In April 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada issued one of the more depressing rulings in its history: Voters, the judges said in a unanimous decision, were constitutionally forbidden from electing members of the Canadian Senate.

The Conservative government of the time had promised to end Canada’s status as one of the world’s few bicameral democracies without an elected upper house of Parliament — its 105 seats are filled by prime ministerial appointments who serve until they choose to quit or reach the mandatory retirement age of 75. In rejecting draft legislation that would have mandated Senate elections organized by the provinces, the court argued “consultative elections for the nomination of Senators would change our Constitution’s architecture, by endowing Senators with a popular mandate which is inconsistent with the Senate’s role as a complementary legislative chamber of sober second thought” — that is, a chamber Canada’s founders explicitly intended to be an elitist check on the “democratic excesses” of the elected lower house.

At the time, the ruling was seen as putting a stake through the heart of a democratic cause that had animated Canadians since at least the progressive era, if not the day after the constitution was written. Barring a federal government willing to instigate the complex chore of passing a constitutional amendment, an unelected Senate appeared here to stay. The Conservative Party accepted defeat and ceased to agitate on what had previously been one of its signature issues, while Justin Trudeau’s Liberals reimagined the idea of an unelected upper house as an opportunity to celebrate diversity and technocratic nonpartisanship.

And yet, last week a curious thing happened: Alberta elected a senator.

Alberta, the province most doggedly committed to the cause of an elected Senate, has held four unilateral Senate elections since 1989. Ten senators were elected by voters, all conservatives of one sort or another. Five were later appointed to the Senate by Conservative prime ministers when vacancies in Alberta’s Senate caucus opened up. The last such election was held in 2012. In 2016, Alberta’s then-New Democratic Party government allowed the relevant election legislation to lapse, presumably encouraged by the 2014 ruling.

The NDP was voted out in 2019, and a new Conservative government under Premier Jason Kenney restored Senate elections. The name of the province’s 11th elected “senator-in-waiting” will soon be revealed.

Kenney’s move was oddly uncontroversial given how brazenly defiant of the court it was. His rhetoric portrayed the fight for an elected Senate as a debate that was still ongoing, and though last week’s vote was certainly mocked in some corners, there’s no indication Albertans were afraid to participate in it, and no injunctions prevented it from happening.

Kenney’s bluff-calling emerges from a democratic paradox. If Alberta held an election for king of England it would be self-evidently irrelevant, given how that job is chosen. An election to Canada’s unelected Senate, by contrast, can easily be honored so long as there’s a prime minister willing to do so.

In its 2014 ruling, the Supreme Court tried to engage with this dilemma by asserting that even a nonbinding vote to subvert the original intent of the founders was unacceptable. The Conservative government, cleverly, had argued that so long as the prime minister retained his theoretical power to ignore Senate elections, such elections could exist within the letter of the constitution.

“We cannot assume that future prime ministers will defeat this purpose by ignoring the results of costly and hard-fought consultative elections,” the court said.

But how can the court guarantee that Alberta’s next senator-in-waiting will not eventually make his or her way to the Senate anyway? A future prime minister could always just claim to have independently reached the conclusion that last week’s winner was the best person to fill Alberta’s next Senate opening — the fact they also happened to win an unconstitutional Senate election was just a random coincidence, Your Honors.

While it’s certainly possible future litigation could attempt to tie the hands of prime ministers more explicitly (though it would be paradoxical for the court to encourage the prime minister’s unilateral appointment powers while also restricting his appointments to persons untainted by a popular election), for the time being, the Alberta precedent suggests reports of the death of Canadian Senate reform may have been premature. In response, non-Albertans should ask their provincial premiers why they’re not having Senate elections of their own to pressure the prime minister into appointing people they actually want representing them. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party should state clearly that, barring evidence the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling is enforceable, it remains party policy to appoint senators endorsed by voters.

Kenney is not a popular man these days, and his political legacy, if not his political survival, looks highly ambiguous. In reviving the cause of Senate democracy, however, he deserves big applause — and should be bigger news.