OTTAWA — Two television journalists, an Olympic hero and a covey of Conservative partisans were named to the Senate in a historic volley of patronage by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Broadcaster Mike Duffy, his former colleague Pamela Wallin and Olympic skier Nancy Greene Raine were among 18 Conservatives hoisted into the velvet chamber on Monday.
While the list of nominees included a few household names, most were well-connected Tories such as defeated candidates, campaign organizers and party fundraisers.
Not since John A. Macdonald filled the brand-new Senate of Canada on October 23, 1867 has a prime minister appointed so many people to the upper chamber in a single day.
The vacancies had been piling up for almost three years, while Harper refrained from filling them as he tried in vain to pass legislation that would have made the Senate more democratic.
The government says it's still committed to democratizing the Senate. The new nominees are expected to resign and run for their seats if their province ever introduces elections to the upper chamber.
Only Alberta and Saskatchewan have plans for such elections. Being a Saskatchewan appointment, Wallin might wind up being among the first to give up her seat.
"My guess is she would be happy to run," a government official said.
Wallin was a prominent figure at CTV and CBC, hosting programs ranging from Canada AM to newscasts and game shows before she was named consul-general to New York by the former Liberal government.
Duffy has been a fixture on Parliament Hill for almost 35 years, and he hosted what proved to be the last instalment of his daily political talk show last week on CTV.
Greene Raine helped break the European stranglehold on downhill skiing in the 1960s, most famously by winning gold and silver medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics. She was named Canada's female athlete of the 20th century in a vote by members of The Canadian Press.
The B.C. sports icon, who helped develop the Whistler ski site, will take a seat in Parliament one year before the area hosts the 2010 Winter Olympics.
There is no more sought-after patronage pork than a Senate seat and Harper and his ministers were inundated by hundreds of Conservatives clamouring for a favour.
Appointees will receive a $130,400 annual salary until they retire or reach age 75, followed by a very comfortable pension - and both are indexed to inflation.
Many of the other appointments made Monday went to influential Conservative partisans.
Party stalwart Irving Gerstein, Mulroney-era MP Suzanne Duplessis and defeated Newfoundland MP Fabian Manning are among the other prominent Conservatives going into the upper House.
The list includes a former Quebec sovereigntist.
Government officials defended the selection of Michel Rivard, saying he might have fought for independence in the past but now believes in a united Canada.
Rivard was elected provincially for the Parti Quebecois in 1994 and he campaigned for independence in a referendum the following year. Rivard lost his PQ seat in 1998 and ran unsuccessfully for the Canadian Alliance in the 2000 federal election.
Harper tried to limit senators' terms to eight years but legislation to that effect was stymied in committee.
The governments of Ontario and Quebec also threatened court action against the prime minister's attempt to unilaterally reform the Senate.
Harper's opponents say that without a constitutional amendment, any reform plan would create a chaotic hodge-podge in Parliament and cause more problems than it solves.
At present the Senate only rarely blocks or overturns decisions made in the democratically elected House of Commons.
The prime minister's foes argue that a quasi-elected chamber - where some members are chosen by voters and others aren't, depending on when and where they were appointed - could overpower the elected one.
With Eastern provinces drastically over-represented in the Senate, it would also give that half of the country extra electoral clout.
Harper's timing, just before Christmas when most Canadians are preoccupied with holiday cheer rather than politics, suggests the government wasn't anxious to showcase the appointments.
Opposition parties questioned whether Harper has the political legitimacy for a patronage spree, having averted the defeat of his minority government only by suspending Parliament until the new year.
"Mr. Harper has said repeatedly that he would never appoint senators, including during the last election," said Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. "Canadians cannot understand why he keeps breaking his word. . .
"Appointing senators when he lacks a mandate from Parliament is not acceptable."
Opponents also questioned the timing of the announcement - given the dire state of the economy and public finances. They said filling those 18 seats will cost taxpayers $6 million a year.
"Stephen Harper keeps telling Canadians to tighten their belts," said the NDP's David Christopherson.
"Mr. Harper should be focused on the 71,000 Canadians who lost their jobs last month. These 18 patronage appointments show that when it comes to job creation, Mr. Harper cares more about rewarding his Conservative friends than creating jobs for Canadians."
The prime minister himself has admitted he takes no joy in having to stack the Senate, a move seen by some as tantamount to waving a white flag of surrender on his dream of reforming the chamber.
He noted in a recent TV interview that he waited three years before filling most of the vacant seats, while his opponents in the Senate thwarted his plans to move forward.
Until now Harper had appointed only two senators - Alberta's Bert Brown, victor of a Senate election in his province, and Michael Fortier, who got the plum so that Harper could have a minister from Montreal in his first-term cabinet.
Not since Sir John A. have so many gone to the Senate in a single day
OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper made history Monday by naming more people to the Senate - 18 - in a single day than at any time since Confederation.
Here are some of the other landmark moments in the history of Senate appointments.
-Oct. 23, 1867: Seventy-one senators begin their mandate in the new post-Confederation Parliament after having been appointed by Queen Victoria on the advice of Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. A 72nd nominee, the first Senate Speaker, takes office on Nov. 2.
-April 18, 1945: Twelve new senators begin their mandate, three more take office the next day, and two more are sworn in on June 9, 1945. All 17 are appointed under William Lyon Mackenzie King.
-July 28, 1955: Like Harper, Louis Saint-Laurent sometimes allowed Senate vacancies to accumulate and he sometimes appointed more than a dozen senators around the same time. On this day, 13 new senators take office. Saint-Laurent also appoints 14 over the spring and summer of 1949.
-September 1990: Brian Mulroney names five new senators on Sept. 23, then nine more on the 27th. These 14 are named to help the GST pass through the Senate, taking advantage of a never-used constitutional clause that allows the government to expand the size of the Senate to pass deadlocked legislation.
(Source: Library of Parliament)