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Nora Lever

The Hansard Chronicles: A Celebration of the First Hundred Years of Hansard in Canada's Parliament, by John Ward, Deneau and Greenberg Publishers Ltd., 1980, 243p.

On Wednesday, May 7, 1980, the first hundred years of the Canadian Hansard were commemorated by the unveiling of a memorial plaque in the Rotunda of the Parliament Buildings. A few minutes later, in the House of Commons Madam Speaker read a congratulatory message from Queen Elizabeth. The Queen expressed her confidence in the continuing impartiality and accuracy of an institution which she called indispensable and incorruptible.

Publication of the Hansard Chronicles by John Ward, Associate Editor of Hansard, is another event in the celebration of the unique and essential service so quietly and so ably performed that it is often taken for granted while the more colourful parliamentary procedures catch our attention. The author recognizes this anomaly as he opens his book with delightful humour, contrasting the visible ceremonial pomp of the Speaker's parade with the"solemn procession of one-taking place in the corridor one floor above. The Hansard reporter makes his way to the Chamber to take his place in the centre isle unnoticed, almost a part of the furniture."

Every spoken word in the House of Commons is written down, printed and published. Though we may now take our Hansard for granted as we often do the freedoms we enjoy in a parliamentary democracy, this survey of the history of parliamentary reporting shows that Canadians were not always so fortunate. The book provides an account of the struggle for freedom for parliamentary reporting in the legislature. It highlights the obstruction of the Family Compact and other members of the establishment in the Canadas and the Maritimes in the early 19th century and pays tribute to the newspapermen who were in the vanguard of the movement for reform.

Mr. Ward's history of Hansard begins with a short biography of William Cobbett who was a crusading journalist, printer, and one of those who endured "prison, fine and exile" to secure freedom for the press in both the United States and Great Britain. Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates were summaries published on a weekly basis in England from 1803 onward. His printer, Luke Hansard, took over the publication of the Debates in 1812 and renamed them Hansard's Parliamentary Debates. From that time until 1888 the Hansard family produced the reports of parliamentary debates in Great Britain. These reports, however, were copied from newspapers of the day; it was not until 1909 that the British Hansard was modelled after the official system of complete reporting which was established in Canada in 1880.

Many fascinating figures appear in the Hansard Chronicles. Robert Gourlay, John Carey, Daniel Tracey, Ludger Duvernay and several others fought for the right to take notes and publish reports of legislative proceedings. It is Francis Collins, however, whose career as parliamentary reporter and newsman is dealt with most extensively. Indeed, as the author notes, the story of Francis Collins goes far beyond the confines of a narrow specialized profession; it embraces fundamental principles of free speech and liberty of the press, sheds light on an era crucial to the development of democratic institutions, and provides a chapter of personal courage in the face of adversity.

The link between the efforts of newspapermen to achieve freedom of the press and the reporters who transcribe a verbatim account of parliamentary debate is a vital one for the author. It was newspapermen who fought to have the words expressed in parliamentary debate made public and available to all people whom legislators represent; and it was newspapermen who first learned the skills of shorthand and were, therefore, the first parliamentary reporters.

Mr. Ward conveys a warm personal appreciation for the work of all the various "toilers in the vineyard" from the first Chief Reporter to those who presently carry on in the great tradition. His list of Hansard reporters includes outstanding Canadians such as the former prime minister John Thompson and the well-known authority on parliamentary procedure, John George Bourinot, but does not fail to include all the others whose long period of service marks them as a very special group of people. As the special plaque commemorates, they wrote shorthand in the cause of their country during the first one hundred years of Hansard's service to the House of Commons. Mr. Ward asks, Who knows what Hansard has yet to offer tile nation?

Nora S. Lever, Executive Assistant to the Clerk of the House of Commons Ottawa

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Vol 3 no 2

Last Updated: 2020-09-14