the time this article was written George MacMinn was Clerk of the Legislative
Assembly of British Columbia. Robert Vaive was Clerk Assistant of the
British Columbia Legislative Assembly and President of the Association of
Clerks-at-the Table in Canada.
The Clerks of Canada’s
Parliament and legislative assemblies are committed to serve parliamentary
institutions with political impartiality, dedication and sincere respect. In
fulfilling this role during often passionate parliamentary debate, the Clerk
sits alone at the Table, never uttering a word, never speaking unless called
upon to do so by the Speaker. Clerks are not players in the political
arena and their names are seldom engraved for posterity. They are the
ever-present, ever-watchful managers of the interaction evolving before them on
the floor of the House, sometimes rowdy activity, sometimes dull and passive,
sometimes abusive of parliamentary procedure - and sometimes dramatic and
touching. Clerks are the silent facilitators of these political exchanges
which they attempt to shape into proper parliamentary form, thus discreetly
helping to preserve parliamentary democracy. This is the Clerk’s
single-minded resolve -respect for Parliament. This article looks at the
origins of the office in the Great Britain and at some of the individuals who
have held the office in Canadian legislatures, and how the office has evolved
in recent years.
Parliament is not about the
power of government; nor is it about the pursuit of special interests and
single-issue politics. It is not about using parliamentary procedure to
impede and interfere with the government’s legislative programme; nor is it
about silencing the opposition and other minority parties. Rather it is
about ensuring that through their elected representatives the people’s opinions
and ideas and concerns are heard. Parliament is not a threat to
government, on the contrary it helps make legitimate the exercise of executive
power. It provides detailed examination of legislation, approves
government expenditures and ensures government’s accountability in its use of
power and in its spending.
The Clerk is responsible for the
procedural services to the House and, as such, is the principal adviser to the
House on the privileges, procedures and practices of Parliament.
Procedurally, the Clerk also advises any Member who may seek assistance
on questions of order or about the proceedings of the House, and on any other
matter relating to the duties and responsibilities of a Member. The Clerk
is also responsible for the preparation and printing of the daily Order Paper
and the Votes and Proceedings of the House, as well as being the custodian of
records and other documents of the House, including legislation throughout its
stages and proceedings related thereto.
The Clerk is heavily involved in
matters relating to the administration of the services of the House, including
direction of legislative staff, payment of allowances and salaries, provision
of financial, logistical and protective services, as well as library, Hansard
and committee services.
Neither the Clerk of the House
nor Clerks Assistant are public servants. The Clerk is appointed by order
of the Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council in most provincial jurisdictions, or as
in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island by resolution of the Legislative
Assembly. The Clerk of the Senate and Clerk of Parliaments, as well as
the Clerk of the House of Commons, are appointed by Order-in-Council.
Origins of the Office
The profession of Clerk has its
origins in the thirteenth century and has had an unbroken existence ever since.
The first appointment of an official to attend on Parliament was in a secretarial
or recording capacity in 1363, and while it would be inappropriate and somewhat
hazardous to comment on incumbent or recently retired Table Officers a brief
comment on two British Clerks may assist in “fleshing out” this relatively
The first Clerk Assistant, John
Rushworth, was appointed Clerk Assistant to the House of Commons at
Westminster in April 1640 at the request of Henry Elsing, the Clerk of the
Commons. On January 4, 1642, Charles the 1st of England burst into the
Chamber of the House of Commons demanding that five Members be surrendered to
him immediately and thereby precipitated one of the most dramatic moments in
the long history of Parliament. This moment has been captured and
recreated by many artists over the years, but the most famous of these
renderings can be seen at Westminster immediately adjacent to the Central
Lobby, and portrays Charles listening to Speaker Lenthall’s refusal to deliver
up the Members the King demanded. Immediately to the left of this
dramatic scene, the Clerk’s Table is portrayed showing the Clerk Assistant John
Rushworth diligently taking notes for the Journal, while the Clerk of the day,
Henry Elsing, is looking over his shoulder immobilized by fear. (See cover of
this issue) Some Clerks Assistant today might observe that in over
300 years nothing much has changed! Had the Clerk Assistant of that
day not made a careful note of the events on January 4, 1642, one of the most
important moments in the history of Parliament may well have been lost forever.
Sir Thomas Erskine May
(1815-1886), Clerk of the House of Commons at Westminster (1871), is remembered
largely as the author of the definitive authority in the Commonwealth on
parliamentary practice, but it cannot be emphasised enough that without the
devoted and scholarly work of successive Clerks and their team of assistants,
the original editions of Erskine May would be so outdated as to be of
little use to modern Parliaments. Erskine May’s Private Journal
1857-1882: Diary of a Great Parliamentarian makes fascinating reading for
not only Table Officers, but those interested in the parliamentary scene in the
1800s. It also revealed that Erskine May himself might have had some
difficulty passing the non-partisan test so essential to the successful Clerk
today. Witness the contents of a personal note from Erskine May to the
Prime Minister of the day, William Gladstone:
“House of Commons
February 3, 1871
My dear Mr. Gladstone,
I scarcely know how to express
my sense of all your kindness and consideration in reference to my appointment.
It is a particular satisfaction to me to have received it at your hands;
and the manner in which the favour has been conferred has made it doubly
gratifying. I must be permitted to add that I hope it will long be my
pleasure to witness, from my Chair at the Table, your continued triumphs as
Leader of the House of Commons.
T. Erskine May”
Some Notable Canadian Clerks
At the federal level two names
immediately come to mind when one thinks of the office of the Clerk. John
George Bourinot was Clerk of the House of Commons from 1880 until his death in
1901. He was well known for his study on parliamentary procedure and he
wrote a number of other scholarly books and articles. Arthur Beauchesne was
Clerk of the House for twenty four years from 1925 to his retirement in 1949.
He also wrote a book on parliamentary procedure and it has been revised
and expanded several times since his death.
Aside from Bourinot and Beauchesne
several Clerks both in Ottawa and the provinces have produced professional
tools to assist in the understanding of parliamentary jurisprudence and
practice. These include The Annotated Standing Orders of the House of
Commons published in 1989, under the authority of Robert Marleau, Clerk of
the House of Commons; Parliamentary Practice in British Columbia, third
edition, 1997 (first edition, 1981), authored by George MacMinn, Clerk of the
Legislative Assembly of British Columbia; and several editions of The Précis
of Procedure, prepared by the Table Research Branch of the House of
Commons. The House of Commons and some provincial jurisdictions
publish a compendium of summaries of important Speaker’s rulings. For
example, the Quebec National Assembly publishes annually, under the authority
of Pierre Duchesne, the Secretary General of the National Assembly, the Recueil
de décisions concermant la procédure parlementaire.
Anything of significance that
happens in the House is recorded in the Journals of the House, and the Journal
is one of the prime responsibilities of the Clerk and his or her assistants.
There are a number of other
Clerks who deserve mentioning either for their longevity or some other
distinction. In British Columbia the benchmark for clerking is E.K. DeBeck,
Q.C., who served as Clerk of the House from 1949 to 1973. Held in great
affection by his peers and Members alike “Ned” as he was universally known, had
a career in law and was Superintendent of Brokers before becoming Clerk of the
House. On his death, at age 91, the Speaker of the day referred to Ned
DeBeck in the following terms “In an area often filled with incivility he was
the soul of gentlemanly composure. Although he looked frail enough to be
bowled over by the wind, he was as hearty as pampas grass and the most alert
person of his age in memory and perception. He will live not only in the
Journals of the House, but in the rules of parliamentary conduct he helped to
maintain.” Ned never lost his sense of humour even in crisis situations
and was much more than the custodian of the sometimes dry rules of procedure.
He was, in every way, a confidante to the Members and in his obituary in
the Victoria Colonist of January 14, 1975, was aptly described as the
“Father of the House”. The main lounge in the Legislative Assembly of
British Columbia is called the Ned DeBeck Lounge.
A few other former Clerks are
perhaps worthy of mention due to the unusual circumstances surrounding their
careers. For example, two provincial Clerks, both from Saskatchewan, have
gone on to hold similar office in Ottawa. Charles Beverley Koester was
Clerk of the Saskatchewan Legislature from 1960 to 1969 and he later became
Clerk of the House of Commons from 1980 to 1987. His successor in
Saskatchewan, Gordon Barnhart, was Clerk in the province from 1969 to 1989
before becoming Clerk of the Senate where he served from 1989 to 1994.
In Ontario Major Alexander Lewis
was Clerk from 1926 to 1954 and was succeeded by his son, Roderick Lewis, Q.C.
who was Clerk from 1955 to 1986. The first woman to hold the Office of
Clerk in a Canadian legislature was Betty Duff of Newfoundland.
Of course the Office of Clerk
includes more than just the Clerk. In every jurisdiction there have been
Deputy Clerks, Clerks Assistant, Law Clerks and other Table Officers who have
made a significant contribution to the development of parliamentary government
in Canada. One such individual was Gordon Dubroy, a Clerk Assistant in
the Canadian House of Commons who served at the Table from 1968 to 1975.
Prior to becoming a Table Officer he was Chief of the English Journals.
Enormously knowledgeable on matters of procedure, personally colourful, Gordon
was possessed of a prodigious memory for faces, names and constituencies.
Within a very few days of a new Parliament, he was able to stand in the
House of Commons and without notes correctly identify all 264 Members of the
Commons without making a single error. When called upon by innumerable
Table Officers in the provinces for assistance, he was prompt and helpful with
The Evolution of the Office
in Recent Years
Over the last two decades the
profession of Clerk-at-the-Table has evolved. The composition of the
Table, the arrival and departure of Clerks, the mobility of Clerks among
jurisdictions, the professional development of Canadian Clerks, technological
innovations and procedural reforms have contributed to this evolution.
Increasing numbers of seats, progressively longer and more frequent
sessions, the volume and complexity of government legislative and spending
programmes, increase in committee work, as well as the increasing complexity of
the role of Members, have also been contributing factors in the changing of the
Clerk’s role. The total growth of legislative budgets in all
jurisdictions from $257 million in 1981 to $530 million in 1996 (as reported in
Fleming’s Canadian Legislatures, 1997, 11th edition) reflects
the added responsibilities which have been assumed by the Clerk.
Hence the arrival of more
professional management of legislatures in the 1980s. In the late
seventies and early eighties, there was a proliferation of boards of internal
economy or legislative assembly management committees. These committees
asserted more administrative control over the legislative precinct, and as a
result devolved administrative responsibilities to the Clerk in the process of
reviewing all areas of assembly administration and expenditures.
Recently, rapid technological
change has created possibilities for parliamentary assemblies to provide a more
dynamic and cost-effective menu of services to Members. The manner in
which Parliament conducts its business today is markedly different than 20
years ago. Under the stewardship of their Clerks, parliamentary
assemblies have adopted new and increasingly sophisticated technologies, which
have in turn completely altered the procedural and administrative framework
within which Clerks function.
The following are some of these
new technological initiatives:
- Most legislatures in Canada have introduced
gavel-to-gavel broadcasting of their proceedings on a dedicated television
channel. This practice has also been extended to the proceedings of
some parliamentary committees on an ad hoc basis.
- Parliamentary committees in some jurisdictions, such as
the House of Commons and Manitoba, have employed video conferencing, using
long-distance telephone lines between two (point-to-point) or more
(multi-point) specially equipped centres.
- Assemblies have also implemented local area networks,
thereby providing Members and staff with electronic mail and other
intranet services. Internet sites provide access to information on virtually
all aspects of assembly operations, from the status of legislation and the
daily business of the House to membership of committees. Many
parliamentary documents produced by the Office of the Clerk are now being
distributed more efficiently to a wider audience by means of the Internet.
- The House of Commons resorted to computerised recording
of House proceedings at the Table, thereby addressing the issues of timely
entries into the Scroll and Time Book and delivery of this information
from the Table.
- The Ontario Legislature has introduced an electronic
device that displays to all Members of the Assembly information on
times prescribed in the Standing Orders, such as the time allotted for
question period, time limits of speeches and the actual duration of
- The House of Commons has also supplied the Speaker and
Table Officers with a timing-device providing a count-down of time
remaining for Members speaking.
- The House of Commons’ Speaker is provided with a
composite rotation list consisting of Members wishing to speak, including
constituency and party affiliation.
- Furthermore, the House of Commons’ Clerk can
electronically communicate notes relating to procedure from the Table to
the Speaker’s screen at the Chair.
The Association of
Clerks-at-the-Table in Canada has provided a means for its members to share
parliamentary experiences of mutual interest and for exchanging information on
subjects relevant to their duties, mainly through its annual professional
development seminars and through the Table Review, the association’s
quarterly publication. Notably, list server and file transfer sites have been
created, providing automated exchanges of information among association members
through internet e-mail. The association has, since the early eighties,
established a close working relationship with the American Society of
Legislative Clerks and Secretaries. Both associations meet jointly in a
professional development seminar every two years. As well, Clerks have
created more and more opportunities for mutual learning and professional
development through attachments and exchanges with other jurisdictions.
Additionally, Clerks have
participated in a programme of annual speaking engagements since 1988. This
programme provides Clerks who speak to university students on parliamentary
topics. It affords students an opportunity to gain an insight into the
institution of Parliament by hearing directly from a serving Clerk who is in a
position to speak with authority on numerous topics. This practice is
very much an extension of the public education/outreach responsibilities which
reside with the Clerk. This responsibility has also been manifested in
the production of written and electronic information on the parliamentary process.
Clerks have experienced over the
past 20 years a full range of procedural events, some positive and some verging
on the negative. The former category includes the practice of electing
Speakers by secret ballot, time limits on speeches and on bell-ringing
summoning Members for recorded divisions, simplification of the business of
supply, the power of committees to initiate studies, and enlargement of
opportunities for private members’ business. It is also true that during
the last couple of decades Clerks have experienced many procedural manoeuvrings
and much political warfare on the floor of the House. It was during
this period that Clerks saw the perfection of the filibuster, the advent of
protracted bell-ringing and presentation of petitions, endless and consecutive
recorded divisions, successive superseding motions in rotation, round-the-clock
consecutive sittings for days to deal with thousands and thousands of
amendments, and the use of ever-more imaginative “unparliamentary language” in
The evolution of the profession
of the Clerk has accelerated dramatically over the last 20 years, both
procedurally and administratively, but today’s Clerks, in unbroken line with
their predecessors, continue to serve Parliament in a quiet, efficient and
professional manner..... alone at the Table.
A selection of
related articles from previous issues of the Canadian Parliamentary Review
Margaret Banks. New
Insights on Bourinot’s Parliamentary Publications, vol. 15 (1):19-25,
Gordon Barnhart. The
Saskatchewan Table, vol. 8 (3): 13-15, 1985.
Paul Benoit. The Politics
and Ethics of John George Bourinot, vol. 7(3): 6-10, 1984.
Charles Bogue. The New
English Standing Order of the Quebec National Assembly, vol. 17 (4):
Michael Clegg. The
Association of Parliamentary Counsel in Canada, vol. 8 (1): 16-17, 1985.
C.E.S. Franks. C.B.
Koester: A Personal Memoir, vol. 21 (1): 27-29, 1998.
Roderick Lewis. A Note on
Privilege and Order in Ontario, vol. 5 (2):11, 1982.
Henry Muggah. Association
of Clerks-at-the-Table, vol. 2 (4): 29, 1979.
Mathieu Proulx. The
Samuel-Phillips Data Bank in Parliamentary Procedure, vol. 17, (4):