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Serge Pelletier

Quebec's Parliament Buildings: Witness To History, Luc Noppen and Gaston Deschenes, Les Publications du Québec, Montreal, 1986, 204 pp.

Who can visit parliament buildings and not be impressed by the solemnity of the place, as though the rooms, the walls, the corridors, even the chairs, breathed history? Some famous political figure comes into your mind -- you imagine him strolling through the very halls where you yourself are walking; in the chamber the guide points out his seat and you hear his voice raised in debate. And the irreverence with which we sometimes regard politicians is, for the moment, forgotten. The physical space where the political history of a nation has been made has a definite symbolic dimension; this makes such sites, both for their own citizens and for tourists, centres of pilgrimage, political Pantheons. The architecture and ornamentation of parliament buildings illustrate the spirit of their people. This reviewer has had the privilege of visiting a good many legislatures, in Canada (the federal Parliament and the legislative assemblies in Quebec City, Toronto, Fredericton and Winnipeg), in Europe (the French National Assembly and Senate, the headquarters of the Belgian Conseil de la Communauté-française) and in Africa (Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Cameroon); and more than any other national monument, parliament buildings are the concrete and visible symbol of a community.

Because of this they are designed, built, decorated, adapted, and preserved from the ravages of time by the best architects, artists and master craftsmen their society has to offer. They are part of the national heritage, perhaps even its crowning glory.

We are, however, not always so familiar with the histories of the buildings. As far as Quebec's National Assembly is concerned, this gap in our knowledge has now been filled by Quebec's Parliament Buildings: Witness to History, a new book by architectural historian Luc Noppen and historian Gaston Descháˆánes. Published to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Eugène-Etienne Taché , the architect who designed the National Assembly, the book succeeds admirably in weaving together the strands of the construction and evolution of the buildings, and the development of parliamentary government in Quebec. From it we learn that the construction one hundred years ago coincided with the consolidation of parliamentary government in Quebec: the overlapping of the executive and legislative functions that characterized parliamentary life after Confederation was reflected in the fact that one building housed both government and parliament. We also learn, coming closer to our own time, that the extensive parliamentary reform sparked by the Quiet Revolution coincided with a major rethinking and modernisation of the National Assembly buildings (which are obviously Quebec's most important historical site). The chapters devoted to architecture and ornamentation are especially interesting. An architectural whole unique in North America, Quebec's parliament buildings adopt with sobriety, practicality and economy of means a variety of trends in French architecture, mainly the Second Empire style of the last half of the XIXth century. The only discordant note is the central tower, which, the authors suggest, may have been inspired by the Middle Ages, but which may also simply have been influenced by the architects. Statues, emblems, coats of arms, frescoes, all suggest Quebec's motto, "Je me souviens" [I remember], although there are some extraordinary lapses in that memory: a statue of Jacques Cartier was never part of the statuary planned for the façade because the discoverer of Canada had fallen into political disgrace.

Ten years of university research covering two centuries of Quebec's political history are synthesised into an essay on parliamentary life that discusses the evolution of parliamentary structures, elections, parliamentarians, the rules of parliamentary procedure, and the working conditions of an MNA. This alone would make the book a unique and indispensable reference tool.

It is also a feast for the eye, amply and strikingly illustrated, as fascinating to skim as to study -- an invaluable complement to a visit to the National Assembly. It will appeal to the lover of history and anecdote, the art enthusiast and the collector of beautiful books. We must hope it is the first of many more in other legislatures.

Serge Pelletier, Association of French Speaking Parliamentarians

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 10 no 4

Last Updated: 2019-11-29