'I don’t see myself as a Liberal senator': Former Alberta mayor charts own path in Senate

The Senate isn’t ‘independent’ former Banff mayor Karen Sorensen admits, but a whiff of independence has been infused with appointments like hers

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This is a conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities.

One of Justin Trudeau’s first promises as a freshly elected prime minister was to transform the Senate into a chamber of independent voices. In 2021. Karen Sorensen of Banff, Alta., was appointed to the Senate.

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Both Alberta’s United Conservative Party and the New Democrats had previously asked Karen to run provincially. As Banff’s former mayor, she had a reputation for being non-partisan and making politics work across party lines and interests. It got me thinking what political box she would check if pressed to do so.

At Karen’s suggestion, we’ve grabbed a coffee (and home-baked granola bars; we’re in Banff after all) at the Good Earth Cafe connected to the Elk and Ave Hotel on the bustling Banff Avenue, and then she leads me to an out-of-the-way nook in the far reaches of the hotel’s lobby where we settle into comfortable couches to talk.

Sitting upright, back ramrod straight, Karen declares, “I don’t see myself as a Liberal senator,” and with conviction adds, “I see myself as completely independent.” But isn’t it tricky, I ask, navigating partisanship within this so-called independent chamber of sober, second thought? How can a truly independent senator function in the realpolitik of Ottawa? Tilting at windmills comes to mind. And look what blew in last month: five new senators picked to fill vacancies for the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Two of these appointees self-identify as Liberal, and were former Liberal politicians.

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“Technically, every one of the 105 appointed senators is an independent senator,” Karen responds, breaking out into a wide smile at the skepticism written all over my face.

Some conservatives choose to sit in either the Conservative senators group or the Canadian senators group, she elaborates, and some Liberals prefer to sit in a progressive senators group. Karen belongs to the largest group in the Senate, the independent senators group, where votes aren’t whipped, she assures me.

How can we adopt the system of carve-outs that pits one region against another?

I believe her when she says no one tells her how to vote. But if push came to shove on a critical piece of legislation, I shake my head and admit to lingering doubts about some of her more politically aligned peers.

Karen’s experience working within less than clear governance structures is unusual, and for that reason, she may well embody the attributes of the “independent” senator that Trudeau promised Canadians in 2015. She was elected mayor of Banff in 2010, and had to learn how to co-govern the town of Banff with Parks Canada, a federal government agency. Banff is one of only two incorporated self-governing municipalities located within a national park in Canada (the other is Jasper).

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“Every piece of land within the municipality of Banff is owned by the federal government and we (the town) lease it,” Karen explains. “You govern (as mayor) by accepting that. You understand that your land-use bylaws are going to be very different than any other municipality in Canada. You understand that there is a commercial growth cap and that you can’t just keep building more hotels and building more stores.”

Two years ago, Karen resigned as Banff’s mayor to join the Senate. In 2019, she’d applied online to be a senator and her resume was shipped to the “Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments” in Ottawa, chaired by Huguette Labelle, a veteran of Liberal politics. From there, Karen’s application was vetted by the Prime Minister’s Office and then she got the call, from Trudeau himself.

Alberta’s premier at the time, Jason Kenney, wanted Alberta’s senators to be elected by Albertans and wasn’t pleased with the process, Karen acknowledges. “He saw it as a slap in the face of Alberta.”

In the Senate, Karen co-chairs the all-party Parliamentary Tourism Caucus and sits on two of 19 standing Senate committees: Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources; and Indigenous Peoples. Behind the pomp and circumstance, it’s hard work reviewing legislation, line by line, and this 64-year-old admits to being tired. Twenty-eight weeks a year, senators crisscross the country, travelling back and forth between their home towns and Ottawa.

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Quite honestly, I’m grateful someone with Karen’s in-the-trenches experience is at that Senate table. She has a knack for connecting people, across the country and across party lines. The Senate isn’t “independent” she admits, but a whiff of independence has been infused with appointments like hers.

Canadian schoolchildren are taught the Senate is a place for sober second thought; I ask Karen, pointedly, what role senators play in averting unwise political choices. If the Senate can’t disrupt, should it even continue to exist?

She pauses for a moment, talks enthusiastically about important votes coming before the Senate, and then raises her eyebrows, ever so slightly, and quietly suggests I take a close look at the Senate’s present review of a private member’s bill, Bill C-234.

Introduced to the House of Commons by a Conservative MP — and supported by all Conservative, NDP, Bloc and Green MPs, as well as three Liberal MPs — Bill C-234 is intended to remove the federal carbon levy from natural gas and propane used by farmers to dry grain and heat barns and greenhouses. When Bill C-234 lands before the Senate’s agriculture and forestry committee, Liberals and some independent senators (including Alberta Sen. Paula Simons, deputy chair of this committee) push for an amendment to the bill, to limit the carbon tax exemption to grain drying operations only. In a Hail Mary vote in the Senate, this week, a majority of senators (including Karen) reject the amendment and the proposed on-farm carbon tax exemption lurches forward.

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At the same time the Senate is deliberating on the scope of this carbon tax exemption for farmers, the Trudeau government announces a three-year carbon tax exemption for home heating oil.

Simons didn’t hold back in expressing her frustration with the Trudeau government:

“How am I, as an Alberta senator, supposed to look at Alberta farmers in the face and tell them that I took a principled stand against carbon tax exemptions when the government has pulled the rug right out from under me? I am not a climate change denier, I am not a carbon tax opponent, what I am is a very frustrated Albertan and a very frustrated deputy chair. How can we support having the tax breaks for one region and not another? How can we adopt the system of carve-outs that pits one region against another? And how can we maintain public confidence in the fairness of our carbon tax regime if we pick and choose exemptions willy-nilly?”

It’s a very sobering second thought.

Donna Kennedy-Glans is active in the energy business and a multi-generational family farm. Her latest book is Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual (2022).

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