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This article was published 12/4/2016 (2106 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — Manitoba’s two newest senators took their seats in the upper chamber Tuesday and say their independent status is a big step forward for the much-maligned institution.
Sen. Murray Sinclair, a former Manitoba justice and most recently chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Sen. Raymonde Gagné, former president of the Université de Saint-Boniface, were among seven new senators sworn into office. They are the first of the senators appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. All will sit as independents.
Gagné, 60, said since the Senate is an appointed chamber, it wasn’t something she had ever specifically aspired to do but she is honoured by the appointment.
"It’s exciting," she said. "I didn’t expect it."
Trudeau intends to reform the Senate into a non-partisan chamber by no longer appointing people to represent party caucuses. The appointments bring the standings in the Senate to 21 Independents, with 42 Conservatives and 25 Liberals. Liberal senators sit as a separate caucus from Liberal MPs since Trudeau gave them the boot in 2014. The Conservative senators are part of the same caucus as Conservative MPs.
There are 17 Senate vacancies, including two from Manitoba, which Trudeau intends to fill by the end of the year. The number of Independents will outnumber the Liberals by the end of this year and the Conservatives by the end of 2017.
In interviews with the Free Press Tuesday, both Sinclair and Gagné said they had staked their previous careers on being able to work with governments of all political stripes and would not have accepted a partisan appointment. However, the opportunity to sit as Independents and work to improve the work and reputation of a chamber that has taken a number of hits in recent years was appealing.
"I think it’s more conducive to productive work," said Gagné. "I want to be my own person rather than follow someone else."
Sinclair, 65, said he thinks there is a place for a chamber that can discuss issues among "people who don’t have a political axe to grind."
"I certainly think not being affiliated with a party caucus is an advantage for me," he said. "It’s about serious reflection to look at things with a new and different lens."
Trudeau chose Sinclair and Gagné from a list of 10 Manitobans developed by an independent advisory committee appointed by the prime minister earlier this year. Sinclair said he was nominated by the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg.
Council president Damon Johnston said when he got word the government was looking for nominees, Sinclair’s name came immediately to mind.
"He brings a wealth of knowledge," said Johnston. "He’s very thoughtful and he’s willing to listen to others. He’s just got so many valuable qualities."
Sinclair said he intends to focus his energies largely on pushing government to implement the recommendations of the TRC, which concluded last year with 94 "calls to action." He said he’ has many other interests, such as the upcoming assisted suicide legislation and the environment, but he said he only has 10 years before he has to retire from the Senate and he is going to make those years count.
"I have to pick my ambitions very carefully," he said.
Gagné, a francophone, said official languages will surely be a large part of her focus. But she said beyond that, she is going to wait and get more acclimated to the Senate before she decides what other issues she might work on.
As of Tuesday, Gagné had not moved into her new office.