Introduction : Les silences du Renvoi Relatif à la Réforme du Sénat

One significant set of issues that is left in the penumbra of this Reference is identified explicitly by the Court itself. Early in its opinion, the Court notes that its task is not to address the substance of any proposed reform to the Senate, but to “determine the legal framework for implementing” whatever Canadians and their legislatures decide to do. In this sense, although this opinion is indexed as Reference Re Senate Reform, it could have been identified as a Reference Re Constitutional Amendment Rules. This reluctance to address the substance and desirability of the reforms is unsurprising: there was no proposed legislation before the Court, as all of the bills invoked by the Attorney General of Canada to “illustrate” the content of proposed changes considered by Parliament had died on the Order Paper. More fundamentally perhaps, it is quite characteristic of the Court’s constitutional discourse that it will cast itself in the less politically intrusive role of the umpire who merely sets the rules of the game, allowing the participants to decide their own fate. The last major constitutional reference was addressed in the same manner.

Stepping into the void, several papers in this collection provide a rich picture of the political context in which the opinion of the Court was sought. Adam Dodek, in particular, tells the story of the strategies, steps and missteps that brought the federal government and the provinces to turn their political debate on the Senate into a set of legal issues to be resolved by the Supreme Court. Others consider the substantive issues that the Court placed beyond its gaze. Yasmin Dawood acknowledges that the Court’s opinion rests on a deep, process-driven commitment to democracy as the governing principle of constitutional change, but concludes that the Court’s approach nonetheless locks into place a dysfunctional, anti-democratic Senate. Noura Karazivan, for her part, examines the Court’s formal idea of constitutional structure or architecture, and points to the distance between reality and the idealized Senate that is represented in the decision. Most of this was predictable as necessary outcomes of the Court’s self-imposed restraint in respect of its role in shaping viable constitutional solutions for Canada. Freed from these constraints, Allan Hutchinson and Joel I. Colón-Ríos propose a new role for Senate, in which “sober second-thought” focuses on constitutional validity, and senators join Supreme Court judges—and eventually displace them?—as arbiters of Canada’s fundamental values.

This content has been updated on February 22, 2017 at 14:01.