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Helping Make the Senate Work for Canadians

While working for Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the 1960s and 1970s, Colin Kenny came to admire senators who used their appointments to play important roles in bettering the lives of Canadians. He accepted his appointment to the Senate because he believed he could play a positive role in effecting change.

The three primary areas in which Senator Kenny has been able to make a difference have been:

(a) the environment

(b) tobacco cessation

(c) national security and defence

The Environment

In 1995, Kenny became the only member of the Senate in that session to have authored and sponsored a substantive Private Senator`s Public bill that was passed by Parliament and became law. When the Alternative Fuels Act received Royal Assent on June 22, 1995 it became one of only 24 substantive private senator's public bills to pass Parliament since 1910. The Act mandates that 75 percent of the federal government's fleet of 39,000 vehicles (including Crown Corporations) run on alternative fuels (ethanol, methanol, propane, natural gas, electricity) by the year 2004 where it proved cost-effective and operationally feasible. The purpose of the Alternative Fuels Act was to accelerate Canada's use of fuels in motor vehicles that would reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, thereby lessening dependence on petroleum-based fuels for transportation. The Act was designed to solve the chicken-and-egg problem that not enough fuel suppliers were providing outlets where alternative fuels could be purchased. They argued that there were not enough alternative fuel vehicles on the road to justify more outlets. If the federal government’s fleet of 39,000 vehicles ran on alternative fuel, it would move the country closer to the critical mass needed to build more alternative fuel outlets. At the time it was estimated that Canadian taxpayers would save in excess of 50 million tax dollars per year were the Act fully implemented. While there has been considerable progress in greening the federal fleet in the wake of the Act’s passage, it is impossible to say whether the government is in full compliance. That is because the government amended the Act in its omnibus budget bill of 2013, nullifying its obligation to report to Parliament annually on compliance. Even without full compliance, the Act at least sent a message to environmentally conscious Canadians that if strong public pressure is applied to governments, policy changes are possible in unexpected areas. Kenny crisscrossed the country eliciting support on this bill, and his efforts paid off.

Smoking Cessation

A year later he began doing the groundwork to develop legislation to curb smoking among young Canadians. His motivation: Statistics Canada figures showing that in the neighbourhood of 50,000 Canadians were dying every year from smoking related diseases. The next closest cause of death was traffic accidents, at 10,000.

Kenny met with medical officers of health, non-governmental organizations and parents’ groups across the country. NGOs tend to be bottom-up rather than top-down in their decision making, so it was important to get local and regional members of health associations to join the fight. That too involved convening numerous meetings all across the country.

Kenny introduced three bills – the second and third improving on the initial bill – to designate how the government should spend its money on tobacco cessation. Of the three bills, two managed to pass the Senate (the third died on the order paper) but were blocked in the Commons, notwithstanding multiple legal opinions that the bills were in order. However, just introducing the bills and promoting them produced publicity and public support for the issue, prodding the government into spending more on tobacco control programs.

As a result of public pressure, the government raised its smoking cessation budget from $5 million a year to $97 million a year, increasing its commitment by nearly half a billion dollars. Since then, Health Canada has reported that the percentage of youth who smoke in Canada declined from 28 percent in 1999 to 11 percent in 2012.

Most of the heavy lifting in pushing for better funding for smoking cessation programs was done by people in the field. But NGOs in the health field credited Kenny with motivating them to unite and assist him in applying the pressure needed to force the government to dramatically increase its smoking cessation funding. (Kenny was presented a plaque of appreciation by the NGOs that participated in the push to motivate the government: the Canadian Cancer Society, the Alberta Tobacco Reduction Alliance, the Action on Smoking and Health, the Newfoundland and Labrador Alliance for the Control of Tobacco, The Lung Association, the Canadian Council for Tobacco Control. The Clean Air Coalition of British Columbia, Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada and Coalition québécoise pour le contrôle du tabac).

Over the course of the campaign Kenny’s office was filled with university students from Carleton and Ottawa U., using their computers to mobilize a massive write-in campaign to demonstrate country-wide support for tobacco control programs. Write-in campaigns are not always effective because they are too often generic. This one targeted MPs and cabinet ministers with personalized letters from voters in their own ridings – a powerful stimulant to government action.

National Security and Defence

Kenny was the first chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, serving from 2001 to 2009. The committee travelled frequently, to airports, border crossings, police detachments, fire halls, veterans’ hospitals and military bases. There weren’t any frills. It was fulfilling work, but it involved long hours and induced plenty of fatigue for the senators invoved.

Over time committee members learned that the farther they got from Ottawa the more truth they garnered talking to people on the front line rather than witnesses avoiding any testimony that might embarrass the government in next day’s question period. For example, on one occasion a senior military officer testified at a committee meeting in Ottawa that the air force’s fleet of Hercules aircraft was in fine shape. A couple of weeks later a contingent of members visited the CF base in Trenton, where they noticed a number of the aircraft lined up in an unusual way. They asked questions. It turned out that 18 of the 32 Hercules in the air force fleet were out of service due to lack of spare parts.

Members talked to officers, enlisted personnel and wives. They learned of the incredible pressure being placed on families because of overwork and understaffing. This is just one of scores of examples of hearing good news in Ottawa, then getting a far more complete picture the field.

On three occasions committee members travelled to Afghanistan to get a first hand look at how Canada’s military mission was going there. Among other things, they discovered that Canada’s limited access to helicopters (Canadian personnel had to hitch rides with other countries when they could) was forcing the Canadians to travel by convoy most of the time, resulting in a mortality rate double that of Canada’s allies,  mostly attributable to roadside bombs. Air force officers have since said that pressure from the committee led to the purchase of a fleet of Chinook helicopters and their deployment to Afghanistan together with a significant number of Griffon helicopters, There isn’t any question that these deployments saved lives and reduced injuries.

In Canada, committee members learned from enlisted soldiers and junior officers about lack of equipment and training and the burnout regimen being forced on military families because of lack of personnel – stuff the senior brass would never mention at committee hearings in Ottawa.

On the national security front, the committee learned about, and reported on, crime and corruption at Canadian ports from people who worked there – information that port bosses would never even whisper about in Ottawa.

On one of several visits to Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto it became apparent to Kenny that it was possible for members of the public to gain access to tarmacs without being stopped or checked. He was able to make his way beyond the fence onto the supposedly secure tarmac. He then advised Transport Minister John Baird that he had a significant security problem. Baird asked Kenny if he could go with him to Pearson with to collect more evidence. When they made the trip together we Kenny was able to show Baird a number of security gaps first-hand. That visit provided credibility for many of the concerns the committee had expressed about airport security across the country.

Most of what committee members learned about weaknesses in Canada’s defence and security fabric was learned on the road. The committee took what it learned to the public when it returned in a series of reports that challenged Liberal and Conservative governments alike.

These reports were well researched and well written, and got extensive play in the media, which is essential to gain the attention of the public as well as legislators and senior bureaucrats. Ottawa decision-makers are far more prone to correct inadequacies in the system if these inadequacies are widely publicized (see media summaries and quantitative measures report). Well-written and well thought out reports are fine, but unless they are also well publicized they tend to gather dust. This also applies to the individual work of senators. This committee made hundreds of recommendations in a variety of fields, including defence budgeting, military staffing, training, equipment procurement, front line emergency preparedness, airport security, coastal defence, port security, border security, veterans’ disability policies, foreign aid, RCMP staffing, intelligence operations, Canada’s role in NATO, and many, many others. It essentially involved itself in every issue connected to keeping Canadians safe, which is the first role of any national government.

During those times SCONSAD, as the military liked to refer to the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, was as close to a non-partisan body as has existed in the history of Canada’s Parliament. Incredibly, of the 28 committee reports published while Kenny was Chair, 25 were unanimous.

Not every committee recommendation has been heeded by the governments that held power during Kenny’s chairmanship. But many were. Once it was clear that the Canadian public was finally aware of weaknesses in security behind the scenes at Canadian airports, improvements were implemented, including stricter luggage screening and better perimeter control.

At one point the committee even recommended a hiatus in the deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces overseas to give the military time and resources to replenish its capabilities. Many self-professed experts scoffed at what they deemed to be an outrageous idea, but several months later the government put the hiatus into place, allowing for some military rehabilitation.

The Committee visited to Windsor, On., where it became apparent to us that a terrorist attack on the heavily-used Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit had the potential to cripple the Canadian economy. The Committee recommended that a second bridge be built nearby, which later became a Canadian government priority and is now (2014) becoming a reality.

Kenny’s interest in the defence and security of Canada has remained unabated since he ceased to be Chair of SCONSAD in 2009 when the Conservatives gained a majority in the Senate and replaced virtually all Liberal chairs with members of their own party.

Kenny continues to follow up on the recommendations the Committee made when he was chair, and has authored numerous op-ed and web blog articles reminding the public and the government about important recommendations that have not yet been addressed.

The Process of Change

The role of the Senate, and every senator, is to hold the government to account. In some ways a senator is in a better position to push whatever government is in power for change than are backbenchers in the House of Commons, who are tied up much of the time with constituency work. MPs are also expected to offer unflinching support for the positions taken by their party leaders, restricting their independence. The very nature of the Senate – with relatively secure tenure and time to tackle important issues  – allows senators ample opportunities to push for change.

Pursuing issues and expressing independent opinions on behalf of Canadians necessitates a continual process, first of learning, then using what one has learned to influence others. Which issues are important? What are the nuances of those issues?  Can one reasonably expect to have an impact if one chooses to pursue change on a particular issue? What do Canadians need, and what will they accept?

The lessons Kenny has learned in attempting to answer the kinds of questions – questions that are essential to ask if there is to be any chance at effecting change – is that (a) one is far more likely to gain insights as to what needs to be done and how it can be done outside Ottawa than within the confines of Ottawa; and (b) whatever insights may be gained in Ottawa can more effectively be gained in private, informal settings than in committee meetings or question periods.

Committees in Ottawa are frequently stage-managed. The current government not only controls their agendas, it selects which witnesses will be heard and forces government witnesses to submit their testimony to be approved in advance. Rarely do committee hearings elicit the kind of information senators require to write the kinds of reports that will lead to change.

Serving the Public

Since stepping down as Chair, Kenny has not (until recently) been a member of any Senate committee. As mentioned earlier, he began having difficulties with his health in 2009. Doctors were challenged in diagnosing the problems, manifested by dizziness, lack of focus and other symptoms. A week at the Mayo Clinic failed to pinpoint any specific illness. In 2011 Kenny was finally diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia. That assessment was later withdrawn and in 2013 specialists concluded that had Menieres disease. This has had physical repercussions, but he has continued to perform a useful role as a senator, if not at quite as hectic a pace.

He has continued to pursue issues by meeting informed people inside and outside of Ottawa. He makes public whatever new information and analysis he can bring to important issues. Kenny has continued to meet with military – both serving and retired -police officers, judges, soldiers, educators, customs officials and other Canadians, as well as editorial boards at newspapers and broadcast facilities. He talks to people in the know about defence and justice and foreign aid and many other issues. He writes and speaks about what he has learned. Since leaving the Committee he has had 80 articles published in newspapers and other media. Since no media cover the Senate question period and few media show up at Senate committees, he finds he is much more likely to bring attention to issues by publishing relevant evidence and arguments than he is by bringing them up in debate.

Media hits have policy impact. People in power in Ottawa know that interested members of the public are reading what Kenny is writing. Newspapers and other publications generally print op-eds he sends them because they are to the point and he has taken the time to visit the communities in which they are located, often meeting with editorial boards. The op-eds promote an image of the Senate as an institution with thoughts and aspirations for change. They also have an influence those who can bring about change.

Getting out of Ottawa to see what is happening the country is important to anyone who wants to be part of the federal decision-making process. There may not be a direct time link between any given trip and any given result: gestation and planning is part of the process. Take the Alternate Fuels Act. Kenny first started thinking about the need for the federal government to set an example in the use of alternate fuels in 1991. He got a lot of advice and support from outside Ottawa over the next few years. The bill finally passed in 1995, even though a lot of the groundwork was done around the country in earlier years. .

The Importance of Transparency

Kenny posts the names of people he meets on his website (colinkenny.ca), with the exception of those who need their identities protected for fear of retaliation by their employers. He has no reservations about revealing why he has taken a particular trip and with whom he has met. 

Private Influence

Anyone who has been involved in the political process knows that more insights are gained in private conversations than will ever be gained before parliamentary committees. As mentioned earlier, Kenny sees the essence of his role as (a) learning by gathering information; and (b) influencing others by using what one has learned.

Meeting privately, either with individuals or groups of informative and otherwise useful groups of people is crucial. He meets with people in the defence and security fields regularly, both to gather information and to try to influence their thinking. He does the same with journalists, whose relationships have been crucial to effecting change for him over the years.


Kenny has had a reputation for hard work in the Senate. He also has a reputation for offering Canadians insights about what their government could be doing better to improve their well-being, and for prodding the powerful to take action to do that.

Very little of this would have been possible if he had been content to confine myself to attending question periods, debates and committee meetings on Parliament Hill. To effect change, one must transcend this very parochial city and connect with people in less artificial settings.

The current government appears determined to shrink the Senate’s potential to serve Canadians. Committee budgets have been reduced, the appearance of witnesses with various viewpoints has been truncated, and senators’ travel has been significantly restricted. Scrutinizing spending to assure that the Senate is serving Canadian taxpayers well is a good thing. Neutering the Senate’s ability to do its job is not.