Premier Bob McLeod has been tipped to become the next senator for the Northwest Territories. But what is the job like, and who else is in the running?

McLeod’s candidacy has been rumoured since applications opened for the post – which is an appointment and not an elected position. It would mean stepping down from his role as the NWT’s leader in order to replace Nick Sibbeston, who resigned as senator last September.

Reached by Cabin Radio on Friday, McLeod told us – through his communications staff – he already has a job and is focused on running the territory.

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Jason Unrau, a former Northern Journal and Inuvik Drum journalist who also covered the NWT legislature for a number of years, is now a parliamentary reporter who covers the Senate as part of his beat.

We asked Unrau to explain the job and talk us through some of the candidates.


Your guide to the Senate and the open NWT position

With Jason Unrau

What does a senator do?

We have a bicameral system, not unlike the US with the Senate and Congress there. But unlike the United States, in Canada we appoint senators. This is the role of the prime minister and cabinet, in concert with the governor general, who will ultimately select the appointments.

This is not a sinecure position, this is serious legislating that goes on – what is commonly referred to as “sober second thought,” considering legislation that emanates from the House of Commons, which is the elected body. The Senate will deliberate bills once they pass third reading in the Commons or, conversely, senators can propose their own legislation – anything except for money bills such as taxation or spending appropriation. It’s a very important part of our parliamentary system, so this is a very exciting time for the Northwest Territories.

What makes a senator good at the job?

There are 105 senators, which is approximately one-third of the number of elected MPs we have in the House of Commons. There are 24 in Ontario, 24 in Quebec, and the rest are meted out among the western and maritime provinces. The three northern territories get one each.

Senator Nick Sibbeston retired in September 2017, so that opened up a vacancy for the Northwest Territories. In spite of a small population in the North, looking at some of the prospective appointees, I would say the bench is quite deep in terms of talent and requisite experience.

Your best bet is if you can have a combination of political experience – particularly legislative experience, in the assembly or Aboriginal governments for example – and then business experience would be useful as well. The range of experience in the Senate extends from a biochemist to a former NHL hockey coach, Olympians, captains of industry and so on. You’re looking for breadth of experience and the wherewithal to want to get something done. The Senate has a responsibility to represent regional and minority issues, and that’s what makes a Senate appointment from the North, in particular, very interesting and exciting.

Who would you expect to apply?

I suspect Premier Bob McLeod might be top of the list. He’s a premier, a former bureaucrat, he has been in the sausage-making business, so to speak, for a while now. He knows how the system works and is very business-oriented. The NWT needs someone with an eye to spurring economic development in some way, shape, or form. Bob would be at the top of my list, anyways. I can’t speak to what the prime minister is thinking right now but to me, he would be top of mind.

If you look at Dennis Patterson, the senator for Nunavut, he was a former premier and I believe one reason why he was appointed is that he was very instrumental in the creation of the territory. He had that kind of legislative, political experience that is very useful in a venue like the Senate.

Bob McLeod is, for me, the number one. On the female side of the ledger, someone like Violet Camsell-Blondin would be an excellent choice. She has chaired the Wek’èezhìi Land and Water Board for more than a decade, she has dealt with mines and regulatory issues. She really has the political chops to do a good job in the Senate as well.

Willard Hagen, a Gwich’in former bush pilot from Tsiigehtchic, would be an excellent choice. He was the architect of the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Act and board, he is very legislative-minded as well and would be an excellent choice.

Senators tend to be older, say 50 and over. I would hesitate to suggest someone 40 or younger, I just don’t think they have the experience to become part of the atmosphere there. I think the age of the person is very important. These are ‘lifetime’ appointments until a person reaches the age of 75. Nick Sibbeston was appointed in 1999 and retired in September of last year, so here’s a guy who put 18 years into it and in the end, in his own words, he was growing tired of it.

It’s a lot of work. In 2014, Nick Sibbeston missed 51 of 70 votes. So whomever is chosen, it has to be a person that understands the serious responsibility that the position carries and is willing to put the work in.

My dream choice would have been someone like Cece Hodgson-McCauley, a huge booster for the North. That is the kind of archetype I think you’re looking for, someone like a Fred Carmichael, a Nellie Cournoyea, someone who has straddled industry and politics and knows how the bureaucratic process works.

Bertha Rabesca-Zoe, a Tlicho lawyer – she’s their legal counsel, she negotiated the Devolution agreement – she went through this gruelling process and would also be somebody who knows how the legislative and legal processes work.

Since it’s an appointment and not an election, how can someone make their opinion heard if they want to advocate for a candidate?

Write the prime minister, write your local MP (Michael McLeod).

When would you expect to find out who has been appointed?

That could come sooner than later. Right now, there are several vacancies in the Senate and currently, the Liberal government’s marijuana legislation bill – and its companion legislation, which is the impaired driving piece – this is going to get some serious pushback in the Senate and Prime Minister Trudeau is going to need some people to potentially toe the line on this for him. My sense is the prime minister is going to try to fill these as quickly as possible, to support his legislative agenda going into the second half of his term.