nevada

Rhode Island

Alaska

Vermont

Wyoming

People represented per senator

about 20 million

about 14 million

about 10.5 million

about 9.75 million

about 6.5 million

about 3.75 million

about 2.8 million

about 2.1 million

about 1.5 million

about 500,000

about 368,000

about 313,000

about 288,000

Here, we see a much more stark contrast. Prince Edward Island has 23.5 times the number of Senators per person as British Columbia. Compared to the US, Wyoming has 69.5 times the number of Senators per person as California.

There are a couple immediate things that stand out from this. First, at least the Canadian Senate tried to distribute Senators based on population, There’s been significant population shifts, especially Westward, in Canada, that makes the distribution wrong. But, the original conception of the Senate allowed for seats to be designated by regional population.

This is almost a non-issue though, because the Canadian Senate wields a level of political power that doesn’t make them a target for Canadians who want political structure reform. I’m not Canadian, so I’m not as keyed in to their internal politics, but, it seems like if there’s any movement for reforming political processes in Canada, it’s to get rid of first-past-the-vote, which has a more pressing political impact.

In the U.S., the Senate was not designed to take proportional population into consideration. In fact, it was designed not take population into consideration at all. So while, that may have been a nice concession to certain interests in early U.S., it’s now so disproportionately unwieldy that no one in their right mind would design it that way, and it also has no mechanisms to change, with no precedent for redistributing senators.

Centre Block Canadian Parliament Building Parliament Hill

Conclusion: So What’s More Democratic?

Overall, I would consider the entire British-style Parliamentarian system more democratic than the American Congress system. There are a few reasons for that: on a basic level, the Canadian Parliament is much more proportionate to the citizen population than the U.S. Senate. Even though the House of Representatives is the equivalent to the Parliament, the U.S. Senate has comparable power and sway to the Parliament, more so than the House.

Not only that, but the Parliamentary system enables, or at least is more accommodating to, multiple parties. In terms of political systems, the two-party system is probably the most detrimental element to American democracy. Of course, the two-party system is a symptom of our hyper-capitalist American political economy, and so the two-party system is more a symptom of a bigger problem. And, even though first-past-the-post voting (which some Canadians are fighting against) is the biggest barrier to multi-party systems, a parliamentary system with first-past-the-post allows some multi-party representation, in itself.

So, as a whole, the Canadian system really seems more democratic to me. And that’s especially true with the Senate, even though they’re appointed positions, rather than elected ones. The U.S. Senate is much more highly disproportionately representative, and has more control over legislation than, not only the Canadian Senate, but also the House of Representatives.

This goes to show that political power, and what’s considered democratic, are more impacted by how those positions allow the flow, transference, and ability to disseminate power, and who those positions give power to, matter more than strictly how many people have a direct vote on something.

The Canadian Senate might not be more “democratic” in the most basic sense of democracy. They’re appointed, not elected. And yet, the Canadian Senate has a lot of implicit and explicit limitations to it. They don’t want to overstep their power, because they know they aren’t elected. Like mentioned earlier, they’re the “sober second thought”. The Canadian Senate hasn’t vetoed a bill since 1939, and only sometimes offers amendments to Parliament.

And then, the fact that the U.S. senate is much less accurately representational than the Canadian Senate, which is already disproportionate as hell, exhausts and exemplifies these democratic issues.

An abandoned underground mall in Ottawa
An abandoned underground mall in Ottawa

So while the existence of appointed political offices can, and often does, undermine democratic processes, it’s more important about how a political position exists in relations to other positions, and the public.

For example, is it more democratic to have direct democratic control over electing two aspiring dictators? Or is it more democratic to directly elect many representatives, who then appoint a one-year leader, with many checks on their power? Would you rather elect a highly nonrepresentational Senate, that overrides and overpowers the more representational legislative organ? Or would you have an elected leader appoint a highly nonrepresentational Senate, that has little impact? Although it may be close, but option two seems more practically democratic.

Democracy, and what we consider to be democratic, is fluid and flexible. Sometimes systems and organizations appear less, or more, democratic than they actually are, and they require more interrogation than what they offer on face value.

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