OTTAWA — Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo on Wednesday became the first cabinet minister to submit to questioning in the Senate as the upper house adapts to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's plan for a more independent, less partisan chamber.
Standing in the centre aisle of the upper chamber, Tootoo responded respectfully to more than a dozen detailed questions about policies and programs that fall under his portfolio.
Both Liberal and Conservative senators declared the 30-minute session an improvement over the traditional question period held in the Senate.
"I think it was a good exercise, historic, first time," said Sen. Claude Carignan, Conservative leader in the Senate.
"To have a minister ... that we could question on everything about his portfolio, I think that's a good exercise."
Ordinarily, the government leader in the Senate fields queries on behalf of all government departments during the chamber's daily question period. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not named a government leader, forcing the Senate to find alternate ways to hold the government to account.
Sen. James Cowan, leader of the independent Senate Liberals, said the session with Tootoo was "more substantive" than the more general questions and vague, talking-point answers normally elicited during question period. Carignan agreed and suggested the new exercise may also help make the much-maligned Senate more relevant.
"The people will understand more what we're doing here and how knowledgeable we are on our files," he said.
Senators chose to invite Tootoo first because his portfolio is of special interest to the four Atlantic provinces, where no opposition MPs were elected who could grill the government in the House of Commons.
The ministerial question period has emerged as a result of Trudeau's determination to reduce partisanship in the Senate in a bid to return it to its intended purpose as an independent chamber of sober second thought. He kicked all senators out of the national Liberal caucus two years ago and recently set up an arm's-length advisory board to recommend non-partisan nominees for future Senate appointments.
He intends to eventually choose a "government representative" in the upper house from among the first five senators named through the new "merit-based" process.
While that government representative may end up fielding queries in more traditional question periods, senators are hoping they'll still be able to grill a minister directly at least once each week.
Dominic LeBlanc, the government's House leader, said Wednesday's session with Tootoo was "a very important beginning" that gives senators a chance to fulfil their original constitutional responsibility to represent the regions of the country.
"I hope it signals a new level of respect for and co-operation with the Senate," he added.
As a minister from Nunavut, Tootoo said it was fitting that he should be the one "breaking the ice" on the Senate's new approach to question period.
"The fact that I've come from a consensus-style government that we have in Nunavut, it's kind of a neat thing to be the first one to appear before the Senate."
By Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press