Catherine Callbeck reflects on time in Senate

Nancy MacPhee
Published on July 23, 2014
Senator Catherine Callbeck with Senate pages and Three Oaks Senior High school alumni James Brown (left) and Greg MacCormack.
Submitted photo

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on Catherine Callbeck. In this installment, Callbeck discusses her work in the Senate and touches on the scandal that has left a black mark on the Red Chamber.

CENTRAL BEDEQUE — Catherine Callbeck’s job is done. 

Friday is her 75th birthday. That means mandatory retirement from the Senate.

In her family home in Central Bedeque, Callbeck reflected on her time in the Red Chamber — the work she has accomplished and, of course, what’s now known simply as the Senate scandal.

“There were all kinds of rumours going about that I was going to be appointed to the Senate before anyone had ever approached me,” recalled Callbeck. “I made it my business to look into it and talk to some people I knew that were in the Senate.

“If I was going to think about this, I wanted to really know what the Senate did and if it was something of interest to me.”

Seeing it as an extension of community service, when she did get the call from then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Callbeck accepted the offer.

But first Chretien asked her why she wanted to be a Senator.

“I thought, with my background, I could to a lot for Prince Edward Island,” said Callbeck. “The Senate is a very valuable institution. I felt that when I went into it and I still feel that way.

“It’s the most misunderstood institution in Canada. It is very unfortunate that Canadians do not understand more of what the Senate does and how it functions.”

So, on Sept. 23, 1997, the former MLA, provincial cabinet minister, Member of Parliament, Liberal Party leader and premier took on the job.

It’s been a role, for the most part, she has relished.

During her time in the Red Chamber, Callbeck has sat on various committees, all of which she chose to be part of.

She has served on the Senate Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration; Agriculture and Forestry; Banking, Trade and Commerce; and Transport and Communications.

In November 2002, Callbeck was appointed by the prime minister as vice-chair of the Task Force on Women Entrepreneurs and on June 28, 2005, elected vice-chair of the National Liberal Caucus, a term that ended in October 2007.

She was also a member of the National Finance Committee and the Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee.

Committee work, said Callbeck, is at the heart of the Senate and vital when it comes to forming public policy.

She touched on her work during her 17 years, particularly a report on health done by the Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee.

“Roy Romanow did a report on health and it cost $15 million. The Senate did one and it cost less than a half million. I have been told by a lot of health professional that our report is superior,” said Callbeck. “Out of that grew the 2004 Health Accord, where Prime Minister (Paul) Martin put millions of dollars into certain areas, for example pharmaceutical coverage and wait lists.

“It was a 10-year plan. Unfortunately, this year the government did not renew it.”

A report on mental health by that same committee — Out of the Shadows of Mental Health — paved the way for improvements in that area, including the establishment of the Mental Health Commission, although, she added, there still a great deal of work to be done.

An entrepreneur herself, Callbeck enjoyed travelling from coast to coast speaking with other women in business and, as a result, making several recommendations that were implemented by government.

“The committee that I loved the most was finance because you could get into every department in government and you had the opportunity then, whether it was the Department of Fisheries or Industry or whatever, to really get into the programs where P.E.I. was affected and to ask questions and to make sure that we are getting a fair deal.”

It’s that work — giving Islanders a voice — that has been most fulfilling.

“My greatest work within the Senate... was bringing the concerns of Islanders to the floor of the Senate, whether you do that through question period or motions or inquiries,” said Callbeck. “I considered that as a senator it was my responsibility to bring issues of concern to the Senate or if any issue was being debated that concerned this province it was my duty to get up and defend P.E.I.”

And that, she feels, is the role of senators — to represent their constituents, review and reform policy and help implement change that helps Canadians.

If the Senate were to be abolished, if would be that much more difficult for the voice and concerns of Islanders to be heard in Ottawa.

“We have eight Members of Parliament — four in the House of Commons and four in the Senate. The Fathers of Confederation set it up this way and I think they knew what they were doing,” said Callbeck.

“Right now, the House of Commons cannot have fewer seats than the Senate. That means P.E.I. is guaranteed four seats. If that was done away with, and we were representation by population, we would probably only have one MP.

“The Senate is there to review the legislation and make changes, which then have to be approved by the House. It is there for that representation, regional representation, which is extremely important to this part of the country.”