At the time this article was written
Marc Bosc was a Procedural Clerk with the Table Research Branch of the House of
In contrast to the present-day
overnight production of a bilingual, verbatim "Hansard", the debates
of the House of Commons were not officially recorded and published in the first
years of Confederation. Instead, Members and the reading public relied on
condensed accounts which appeared in most newspapers. Although incomplete,
these reports nevertheless gave a good sense of the atmosphere in the House and
were often a racier version of the discussions than a purely verbatim
transcription would have been. Today, almost a century later, they are not only
fascinating to read but are also deeply revealing of what one historian has
called "the vitality and spirit of Confederation itself."
To begin with, the atmosphere was
most often conveyed when reporters made parenthetical observations such as the
Hon. gentleman resumed his scat amid loud cheering", or simply
"cheers" or "laughter". Some reporters went further and narrated
much more. For example, one account of Sir John A. Macdonald addressing the
House the day after the assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee begins thus:
Sir John A. Macdonald, amid
profound silence and attention, and manifestly struggling to repress extreme
emotion, which frequently interrupted his delivery, and made him almost
inaudible in some passages, rose ...
1 Some newspapers, particularly the
Globe of Toronto, produced more accurate reports than others, and not
infrequently recorded what others might have left out. In the following extract
from 1870 where a Mr. Ferguson has the floor at the start of the private bills'
hour on a debate to establish the Canada Central Railway Company, the Globe has
preserved something of the early House's infamous ribaldry:
Mr. Ferguson commenced a long speech against the Bill
with the evident purpose of talking out the hour allowed for private bills. In
the course of his remarks, made amid continued interruptions, which the hon.
member took no notice of he exhibited a map of the proposed route, and was
about to refer to it when Hon. Sir George E.. Cartier rose to a point of order.
He said it was out of order to produce any printed document in the House.
Mr. Ferguson said he did not hear
distinctly the observations of the Minister of Militia, and asked him to repeat
Mr. Sir George É. Cartier, amid great laughter, repeated his
objections in French.
Hon. Mr. Macdonald (Cornwall) immediately rose, and, to the
astonishment of the House, proceeded amid roars of merriment to speak in the
Hon. Sir George É. Cartier, again, and essaying to speak in Latin,
managed, with the help of Sir John A. Macdonald, to make himself understood to
the extent of saying that he had risen to call to order that most illustrious
and most learned man, the member for Simcoe. He then said he would speak in
Greek. He then, amid a multitude of noises and much laughter, proceeded to
jumble together a dozen of Greek words, having no connection with each other,
and finishing with the word arqureoro boioio, a scrap from Homer, meaning
"of the silver bow."
Hon. Mr. Le Vesconte, in Spanish, said it was time the
discussion should cease.
Hon. Sir John A. Macdonald was of the opinion of the last speaker.
Hon. Mr. Abbott objected to a
discussion on serious matters being carried on in that house in the Choctaw
language. (Hear, hear.) The hour for private Bills having elapsed the
discussion was postponed.
Regrettably, few speeches in the
French language were transcribed, even by the Quebec newspapers. Even after
1875, when the House agreed to have its debates formally reported, the printed
document was a polyglot, with the French speech appearing in the English
edition in French. In addition, the new publication continued to be a
compressed, rather than a verbatim, report. As a result, there were many
complaints that it was a grossly misleading source to quote from, and many
Members were outraged by the frequently substandard editing of their speeches.
As to the general readership, they received two versions of events, since a
consequence of this somewhat poor beginning for the official
"Hansard" was that the newspapers continued to report the debates and
now went even further in some accounts than ever before.
Examples of this may be found in
the pages of a number of newspapers in mid-April 1878, following a 27-hour,
non-stop debate which to this day has remained unequalled in rowdiness,
drunkenness and generally indecorous behaviour. The official report of a Mr.
Dormville's speech during the debate is tame enough and gives no inkling of
what the London Advertiser's observer saw:
Domville turned up at 6 a.m. ,
after having slept off a strong potation, and took his scat beside Plumb. who
had also slept a great part of the night in his place, and looked as if he
likewise had been afflicted with the prevalent complaint.
Mr. Méthot gave way to Domville at
8 am., who stood up with his garments in such a disordered condition that he
was met by cries of "Button up your pants," shame". etc. Having
buttoned up, Mr. Domville commenced to read from books, and in a serio-comic
way to discuss the question.
By 1880, the House had realized
that the obvious shortcomings of the official, but condensed,
"Hansard" would only be overcome by the adoption of a verbatim report
compiled by employees of the House itself, rather than by outside contractors
as had been the practice since 1875.The necessary steps were taken and
thereafter, the quality and completeness of the report steadily improved and
soon made the condensed newspaper accounts superfluous. Unfortunately, striving
for a fair official report also meant the removal of all unnecessary editorial
notes, such that the saltiness characteristic of the pre- 1875 reports also
disappeared, leaving published volumes which contained only a slightly edited
(for syntax) version of the words spoken.
Naturally, the press continued to
report on goings-on in the Commons, but with this difference --they no longer had
to bother with what professional stenographers now did for them. Instead, they
reported in more general terms on the various debates and their participants. A
sort of equilibrium was reached. Nevertheless, from time to time a member of
the press gallery skilled in shorthand would engage in the old style of
reporting. This is what P.D. Ross of the Montreal Star did on one
occasion in 1886, with interesting results.
One afternoon, while the House was
in Committee of the Whole, Ross found the proceedings wearisomely dull:
Things were so prosy that a notion
came to me to suggest to the public that the speech of the House in Committee
was not always all it might be. In the informal talk that was passing to and
fro, most of the Members were pretty slipshod in their oratory. There were hems
and haws, redundancies and repetitions, coughs and throat clearings, a general
looseness, sometimes dubious grammar. So I set to work to jot down a report
verbatim et lliteratim of a good deal of the discussion, introducing all the
mannerisms, the hems and haws, and all other peculiarities of delivery.
When the ensuing despatch to the
Star appeared in print my version of the discussion was a good deal of
caricature, because owing to the exigencies of newspaper space I had packed it
in tight. In other words, where a Member's talk might take five minutes, 1 had
all his peculiarities packed into about one minute. The result was thick with
absurdity. 1 must confess 1 was a little surprised myself at the look of the
thing in print.
Dozens of similar extracts could be
reproduced to illustrate the old reportorial methods. In the end, however, and
despite the romantic attachment some of us may have to the lively style of
pre-Hansard legislative reporting, the House has been infinitely better served
since the adoption of an official, verbatim report of its debates. What we have
from the early years of Confederation, as interesting as it may be, can only
begin to fill the void. What is lost, sadly, is lost forever.