'Senator-in-waiting' who topped Alberta vote applying for job through federal process

·7 min read
Pam Davidson won the most votes in Alberta's 2021 Senate nomination election. She said she will apply for the job through the government's existing selection process — and warned there will be
Pam Davidson won the most votes in Alberta's 2021 Senate nomination election. She said she will apply for the job through the government's existing selection process — and warned there will be

The top vote-getter in Alberta's so-called "Senate election" says she's prepared to wait years, if necessary, to get named to Canada's upper chamber.

For now, Pam Davidson is applying for the job just like any other would-be senator.

"I have high hopes that (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) will listen to what Albertans have chosen for their senator-in-waiting," she said.

Elections Alberta released this week the official results of this month's non-binding vote, in which Albertans were asked to select three "nominees" who "may be summoned" to the Red Chamber — even though that decision falls to the prime minister alone.

The vote took place in conjunction with municipal elections and a controversial referendum on equalization.

Three candidates who ran under a Conservative banner — Davidson, Erika Barootes and Mykhailo Martyniouk — finished at the top. More than 200,000 voters opted not to vote for a Senate candidate by leaving their ballots blank.

Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative government passed legislation two years ago to revive the province's lapsed tradition of trying to "elect" Alberta senators. According to the rules of Alberta's Senate elections, a Senate nominee's "term" starts when they are elected and ends when a new election is called. The last such vote was held in 2012.

But Trudeau is under no obligation to pick any of the three winners for the chamber of "sober second thought." Senators are appointed by the Governor General on the prime minister's recommendation. The Prime Minister's Office did not provide comment on the issue for CBC News.

Since 2016, the Liberal government has filled Senate vacancies after receiving recommendations from an independent advisory board. The board, which assesses candidates who apply for the positions, is composed of three permanent federal members and two from each province or territory with Senate vacancies.

According to the Constitution, a senator must be at least 30, a Canadian citizen residing in the province for which they are appointed, and own $4,000 worth of property.

'I travelled from one end of the province to the other'

Davidson, who runs a family farm in Red Deer County, said she is applying under the federal system.

She told CBC News there's a "good opportunity" for Trudeau to name her because she was "democratically elected by the people of Alberta."

Davidson said she's visited 57 different communities in the province since June and met with mayors and town councils who inspired her to advocate for more access to high-speed internet.

"I travelled from one end of the province to the other," she said.

She thinks it all amounts to a "great way to pick a senator" because it gives people a voice.

"When you're in the position of a senator, you have the obligation and the need to represent Alberta in a different way than the MPs can," she said. "We are the last sober look at the bills coming through. Is it really what's best for Alberta? Will it help Alberta to grow?"

There will be "disappointment" if she doesn't make it into the Senate, Davidson said. "I think that the people of Alberta have spoken and they have who they want," she said.

Kenney says winners should be 'automatically appointed'

Kenney said Tuesday that there is a "convention" of prime ministers respecting Alberta's Senate nominee elections, though no Liberal PM has ever appointed an Albertan to the Senate who first won such a vote.

Since 1989, five Alberta senators have been appointed after non-binding elections — one by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, four by Stephen Harper.

"This shouldn't be difficult. It shouldn't be controversial to simply respect democracy," Kenney said.

He recommended the top two vote-getters apply through the current advisory council to fill two vacancies — one of which just opened up with the retirement of Sen. Doug Black. But Kenney said it should simply be a "technical process" and they ought to be "automatically appointed."

In July, the Alberta premier publicly fumed after Trudeau named then-Banff mayor Karen Sorensen to the Senate. He accused the prime minister of showing "contempt for democracy" by making the appointment ahead of "our province's Senate elections."

Watch: Kenney claims equalization victory as Notley cites flawed process

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said in a video last spring that a government led by him would appoint senators "elected directly by Canadians" and encourage more provinces to adopt the Alberta model.

O'Toole's office noted this week that the Conservative platform from the recent campaign stated that "if a province chooses to hold Senate elections, Canada's Conservatives will appoint Senators chosen through this process."

Black and Sen. Scott Tannas were both appointed by Harper in 2013 after elections the year before.

Black has long branded himself as an "elected senator" and told CBC News he hopes his replacement will be the winner of the province's recent vote, adding it would be a "snub to Albertans" if the prime minister decides otherwise.

"If the prime minister appoints those people in whom the public has expressed trust, a bond is created between the elected individual and those who elect them," Black said. "And a sense of legitimacy is bestowed on that individual."

Ellis Choe/CBC
Ellis Choe/CBC

Tannas said he isn't convinced there will be outrage if Trudeau does not appoint someone Albertans have voted as their next senator.

"Albertans have put people's names forward that have been ignored before. It just means it happened again, that's all," Tannas said.

Tannas said the Liberals' Senate appointment process has yielded a "tremendous" group of senators, but he also thinks the "elected senators" from Alberta have made valuable contributions.

"It sure shouldn't be discounted by any prime minister as a flawed system for appointing individual senators in the context of the Senate today," he said.

2014 Supreme Court reference raises questions

Complicating matters is a 2014 Supreme Court reference that raised questions about whether such elections are constitutionally above-board.

Seeking Senate reform, the Harper government asked the top court if Parliament could "unilaterally implement" a framework of "consultative elections" for appointments.

The Supreme Court shot down the idea of federal legislation on the issue, saying that it would "change our Constitution's architecture by endowing senators with a popular mandate which is inconsistent with the Senate's role as a complementary legislative chamber of sober second thought."

In a June letter to the prime minister, Kenney wrote that the reference "does not preclude the federal government from appointing a senator who has been through a provincial nomination process." The Alberta premier said his province's nominee elections could work "in conjunction" with the federal process.

Duane Bratt, a political scientist with Mount Royal University, agrees the "advisory" nature of the elections probably "gets around" the Supreme Court reference, adding the top court was "fairly silent" on the provinces.

Still, the dream of Senate reform "pretty much died" with that 2014 reference, he said, because it concluded most changes to the institution require constitutional amendments backed by almost all provinces.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

"But there's still a belief that somehow if Alberta has elections, then maybe B.C. will have elections, and then maybe Ontario will have elections and all of a sudden you have an elected Senate," he said.

Bratt said he understands why some think some kind of mandate from voters increases a senator's legitimacy. "You know what does even more? Re-election. But that doesn't apply here," he said, noting that senators can serve until the age of 75.

Bratt said Kenney has set a "pretty good trap" for Trudeau by demanding that he appoint the top two vote-getters.

"If he does, then Kenney wins. If he doesn't, then Kenney blasts him for ignoring the will of Albertans, and Kenney also wins," he said.

"It's a bit of a sham election but it will generate anger amongst his base."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting