Progress Alberta Executive Director and now Senate “nominee” candidate Duncan Kinney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Progressive gadfly Duncan Kinney, executive director of the progressive news and advocacy organization behind the Progress Report newsletter and podcast, is the first Albertan to file his papers with Elections Alberta to run in the Kenney Government’s “Senate Nominee Election.”

Such Senate votes – they’re not really elections as electing senators is not a provincial prerogative – are an unconstitutional bit of political theatre dating to 1980s when Preston Manning’s Reform Party pushed the idea of an elected Senate as a way to make Canada more like the United States.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

They happened 1989, 1998, 2004 and 2012, with 10 “nominees” chosen. Conservative prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper eventually put five of those in the Senate. However, some of the winners, like journalist-ideologue Link Byfield, were too much even for Conservative prime ministers to appoint. 

In addition to the whiny Confederation-is-unfair-to-the-richest-province agenda familiar to anyone even faintly aware of Alberta politics, Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government tied the latest meaningless Senate vote to the Oct. 18 province-wide municipal election this year in hopes of firing up its base to get out and vote for more conservative town and city councillors.

Mr. Kinney, unlike most of the candidates who will soon be crawling out of the woodwork, will campaign on the grounds that Canada’s Senate needs to be abolished, not turned into Mr. Manning’s dream. That is, a pale imitation of the U.S. Senate, which is packed with difficult-to-dislodge hard-line right-wingers often from low-population states determined to block any reform that might make the Republic to the south more democratic.

Mr. Kinney, as political blogger Dave Cournoyer described him, is “a well-known online provocateur.”

In other words, he is just what these fatuous elections have needed for a long time – a genuinely progressive voice who has enough of a sense of humour to get up the noses of the UCP-affiliated candidates who will flock to the race.

Mr. Kinney will offer Albertans disgusted with the antics and incompetence of the Kenney Government a way to express their disillusionment almost two years before they’ll have an opportunity to vote against the UCP in a general election.

If nothing else, this would be therapeutic. Most likely, though, a victory by a candidate like Mr. Kinney would end this expensive and fatuous periodic charade by Conservative Alberta governments once and for all. After all, the scam works best if only Conservatives run, an obvious flaw that the provincial NDP was consistently too high minded and serious to exploit.

Former Reform Party Leader Preston Manning (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Only one candidate formally associated with any but the Reform, Conservative or fringe right-wing parties ever ran in any of the five Senate votes, a Liberal in 1989. A few independents have run from time to time, but their campaigns have failed to catch fire. 

But that was then and this is now. An insurgent progressive campaign in 2021 offers the opportunity for Albertans to send a strong message to Mr. Kenney that they don’t love him, his government, or the way they are mismanaging the province. Just because Mr. Kinney is running as an Independent doesn’t mean New Democrats, Alberta Liberals, federal Liberals and others can’t vote for him guiltlessly.

For those who think seriously about Canada’s Senate, flawed by the undemocratic nature of its appointments, abolition is a more sensible way forward than the American model, intended by its 18th Century designers to be a sclerotic impediment to bringing an end to slavery. It has served admirably as a roadblock to American democratic reform for 232 years.

This ability to stall democracy to suit the wealthy and powerful is exactly what Mr. Manning and his acolytes had in mind when they first advocated what they called a Triple-E Senate – for elected, equal and effective. Effective, that is, at preserving the power and privilege of the elite.

The Reform Party’s election pitch was framed around the claim Canadian political institutions needed to be reformed to make Confederation fairer to Western Canada. But the Senate was a marquee policy for the Reform Party’s successful broader campaign to halt the Progressive Conservative drift toward more socially liberal policies such as abortion rights and multiculturalism.

That objective was eventually largely achieved, resulting in the hostile reverse takeover of the Canadian Progressive Conservatives by the Reform Party in 2003, creating the Republican-style party now known as the Conservative Party of Canada.

Mr. Kinney has shown an aptitude for reporting stories the UCP would prefer to be left uncovered. In February 2020, the UCP denied him entry to a government budget lockup on the grounds “your organization has been reviewed and determined to be an advocacy organization.

“As such, your request for media accreditation has been denied,” he was brusquely told in a letter from government officials. “The media embargo is for members of the media only.”

Notwithstanding Progress Alberta’s shoestring budget, Mr. Kinney went to court and got an emergency injunction forcing the UCP to admit him to the lockup and awarding the organization $2,000 in costs.

That was an important victory for media rights and freedom of expression, especially in an era when many news organizations do not meet the definition of traditional media.

Progress Alberta’s complaint argued in part that it was repeatedly targeted by Premier Kenney and the UCP, during the 2019 election campaign and after, “with false accusations that our group was a part of a conspiracy, working in league with American foundations, to sabotage Alberta’s economy.”

Join the Conversation


  1. It would be nice to see someone other than a Conservative run for and win as Senator in waiting. However, I think reform of it is better than abolition. Both would be constitutionally difficult, but we don’t necessarily need to follow Manning’s tired old harebrained triple E model that hasn’t appealed to the rest of Canada despite decades of flogging it. We can actually do better.

    A better model could be one with more representation for the west and proportional or mixed representation. It is becoming obvious the US model is not the best. So now perhaps is the time to dump the old rigid Triple E idea and come up with something better that can appeal to those in other parts of Canada too.

    1. Dave, I admire your sense of restraint when it comes to phrasing. Saying the US Senate is “not the best” is like saying Covid-19 can be a little debilitating.

      I think Justin Trudeau’s mild reforms have at least nudged the Senate toward relevance again, though it’s debatable how effective the Red Chamber is today. It was modeled on the British House of Lords, with the intention of providing a buffer against populist hysteria (I read somewhere), though in practice both were more likely to be conservative (note small “c”) verging on reactionary. Privilege protects itself, after all.

      One obvious improvement would be to remove the power of appointment from the Prime Minister, and establish an independent, all-party board to propose and review potential Senators. Keep the political appointments to a minimum, and maybe we’d see an improvement in the tone and the quality of the Senate’s work.

  2. I have seen the Senate plagued with problems over the years. Senators were involved in sketchy conduct. I also recall Ralph Klein wasting $3 million on useless senators in waiting, while school kids went hungry, due to schools not having money for school meal programs. (Ralph Klein wasted much more money than that.) Personally, I think the Senate has outlived its usefulness, and isn’t like it used to be. It’s hard to see how the Senate can be reformed. This is just my opinion on this subject.

  3. I am not sure I agree with you on this one.
    Spending time and resources for an election that means nothing and no one pays attention to is not my idea of time and intelligence well used. I would prefer to see Kinney, a very effective and intelligent person, defeating Jason Kenney to the ground on a provincial election. I am sure he would.
    That is my opinion of course and Kinney is smart enough to know what is more effective.

  4. Kinney vs. Kenney: interesting. This might be the first time I haven’t had to color in my entire faux-Senate ballot. At least there will be no doubt that Kenney the premier needs no help in sabotaging Alberta’s economy, because he’s done a fine job of destroying Alberta all by himself.

    Now onward to other battles, like Craig Chandler’s attempted coup of Calgary Co-op’s board of directors. I wonder if he’s still on that halal meat crusade.

  5. I don’t recall casting a ballot for any previous senator-in-waiting circus. In fact, I spoiled at least one ballot deliberately (remember, they have to count spoiled ballots, too.)

    Still…this time might turn out different. “Electing” an anti-UCP candidate for the senator short list would probably cause some outraged “how-dare-they” rants among the UCP apologists. It would at least be mildly amusing to watch the attempts to explain away the glaring disconnect between the Guv’mint and the Peepul.

    I’m going to share this news with some friends and see what reaction I get. Could have possibilities. And anything that gets up Jason Kenney’s nose is worth while in itself.

  6. As Mike Danyish commented the Senate is based on Westminster’s House Of Lords, the origins of which were to provide for the ‘nobility’, the ecclesiastical ‘hierarchy’, the ‘aristocracy’, the ‘connected’, and other wealthy and privileged individuals a means to remain influential in state affairs and veto the path to democracy. Hardly reasons to continue an expensive and effectively purposeless anachronism. Talk of reforming it is just that, i.e. talk. A facile and unnecessary notion that resurfaces when something convenient is required as a source of distraction and fed bashing. If elected and appointed let us hope that Mr. Kinney’s efforts at abolishment are supported.

  7. If more evidence of the inanity of upper chambers and their traditions is necessary we need look no further than pictures of a miniver and ermine bedecked Baron Black of Crossharbour, convicted fraudster and former US Federal jailbird.

  8. As a second generation Canadian the Senate debate is humourous to me. My Father and his Brother were both uni grads in engineering, their Father a union man from the moment he got off the wrong train he was hobboeing in Arvida, Que, he had wanted to go to Moosejaw.

    As was the custom of a just off the boat immigrant finding himself in a dry town the construction of a still as well as wine and beer production were paramount. Of course he eventually had to face justice for his crimes of bootlegging. With a grade 6 education he had the brians to hire Robert Taschereau, known at the time for having underworld connections, who won my Grandfather’s case . This same man would be elected to a seat in the Quebec house as a Liberal candidate and then to the Supreme Court of Canada as the 11th chief justice with a stint as Governer General following the death of George Vanier in 1967.

    And you thought Alberta had interesting politics? 🙂

  9. Yes, the Senate. What to do? Has anyone asked Mike Duffy’s opinion? He would probably want an increase in the per diem.

    When are the two innocent Canadians coming home from their CCP prisons?

  10. Imagine Mr Kinney wins the ballot as a sort of protest vote against the hapless UCP government: premier Kenney is not constitutionally obliged to “nominate” him, and neither is Ottawa obliged to appoint him. But, considering how much fun it might be to appoint a thorn in the side of the premier who regularly slags our PM without good reason, it might be too much for JT to resist. That puts the K-Boy in a quandary about what to do with the K-Man. If the premier’s performance up to now is any indication, he just might let this one backfire in his face to spite his nose.

    Seriously, though, the matter of the Senate is a very, very grave one indeed. Ha! Gotcha, didn’t I! Just kidding. The Upper Chamber is about as grave as any old run of the churchyard cemetery. But K-Boy won’t resist whistling past it anyhow. The Senate is the gold standard diversion when political fortunes aren’t panning out—like they’re not for the UCP. Or, what is it, now?—hold your breath and lift your feet on the way by.

    Since abolishing the Senate would require a constitutional amendment —something almost impossible to get, even to insert Subsection: Blue under Section: Sky—the whole thing’s moot, especially with regard provincial allocation of Senate seats guaranteed to certain federates, but not others. But, more generally, we can’t very well get rid of it. As Stephen Harper figured out, he could make political kabuki out of refusing to appoint seats as they became vacated, but he could not prevent successors from filling them as they liked (perhaps understanding that partisan appointments might provoke the same, tit-for-tat, from succeeding rivals who historically have had and likely will have more opportunity to do so). He also tried to distract voters by suggesting he could “amalgamate” the provincial “cultures of defeat” in Atlantic Canada. Don’t need a Senate to know Canadian provinces are some of the most power jurisdictions in the world—Harper just forgot to ask.

    It is good we don’t elect the Senate because then it would have to act and, with several features of unfairness constitutionally baked into provincial seat numbers, voters would take notice, if not exception to, any attempt to empower these arcane and archaic provisions.

    Senates were created to conserve property ownership which, back in ancient times, was of concern solely to old men (hence the name; cf L. “senilis”) who were, as many are today, naturally conservative in this respect. When William the Conqueror decreed that all property be held from the Crown alone (previously, an Anglo-Saxon allod was held by any warrior who could defend it, with no feudal obligations to the Crown for what the Conquerer’s Nordic-French called ‘tenure’), the feudal rules of tenure, the military obligations, quitrents, sergeanty, frankelmoin, soccage, life tenures, inheritances, transfers, taxes, seizures, and so forth became the basis for English Common Law which, after several centuries, has piled precedent upon precedent and entangled virtually every aspect of life such that can’t easily be undone (only remedied by courts of equity). To conserve these customs in parliamentary representation required the creation of the English House of Lords in which, at its earliest foundation, membership was inherited byway of tenure, not appointment; it was the only House of Parliament to advise the royal court. Civil war and a few royally severed heads later, a Lower House was thought politic and the franchise to elect members was slowly expanded with considerable parsimony to those citizens who did not own land —which still meant male citizens. At this very same time, English colonists in America dreamed of local-, if not self-government, and imagined something of the Mother Country. For the Commons to get rid of the Senate would be like dirking grandpa—or the servant his master.

    The successes have been mixed: North America had no feudal tenure (except, perhaps, in New France—sort of), colonies were separate jurisdictions which eventually confederated (with some admiration of certain Aboriginal confederacies, contingencies organized to meet the changing times) unlike England and France which evolved from feudal to unitary states. And, anyway, the new territory was too vast to police anything like feudal tenure. Besides this, too, most of it was already inhabited and treaties made piecemeal—if not honoured. There was practically no need for a House of Lords in the New World, and not merely because there already was one in the Old.

    American rebels didn’t want an aristocracy but wanted to keep Common Law which, to their minds, meant having a Senate to protect private property. But meshing this tradition with federalism required, they figured, not only state senates (for the property), but also a federal one to protect states’ rights (unicameral provinces would seem unthinkable to many Americans—but, then, they elect sheriffs and dogcatchers to nanny over them). Since all states and territories already had lower houses to legislate representatively by population, upper houses were designed as chambers of “sober second thought” applied to how popular legislation might impact private property. For a long time, the franchise was granted only to property owners of a certain gender, and eligibility to run for senator to property owners of a certain senility.

    Since all federates are equal in a federation (unlike in confederacies), and rep-by-pop was already covered, it was thought right to give each the same number of Senators. But, whatever number could have been chosen (it was two apiece, as it happened) the idea was to block popular legislation property owners didn’t like. As indentured labourers poured into freshly cleared properties it seemed, from a property owner’s point of view, prudent to have a “Lords” in London (perhaps slightly relieved by the conversion of indenture to life for negroes, effectively creating chattel slavery in the Province of Virginia by decision of the Royal Court). Again, with the influx of immigrants into the early 19th century republic, the Senate seemed a prudent thing. Certainly the emancipation and enfranchisement of slaves after the Civil War, the Senate seemed essential to white property ownership and, thereby, dominance over blacks and poor whites alike. Now, with white hegemony waning in America, the Senate is, like it was way back in Ancient Greece, the bastion of power and privilege for the oligarchical few.

    Funny thing is—if it were funny—Americans have an amendable constitution: there is a viable path for abolishing their Senate. Perhaps if it wasn’t habitually an institution of unfairness, it’s value as federate representatives to the federal government might make it seem worthwhile.

    Canada is also scion of English Common Law—perhaps more British than English, even though the independent Scottish Crown did once have a colony in Nova Scotia (the two Kingdoms joined decades before the seminal Conquest of New France in 1759-60). So we, too, wanted to emulate the Mother Country in incongruent, inappropriate ways. We just did it differently than the democracy crazed Americans did. Neither of us had feudal tenure, both of us became federated nations.

    But our motivation to confederate was almost entirely strategic instead of commercial like in the States. In the contingent hurry after Civil War guns were idled, certain fears interplayed, not just of Americans who outnumbered us by ten to one, but of the Québécois who outnumbered english-speaking colonists by three to one. Further, the MoCo wasn’t so much interested in loyalty to the Crown but, rather, in commerce with North America, didn’t matter with whom (the commercial history of the three Anglo-Saxmaniacal jurisdictions during times of war is fascinating. Suffice to say, business just got better all the time, no matter who was shooting at whom).

    Poor little-big, rich-poor Canada was left pretty much on its own with respect recruiting regions to confederate with it(PEI, for example, was reticent to confederate in 1867—Newfoundland until 1949). Then, of course, there was the strategic—and very expensive—race to confederate BC before the Oregon Territory and the Alaskan Panhandle coalesced and pinched off Pacific tidewater, leaving a vast (15 years trackless) territory between the bifurcated halves of federation. These were fast-moving circumstances in which it was thought prudent to use Senate seats as inducements to confederate. Hence we have Quebec with a guaranteed quarter of senate seats and PEI with a guaranteed minimum of four seats regardless their respective populations relative to the rest of the country—and, generally, a variety of federally allocated seat numbers which seem to contradict the concept of equal provinces; they provide opportunity for regional griping like we saw with Manning and his Triple E. And, naturally, as political distraction.

    It was catchy, there being a certain appeal to an equal number of Senate seats for equal federates—like in the States, but, perhaps, for different reasons.

    It was also as moot then as it is now, both occasions being post Constitution Act 1982 which, of course, contains the Amending Formula which makes abolishing the Senate virtually impossible. Perhaps Mr Kinney’s candidacy will be refreshingly educative, if not deliciously ironic.

    We provinces get along just fine without senates. Ottawa should be able to, as well. Just don’t tell that to the Americans: they already think we live in igloos, even though half of them couldn’t find Canada on a map of North America, North of the Rio Grande.

    If I were Albertan, I’d vote for Mr Kinney. For now, I’ll wish him all the best.

  11. Ah, the Senate. Once dubbed the “taskless thanks” by — if memory serves — the late Allan Fotheringham, in its current incarnation as a semi-non-partisan legislative body it seems less useless than it was before the current PM ejected all its Liberal members from the [then] Opposition caucus. But, while abolition remains official NDP policy, as a practical matter the Supreme Court of Canada has spoken, & we’re stuck with it. All we can do is try to make it better.

    But I refuse to believe the only alternative model for our Senate is the American model. Theirs is a vastly different country with a distinctly different political history & political culture. For instance, they’re a federation of 50 states, in which each state has only two seats in the Senate, rather than the 10 or more per province we’d need for a Reform-style Triple-‘E’ Senate. They’re also a Presidential republic, with ‘separation of powers’ rather than ‘responsible government’ as its fundamental organizing principle, so there’s no such thing as any necessity for the Executive to earn or retain the confidence of the legislature to govern.

    Another possible model for the Senate could be drawn from another federal state with a Westminster parliamentary system: Australia. Australia is, like Canada, a sparsely populated country occupying a huge land mass, & a federal state with a small number of sub-national political divisions each with its own distinct constitutional authority. Their Senate is equal, with 12 Senators from each state (their term for provinces) & two from each territory, but it’s elected by single-transferable-vote, not FPTP as is the American one. There are also, unlike in the US, prescribed constitutional mechanisms to resolve deadlocks between the two Houses of Parliament.

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