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Parliamentary Reporting in Canada
Charles Fisher

Charles Fisher was a former Hansard reporter for the House of Commons.

In May 1980, Hansard celebrated its centenery amid general applause. Tribute was paid to the past and the achievements of notable men were recalled. Even then, reasonably enough, speculation was turning to the likely course of parliamentary reporting in the next 100 years, especially in the light of the relatively new word processing and recording technology which is currently delighting or upsetting just about everybody concerned with the printed word. In this article a former parliamentary reporter and consultant to the Administrator of the House of Commons, outlines his views on the future of parliamentary reporting.

Possibly on the principle that all institutions, even venerable ones like Hansard, should look around from time to time and enquire how others are getting along, the Administrator of the House of Commons, Mr. Art Silverman, decided early in 1981 that the time had come to make a wide-ranging study of parliamentary reporting methods in use not only throughout Canada but in major centres abroad.

No one who reviews reporting procedures adopted in national parliaments can fail to note the number and influence of the institutions which continue to rely on manual reporting by shorthand writers. They include and this may come as a surprise to some the United Kingdom, the United States Senate and House of Representatives, the United Nations, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Japanese Diet and Australia. All these institutions, on the surface at least, are still using the methods which served so well in 188 1, save that the fountain pen has replaced the quill and that the typewriter, one supposes, has everywhere superseded transcription in longhand. Which shows, of course, how effective those methods have proved themselves to be.

One should be cautious, though, before assuming that nothing of importance has changed. Reporters nowadays, as everyone knows, have access to an important resource which was not formerly available. In this generation they may, for the first time, turn to a taped record and reconsider precisely what was said, no matter how rapid the speaker or how garbled his syntax.

At the very least, then, the tape is a marvellous aid to reporting along traditional lines. It is not an unalloyed blessing, though, mainly because the tape, presumably free from "error" and readily available – for comparison purposes, let us say – to all who are interested, is very often incompatible with "good" parliamentary reporting (judged by standards of the past) which has never, for sound literary and other reasons, been as verbatim as many have supposed. Undoubtedly the use or availability of the tape has influenced parliamentary reporting a great deal and one effect has been a trend toward strictly verbal accuracy at the expense of style or meaning. Another has been to slow up the process of transcription: the old hands were "whizzes" and there seem fewer of them today as notebooks take second place to tapes (except, predictably enough, in the United Kingdom House of Commons where the Speaker has ruled to the contrary in a gallant show of support for tradition).

Editors with long experience, for example the editors of Hansard in the House of Lords, claim that no electronic system yet devised can replace the judgement of an experienced reporter. On the other hand, editors of Canadian provincial Hansards point with pride to their electronically-generated records produced on the basis of advanced electronic equipment. And no one suggests that these are not satisfactory to all concerned. It depends, one must suppose, upon the nature of the record which is demanded (or "deemed" to be demanded) by the legislators concerned.

In this area of electronic aids generally, the methods pioneered and successfully established by the provinces, especially in Quebec and Ontario where increasingly heavy workloads are now being handled, seem bound before long to influence the practice elsewhere. Despite the traditional conservatism of national parliaments it is hard to believe that transcription and editing "on screen", computer storage of information, direct transmission of text to printing machinery via interface and, indeed, the whole parcel of "informatics" will not become a commonplace of reporting office procedures during the eighties. Though this is not the situation at the present time, one cannot imagine a busy and vital service remaining as a Dickensian enclave while elsewhere people are pouring words like beads from one column to another, editing, inserting and aligning at the touch of a few buttons. We all remember what happened to Widow Partington.

The new equipment will make the work easier; it may also make production less expensive, particularly at the printing end. But all this (for the writer, at least) is incidental to the more interesting question which arises when the record is founded directly on what is heard from a cassette rather than on a reporter's transcript? It is: what kind of Hansard will be acceptable, say in the next 20 years or so, to members of Parliament and the public generally, bearing in mind our changing perceptions; of both the spoken and the written word The question is far from academic. For one thing. it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit people who combine a good knowledge of parliamentary procedure with a feeling for language, a great deal of general knowledge and the ability to write shorthand under stress at speed of 250 words a minute on occasion. In an age in which the oratory of a Burke or a Lloyd George is only memory and may even seem out of place, would not the strictly verbatim record, perhaps with minimal editing be sufficient for all reasonable purposes?

It is not hard to see the assumption on upon which the scientists are proceeding. Pressed to predict when voice driven typewriters will appear, an IBM speech processing consultant writing for a widely read scientific journal said: "If funding is maintained at a fairly high level, we can reasonably expect to have usable continuous speech recognition systems and large vocabularies in fifteen or twenty years."

Finally, in case some might think this IBM prophecy ushers in the millenium metaphorically as well as literally, here is part of the verbatim report of a speech made recently before a body which, although sufficiently august, need not be identified; it will illustrate the dilemma in which Hansard editors all over the world so often find themselves and perhaps it will suggest the shape of things to come.

Now Sir, :in conclusion, I humbly submit that the dilemma for the resolution of the conscience outlook is the only remedy. It is said that abhorrence for the learned in his infidelities and the inept in his devotions our times are impatient of both especially of the last. Let us not be pestered with assertions and half-truths, with emotion and scuffle. In closing decades of 20th century, these cannot conceivably solve any problem and indeed it is the source of positive danger to mankind or words to that effect.

It declares that this community of interest, in interests makes all men, otherwise differently interested partners in the great enterprise of replacing evil with good and good with better, so as to achieve best possible. It is a proverb that to cut the cackles is never conducive to the mankind. Also it is not humanitarian to be with faraggo of twisted facts. God save us from the sprangles of cataclysm... And the scuttles of this ship should be repaired expeditiously by this august body. It is said that one man's mickle is another's muckle.

Sir, I greatly appreciate and express my warm gratitude to you by giving me the floor of this august house. Well, whatever happens we can all say amen to that!


Canadian Parliamentary Review, vol. 5 no 1, 1982

Aside from the Manitoba provincial election, there were no elections or by-elections in Parliament or the legislative assemblies during the period from November 1981 to January 1982. There were a number of appointments and retirements but there was also one very unfortunate event. The parliamentary community in Ottawa was saddened by the death, in a traffic accident, of Bruce Lonsdale, Member of Parliament for Timiskaming.


Charles Lussier became Clerk of the Senate on January 1, 1982. A native of Montreal, Mr. Lussier studied law at both McGill University and the University of Montreal. He practiced law until 1957 when he became Director of La Maison des étudiants canadiens in Paris. Four years later the Quebec Government chose him to head its General Delegation in France. Since 1965 Mr. Lussier has held a number of important positions with the federal government both in Canada and abroad. He was a member of the Public Service Commission of Canada from 1970-76 and Director of the Canada Council of the Arts from 1976 until his recent appointment. Mr. Lussier replaced Robert Fortier who retired after having been Clerk since 1968.

On January 4,1982, Philip Laundy took up his duties as Clerk at the Table, House of Commons. Mr. Laundy was formerly Director of the Library of Parliament's Research Branch, a position he held since its foundation in 1965. An expert in parliamentary procedure, Mr. Laundy served as a special adviser to the Procedure Committee chaired by Speakers Alan MacNaughton and Lucien Lamoureux during the mid1960s when the procedures of the House were undergoing a complete reform. He is the author of several books including The Office of Speaker which is currently, being revised under sponsorship of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. In addition to his duties at the Table, Mr. Laundy is Secretary to the Commonwealth Speakers Conference.

In the provinces one new Lieutenant-Governor, Mr. George F. Stanley, and two new Sergeants-at-arms Cyril LeMessurier Kirby and Linton MacDonald have been appointed.

A historian, originally from Calgary, Mr. Stanley had previously taught at the University of British Columbia, the Royal Military College in Kingston, and Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. In 1964 he suggested a design for a Canadian flag which was eventually the one adopted by Parliament. Following the swearing-in ceremony on January 27, 1982, Mr. Stanley became New Brunswick's twenty-fifth Lieutenant-Governor.

Mr. Kirby, 65, a native of Lamaline, Newfoundland succeeded A.E. Hemmens as Sergeant-at-Arms of the Newfoundland House of Assembly. Mr. Kirby served with the 1st Volunteer Contingent Royal Artillery and 166th Newfoundland Royal Artillery during World War II. His appointment was effective November 12, 1981.

At the conclusion of the third session of the Nineteenth Legislature, Members of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly paid tribute to Archie R. Ponto who served as Sergeant-at-Arms from 1963 to 1965 and from 1971 to 198 1. Mr. Ponto has been succeeded by Linton MacDonald who now becomes the ninth person to hold the position of Sergeant-at-Arms for the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly. Mr. MacDonald, who commenced duties with the opening of the Fourth Session on November 16, 1981, is the immediate past secretary of the Saskatchewan Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion and has also worked as a teacher, businessman and rural municipality secretary.

Resignations and Retirements

On December 17th the Senate paid tribute to retiring senators Allister Grosart and Keith Laird. Senator Grosart is a former Director of the Progressive Conservative party. He played a key role in organizing that party's overwhelming victory in the 1958 general election. Since being appointed to the Senate he has served as both Deputy Government Leader and Deputy Opposition Leader. In 1979, during the Clark administration, he was named Speaker of the Senate. For many years Senator Grosart was active in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. He is a former Chairman of the Federal Branch of CPA and a former regional representative on CPA's executive committee. In recognition of his many years' service he has been honoured with a life membership by the Federal Branch.

Senator Laird was praised for his quiet and efficient work as Chairman of the Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration. His background in law and business also made him a particularly valuable member of the Standing Committee on Banking. Trade and Commerce. Between them Senators Grosart and Laird had some 35 years experience in the Senate. Following their retirement there were fourteen vacancies in the Upper House.

Effective December 29, 1981 Claude Morin. Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs resigned his portfolio and seat in the Quebec National Assembly. Mr. Morin joined the Parti Québécois in 1972 after several years as a constitutional adviser to both Liberal and Union National governments in Quebec. First elected in 1976 he was an influential figure in that party's strategy both in the referendum debate and the constitutional negotiations which eventually isolated Quebec from the rest of the provinces in its opposition to federal proposals to amend and revise the constitution. Before entering politics Mr. Morin taught public administration at the Ecole Nationale d'Adniinistration, a job to which he is now returning.

On November 17, Claude Forget former Social Affairs Minister in the Liberal Government of Robert Bourassa resigned as the member of the National Assembly for St. Laurent, a seat he had held since 1973. The main reason for his resignation was the unhealthy state of the Quebec economy. He said neither the government or his own party were able to see beyond the constitutional debate in order to advance the kind of measures he felt were necessary.

In Ontario Stuart Smith, resigned his seat in the House having already resigned as leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. A native of Montreal, he was first elected to the Ontario legislature in 1976, and was elected Leader of his party just four months later. Following the 1977 election he became Leader of the Official Opposition. After failing to improve the party's position in the 1981 election he decided to resign as leader. On January 25, 1981, Dr. Smith, a psychiatrist by training, was named Chairman of the Science Council of Canada.

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 5 no 1

Last Updated: 2020-03-03