Senate snapshots: Serge Joyal tackles Senate reform questions in his contribution to public life

Canadians watching the Senate spending affair may be forgiven for wondering what the upper chamber does aside from claiming expenses. In an occasional series, Postmedia News provides snapshots of some of the other members of the Senate of Canada. Today: Serge Joyal.

After nearly 16 years in the upper chamber and 10 years in the House of Commons, Quebec Sen. Serge Joyal is nothing short of an expert when it comes to Canadian politics.

As such, he is not one to approach the question of Senate abolition lightly.

For months now, the Liberal senator, appointed in 1997 by Jean Chretien, has been working to complete a 40-page factum — a legal argument — that the Supreme Court of Canada will consider when assessing the federal government’s power to reform or abolish the red chamber. Joyal is one of two senators who were granted intervenor status in the case. Sen. Anne Cools has also been permitted to present a factum to the court.

Joyal, who has taken on the project as part of his senatorial duties, said it’s complicated enough to argue for or against the Senate in everyday conversation, but putting an argument in legal terms is a completely different challenge.

“You (gain) a deeper understanding of your own personal conclusion.”

Joyal says he is researching the Senate’s evolution from 1867 to 2013 to determine the institution’s relevance in modern Canada. He will submit his findings to the court by Aug. 30.

He won’t give details about what he will argue yet out of respect for the court: “The judges are the first ones that are entitled to learn about it.” But a look back to what Joyal has said in the past offers some clues.

Since the late 1990s when Andy Thompson — the absentee Ontario senator who collected his salary while vacationing in Mexico — became a poster boy for doing away with the upper chamber, Joyal has cautioned against hasty decisions to transform or rid Canada of the red chamber.

As editor of the 2003 book, Protecting Democracy: the Senate You Never Knew, Joyal expressed his view that the Senate should be evaluated in terms of Canada’s politics and history as opposed to knee-jerk reactions to controversy.

“Unfortunately, the accomplishments of the entire institution can be instantly discredited by the ill-advised actions of a single member,” he wrote.

Ten years later, it is the actions of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau casting a shadow over their peers, like Joyal, who has dedicated his life to politics.

By the age of 26, Joyal already had four degrees and one diploma under his belt: a bachelor of arts, a law degree, a post-graduate law diploma and two master’s degrees in law and philosophy. An experienced student politician by that time, Joyal became the assistant to a federal cabinet minister, Jean Marchand.

Joyal joined the Liberal Party of Canada in Quebec as vice-president for two years before joining Pierre Trudeau’s government as an MP in 1974. In 1981, he became a minister of state and the following year he was granted a full cabinet portfolio as Secretary of State for Canada, a position he kept for another two years.

Today, Joyal says he uses his position to improve the lives of Canadians by amending or approving legislation. His “greatest satisfaction” has come from using his position in the Senate to protect Canadians’ freedoms.

“This is really the core of the motivation to be in public life,” he says.

Joyal spoke out on two government bills in 2009, one which would impose a six-month mandatory minimum sentence for growing five or more marijuana plants, and the other to eliminate a practice where judges would issue a two-day jail credit for each day offenders spent in jail while awaiting their trial.

“It is important that when you study that kind of legislation to be very careful because from what you say, somebody might spend six more months in prison … so you don’t do that lightly,” he said.

The Senate introduced four amendments to the marijuana bill, but passed the bill to eliminate two-for-one sentencing credits.

Although he has been a politician most of his life, Joyal’s interests extend beyond Parliament Hill. Fascinated by art, history and culture from a young age, he says he started collecting art when he was a teenager. At 29 years old, he was a founding member of an art gallery in Joliette, Que.

“Listen, I’m 68,” he chuckles. “I’m not a late-comer … I’m an old zealot.”

Serge Joyal at a glance

Political affiliation: Liberal

Appointed: 1997 by then-prime minister Jean Chretien

Province represented: Quebec

Current committees: Vice-chair of conflict of interest for senators committee and anti-terrorism committee. Member of legal and constitutional affairs committee and rules, procedures and the rights of Parliament committee.

Previous political experience: MP for Maisonneuve-Rosemont/Hochelaga-Maisonneuve from 1974-84. Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board from 1980-81. Pierre Trudeau made him a minister of state in 1981 and then promoted Joyal to Secretary of State for Canada (a cabinet post that was discontinued in 1996) from 1982-84.

Life before politics: Lawyer

Hometown: Montreal

Age: 68

Senate retirement date: Feb. 1, 2020

Fun fact: Joyal was pranked on a candid camera show, Surprise sur prise, in the late 1980s. He was told that a Hydro-Quebec transformer had exploded in the middle of Montreal and was tricked into directing traffic and taking care of the “victims.”

(Link to article with video on

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