Government scrambles to bring senators back to Ottawa to avoid pot bill defeat

In an effort to stave off an embarrassing defeat on one of the Trudeau government’s most prominent campaign promises, some Independent senators were called back to Ottawa today to cast votes to move the marijuana bill to its next stage.

The cannabis legalization bill, C-45, is currently at second reading in the upper house. If the Conservatives can cobble together enough votes today, they can kill the bill and force the government to restart the legislative process in the House of Commons, putting in jeopardy a plan to legalize the drug for recreational use by summer.

The timing of the vote is not yet final, but it’s likely to happen between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. ET.

Two Senate committees are currently on the road, meaning some Independent and Liberal senators who support the bill were scheduled to be out of town today.

Non-affiliated Alberta Sen. Grant Mitchell, the government’s liaison — who works as a whip without some of the same coercive powers normally afforded to a partisan caucus — and Independent Quebec Sen. Marc Gold, the liaison for the Independent Senators Group, were busy working the phones Wednesday night, encouraging senators to show up in Ottawa Thursday.

Non-affiliated Alberta Sen. Grant Mitchell, the government’s liaison, was busy working the phones Wednesday night to ask Independent and Liberal senators to come back to Ottawa for a vote on the cannabis bill. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

An unknown number of senators flew back to vote in support of the legislation. Other senators were asked to cancel plans to travel back to their home provinces.

“They are making a special effort to fly back here if they need to, so they can be here and vote according to how they believe the vote should go,” Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, the leader of the Independent Senators Group, told reporters Thursday.

“As soon as we heard that there was a possibility of a blocked vote on the part of the Conservatives and that there was the possibility that they, the Conservatives, might run the risk of defeating a bill at second reading — which would be extraordinary — we wanted to communicate that with our members so they could make their own decision about coming back and be part of this historic decision.”

A government official, speaking on background, said the government is “cautiously optimistic” enough Independent and Liberal senators will be present to stop Tory efforts to vote the bill down.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged senators to pass the bill, saying illegal cannabis use — a $7 billion industry that funnels funds into the hands of organized crime, according to government figures — will continue unabated without the benefit of federal regulations.

“It does not protect our young people, and it sends billions per year to organized crime and street gangs. We need a new system,” he said. “That’s why we are pushing forward with legalization and control of marijuana and I’m confident that all Canadians, including the senators, will understand that.”

The 33 Conservative senators generally vote in lockstep on government legislation, since they all still sit as members of a national party caucus.

Peter Harder, the Liberal government’s point-man in the Senate, said Thursday morning he simply wasn’t sure he had the votes to get the bill over the line today.

Senators discuss how they will vote on the Liberals cannabis bill. 2:03

“I am never assured how any vote in the Senate will unfold and, therefore, it would be presumptive of me to predict. What I can tell you is that Conservative senators have said they will be voting against this,” he said. “This is a serious vote on a very important bill.”

Scathing reviews of cannabis bill

Conservative senators have delivered scathing condemnations of the legislation that will legalize the recreational use of cannabis in this country.

Tory senators say they worry the legislation will endanger youth, increase smoking rates, complicate the work of police officers, lead to a backlog of court cases for possession offences and do little to curb black market sales of the drug.

“It’s a piece of shit. It doesn’t protect people, it will not exclude organized crime from the production. So, most senators say this bill was written badly,” Conservative Quebec Sen. Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu told reporters Thursday ahead of the vote.

“We have to rewrite the bill. It will be a good exercise for us. Every article must be amended.”

Peter Harder is the government’s representative in the Senate 1:07

The Conservative leader in the Senate, Larry Smith, said he had no qualms about voting against the bill at second reading, and balked at Independent Que. Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain’s claim that the Conservatives’ opposition is motivated strictly by partisanship.

“I think that is inappropriate. The issue is, it’s up to the government if it wants to progress its legislation. It has to get its members to come and vote,” he said. “They have to get their troops organized to make sure they get the vote they want.”

A defeat at this stage in the Senate would kill the cannabis bill. (Evan Mitsui/CBCNews)

Conservative Sen. Don Plett, the caucus whip, said government efforts to marshal Independent senators — and fly them back to Ottawa for a vote — prove that the ‘Independent’ label is a farce.

“Justin Trudeau’s biggest problem is his independently appointed senators have been told they’re independent for so long that now some of them are starting to believe that,” he said.

“Tell me how they are not whipped. Senators were out of the province and they were flown home today for the vote. That’s what I would call being whipped. You check the definition of what a whip does and that’s exactly what they do, and that’s exactly what they did.”

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