The House of Commons at Work by
John A. Fraser, Les Éditions de la Chenelière, Montreal, 1993, 195 p.
Shortly before he retired in 1949
Arthur Beauchesne, longtime Clerk of the House of Commons, wrote a charming
little civics primer entitled Canada's Parliament. With his departure
the book disappeared and it remains virtually unknown to even the most
dedicated students of Parliament. It would be unfortunate, although not
altogether surprising, if the same thing happened to this work.
John Fraser will be remembered as a
passionate parliamentarian with a special interest in environmental matters. He
was the first Speaker of the House of Commons chosen by secret ballot in 1986.
One of his passions was to make the work of the House of Commons better known
and appreciated by the general public. Hence the decision to write this book, a
project he describes as his contribution to the 125th anniversary of
The book presents in clear and
straightforward terms some widely available facts about our constitution and
form of government including the role of the Senate, the House of Commons and
Committees. Other chapters contain less well know facts about House services
and administrative structures including a marvelous full page chart on the
process used by the Human Resources Directorate to fill a staff vacancy.
According to this chart there are no less than 17 steps in the House's hiring
process starting with receipt of a request from an authorized manager and
ending with a letter of confirmation of appointment!
There is a useful glossary of
parliamentary terms and a rather less useful Appendix of the House's sitting
days. These are set out in the Standing Orders but frequently altered to in
The failure to distinguish between
how things are supposed to work on paper and how they really work in practice
is one of the major shortcomings of the book. It is also a bit disappointing
that a book on the House of Commons contains virtually no discussion of
prospects for legislative reform. This could be justified on grounds that the
book is designed to present a number of facts leaving it to the reader to form
his or her own opinion about how our Parliament works. However, this ignores
the greatest difficult in educating Canadians about our parliamentary system —
the tendency to confuse aspects of the American congressional system with the
Westminster parliamentary one. Bombarded as we are by American popular culture
every pedagogic tool about Canadian government should start by explaining the
basic differences. A few introductory paragraphs along these lines would go a
long way to improving the book as a teaching device.
The book concludes by briefly
contrasting Canada's peaceful kingdom to the political chaos in much of the
world. It notes the role Canada has played in assisting other countries
struggling to establish democracy. Exchange programs and visits are educational
for all sides. But the increasing respect for constitutionalism and rule of law
we see emerging elsewhere has more to do with local forces than with anything
the West in general or Canada in particular is able to offer. Our intentions
are noble but there is little evidence to suggest that any new democracy has
actually opted for Canadian style government or that Canada's Parliament has
been a model as suggested on the concluding pages of this book.