‘I felt silenced’: voices missing from Upper Chamber’s systemic racism debate, say some Senators, highlighting need for hybrid model

Witnessing the Red Chamber debate on systemic racism from afar was tough on Senators who have lived the experiences but couldn’t be in Ottawa, and while some accepted the pandemic made that unavoidable, others say it demonstrates why virtual sittings are so important. 

It was hard for Progressive Senator Lillian Dyck to watch a colleague read her question on June 25 to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.) and his defence of RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s bumbling answers around systemic racism, including what it is and whether it exists in the police force.

If the Saskatchewan Senator had been there she would have pushed back on his assertion that Ms. Lucki’s heart was in the right place, pressing him to explain why her answers fell so far short of understanding the problem. When asked about racism at a June 23 House Public Safety Committee, Ms. Lucki spoke of some tests disadvantaging shorter recruits.

“Clearly she hadn’t taken any actions to prepare herself satisfactorily for the House of Commons committee,” said Sen. Dyck, who has called for Ms. Lucki to resign.

It felt like something was lost from the conversation and officials couldn’t be held to account in the same way, said Sen. Dyck, who will retire in August.

“If you’re not there, you can’t do that… It could have been more of a live discussion,” said Sen. Dyck, adding that many of the 12 Indigenous Senators weren’t able to be in Ottawa, and it was a notable absence in the Chamber over the last two weeks.

“It certainly does limit the input and, in this case, limit the participation of racialized Senators just because of where we live,” she said. “It is frustrating, but I recognize that safety comes first.”

Since Canada brought in COVID-related restrictions, the Senate has sat 11 days, including one day in April, two in May, and seven days between June 16 and 26. It’s expected to return Sept. 22, but Senators don’t yet know if it’ll be the current approach that only permits in-person participation from less than one-third of the members, or a hybrid model that permits virtual participation, as many are pushing for. In April, the Senate also struck the National Finance and Social Affairs committees to study COVID-related measures as well as allowed the Internal Economy Committee to meet virtually to handle Senate business. 

‘I felt silenced’

Stuck in B.C. and still under travel restrictions, Independent Senator Mobina Jaffer said it broke her heart that she couldn’t be present for the emergency debate on racism held on June 18.

For years she’s pushed to change the face of the Senate, led discussions at the Human Rights Committee about representation in the federal service, and pushed to have a diversity committee at the Senate, all efforts adding on to a lifelong commitment to anti-racism work, she said.

“I feel I’ve been involved in this for so long and then when the real debate happened, I wasn’t there,” she said, and while she was grateful colleagues asked her questions, “it’s not the same.”

“I feel I was silenced. If we had virtual meetings then it would have been much better,” she said, calling it an “unsettling” feeling to not know what will happen in the fall.

In CSG Senator Pamela Wallin’s question of privilege, she argued the sittings were breaching Senators’ ability to participate. The Hill Times photograph by Aidan Chamandy

On June 16, Canadian Senators Group (CSG) Senator Pamela Wallin raised a question of privilege, arguing her rights and those of all Senators to fully participate in debate and proceedings were being breached by the “so-called normal sittings,” which she described as “unrepresentative” and setting a dangerous precedent.

“Why are we not adopting the same infrastructure and technology available to the House?” asked the Saskatchewan Senator.

Though there certainly would have been technical issues, Sen. Jaffer said she felt a hybrid model, allowing for virtual participation, could have been possible in June, months into the pandemic, seeing as the House had that option for MPs through the regular COVID-19 Special Committee meetings.

While Independent Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard (East Preston, N.S.) agreed it was difficult not to be in the Chamber for discussions around racism, she said she didn’t feel silenced.

Though some seem to be approaching this discussion as if it’s the first time it’s come forward, Sen. Bernard pointed to her 2018 inquiry in the Upper Chamber on anti-Black racism, and two decades of work by Donald Oliver, who in 1990 became the first Black man appointed to the Senate. 

“There were moments when I felt a lot of anger and frustration,” she said, but COVID-19 meant the situation was outside of their control and so she and others worked behind the scenes to make sure necessary questions were asked.

“No matter what decisions were made, someone was going to be negatively impacted,” she said, noting virtual meetings leave people out, too, and she felt her words were well represented and acknowledged in the record.

She was among five Independent Senators of African descent, including three who are Black—Sen. Bernard, Rosemary Moodie (Ontario) and Marie-Françoise Mégie (Rougemont, Que.)—who led the push for an emergency debate, a committee of the whole sitting to question cabinet ministers on the government’s response combatting racism, and calls for the Senate to form a special committee examining the issue and government action.

That committee means the conversation can continue come fall, but Sen. Bernard said if COVID-19 still prevents Senators from filling the Red Chamber, then “we really need to look at alternative ways of ensuring that all Senators can participate.”

Internet access makes virtual sittings unfair, Senators warn 

It’s an open question among Senators about what to expect from sittings come September, if it will remain an in-person-only approach as the Conservative Party prefers—or if a hybrid model is possible, as many Senators from other groups say is the majority’s wish.

Conservative Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson said he felt comfortable returning for the last two weeks given the measures in place in the Chamber, including the space and frequent sanitization, even though he’s considered high-risk with underlying medical conditions.

Conservative Senator Dennis Patterson, right, says in-person sittings are ‘superior’ to a hybrid or virtual model given unequal internet access in remote areas, like his home territory of Nunavut. Photograph courtesy of the Senate of Canada

Although the capital Iqaluit, where he lives, is better serviced, he said living in a remote region means he can’t rely on internet access to fully participate. 

Having in-person sittings are “quite superior” to the virtual approach, which he said is “fraught with challenges” and still has too many unanswered questions around security.

Independent Senator Rosa Galvez disagreed with that assessment, and said the technology and the security protections are sufficient to make a virtual sitting possible for those who are prevented from travelling or participating in person. Sen. Galvez (Bedford, Que.) has frequently sat in on virtual meetings held by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund, and ParlAmericas, showing that such meetings are possible.

These crises can be tempting for governments to take power because of the situation, which she said is in some ways understandable because the health risks demand swift and agile decision-making, but this moment calls for more democracy, more checks and balances. 

“Everybody should have the right to vote and participate … particularly in this moment of crisis,” she said.

Sen. Patterson said the virtual approach would be discriminatory to Senators like him in remote regions who don’t have reliable internet.   

“We have been working well together to represent Senators who were unable to present and make interventions and we’ve been able to hold regular caucus meeting,” said Sen. Patterson, who said he’s satisfied the needs of the region are met as well as they can be with others asking questions on his behalf when he can’t be there.

“I think we should go with the less-than-perfect model that we’ve already demonstrated can work.”

Independent Senator Margaret Dawn Anderson (Northwest Territories) shared his concern about equal access, noting there’s a clear “digital divide” between the North and South.

For voting and key issues, she said she prefers the in-person model to the hybrid approach, given the unreliability and limited access to quality internet.

The Northwest Territories suffers from a lack of competition and internet infrastructure, as well as data caps that at times made it difficult for her to follow Senate business online. Often, she’d have to use audio only, rather than the video feed, and she encountered power outages on top of disconnections. 

Before the June sitting days, none of the Senators representing the territories had been able to travel, she noted, and so when restrictions were loosened, Sen. Anderson said she and her two counterparts felt it important to come to Ottawa to ensure that representation. 

“There’s a disparity between the Arctic and southern Canada and I think that unless we bring those forward and acknowledge that those disparities exist and bring a voice to Ottawa, sometimes the Arctics is swallowed up with the rest of Canada.”

“To allow equal opportunity ideally these would be held within the senate. I think the reliance for me as a Senator in the NWT, on the internet and on technology … poses issues.”

Regional voices missing

The in-person set-up means various regions of the country, primarily those in the East and West were not reflected in the debates, said CSG Leader Scott Tannas, who returned from Alberta for the last two weeks. 

CSG Leader Scott Tannas says he’s worried without leadership the Chamber will be in the same spot after the summer, without the option to sit virtually, leaving members unable to fulfill their constitutional duties. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

It’s important because the Senate is “the House of regions” and limited sittings mean in “practical terms, Senators can’t fulfill their constitutional duties.” In the early stages, that was understandable, but Canada will be “one of the last, if not the last,” Westminster-style institutions without a hybrid session that allows robust debate, voting, and procedures.

Independent Senator Mary Coyle (Antigonish, N.S.) was the only Nova Scotian Senator present during the pandemic sittings, and she opted to stay in Ottawa since March to ensure that representation since going home would mean quarantine and an unlikely return. 

Aside from the Conservative Senators, she said “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want hybrid sitting to occur.” There’s an “equal level of frustration” that committees weren’t able to meet, and she said the Independent Senators Group tried to address those gaps through informal working groups, on international issues, the future of the energy sector, small business, and adopting a guaranteed basic income. 

A virtual Senate wouldn’t be perfect she said, noting Sen. Anderson’s concerns about internet access, but she said it would be “more ideal” than the current set up.

It would be “outrageous” if Senators arrived back in September with COVID-19 restrictions in place and all Senators still couldn’t participate through a hybrid sitting, said Sen. Tannas.

The fall is a realistic timeline if people are “doing what they need to do now,” but with so many parts and departments involved, someone needs to take the lead, he said.

“Everyone has a role to play, but somebody has to stick their neck out” to commit to “a firm decision and transparent decision on virtual sittings,” as well as a date, he said.

“That hasn’t happened. It’s probably the Speaker in consultation with leaders that need to make that commitment,” he said, noting the leaders are not all on the same page, and the Internal Economy Committee would also have to approve expenses.  “I’m worried that we let this float over the summer and find ourselves in the same spot.”

swallen@hilltimes.com 

The Hill Times