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The Parliamentary Tradition In British Columbia
David Adams; Clarence Reser

At the time this article was published Clarence Reser was Administrative Assistant to the Speaker o the British Columbia Legislature. David Adams was Research Officer in the Speaker's Office and co-ordinator ofthe20th Canadian Regional Conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of Speaker of the British Columbia Branch of the CPA.

Parliamentary government in British Columbia dates from the inauguration, on August 12, 1856, of the first Legislative Assembly of the Colony of Vancouver Island. This article looks at some of the changes and developments that have taken place since those early days.

Alexander Mackenzie's epic overland expedition to the Pacific coast in the summer of 1793 failed to reveal the existence of a great river flowing westward to the sea as he had hoped. What it did reveal was a vast new district rich in fur bearing animals to which the Hudson's Bay Company had no more exclusive a claim than the rival North West Company which Mackenzie represented. Accordingly, as the beaver population declined in the Saskatchewan Department, the North West Company exploited its initial advantage west of the Rocky Mountains by sending the great fur trade explorers, Simon Fraser and David Thompson, to establish fur trading posts throughout the region which came to be known as New Caledonia in the north and Oregon in the south.

Eventually, the merger of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821 was complemented by an act of the Imperial Parliament which conferred on the new partnership a formal, exclusive right to trade throughout the whole region. Of course, this 'monopoly' had to be shared with American traders whose commercial rights were secured by a treaty of joint occupation between the United States and Britain respecting the Oregon Territory. Governor George Simpson's reorganization of the immense Columbia Department in 1825 assured the dominant position of the Hudson's Bay Company by establishing an annual fur brigade, via the Okanagan Valley, between Fort St. James on Stuart Lake and Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River which consolidated the transportation and supply requirements of Oregon and New Caledonia. However, the new unity of the Columbia Department was to prove only temporary.

Changing circumstance rapidly altered the fortunes of the fur trade in the Far West. An irresistible flood of American settlers into Oregon resulted in most of the territory being awarded to the United States by the Oregon Treaty of 1846. Fort Victoria was founded in 1843 in anticipation of this eventuality and to forestall the loss of any additional territory. To further secure the British connection, the Colonial Office granted the Hudson's Bay Company sponsorship of the new Crown Colony of Vancouver Island in 1849 for which the Company agreed to devise and implement a settlement scheme a rather ironic turn of events given the Company's traditional antipathy toward colonization.

Unlike tile Indians and Company servants who had long been subject to the absolute, paternalistic and occasionally arbitrary rule of the Chief Factors and the Chief Traders, the colonists of Vancouver Island were citizens of the Empire entitled to all of the privileges and protections of British law and government. Consequently, the new Colony was served by both a Governor and a Legislative Council almost from its inception and, from 1856, by the first House of Assembly in British territory west of the Great Lakes. The constituency represented was remarkably small. When the House met for the first time on August 12, 1856, following a general election, seven representatives had been returned by a total electorate of slightly more than forty male property holders. The House met in the appropriately modest surroundings of "Bachelors' Hall" where the unmarried officers of the Hudson's Bay Company were domiciled inside Fort Victoria. Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, the first Speaker of the House, described the scene as a room:

"about twenty feet in length by about a dozen in breadth, lined with upright plank unpainted, unadorned, save perhaps with a few "cedar mats" to cover fissures. On each side were two doors leading to as many dormitories. In the centre stood a large dilapidated rectangular stove its sides made of sheet iron, beautifully and picturesquely bulging. At the end was a wooden home manufactured table, upon which stood a hundred page ledger, an inkstand, pens, and a small supply of foolscap" but without a "mace", penknife or postage stamps ... Around the Speaker's table stood half a dozen very ordinary wooden chairs, for the use of the members and at a respectful distance a couple of benches, without backs for the audience. This furniture really belonged to Bachelors' Hall, and therefore the "House of Assembly" and country were not put to any unnecessary expense. At the end of' the year the accounts Indicated that this august body had cost about twenty-five dollars. which occasioned some ironical remarks from the London Times.

No Chaplain., no prayers, no "Sergeant-at-Arms", no reporters, no nothing to add grace and dignity, to the floor which could not boast either of carpet or cleanliness, whatever existed of the latter depended on "Dick" the Indian boy, who attended on the Bachelors.1

Although the House shortly thereafter moved the site of its deliberations from Bachelors' Hall to the colony's jail and lunatic asylum, the discovery of gold on the Mainland along the Fraser River in 1858 and in the Cariboo district in 1860 radically changed the political style of the Colony as well as its economic and social character. By, 1859, a picturesque collection of colonial bungalows, affectionately dubbed the 'Birdcages', began to rise along the south shore of Victoria's James Bay to serve the increased responsibilities of the legislature. the government and the judiciary which were all experiencing the pressures of sudden and massive immigration.

Thanks to the initiative of Governor James Douglas, thousands of miners in the unorganized gold-bearing regions on the Mainland were brought under the authority of British laws and institutions when the Colonial Office retroactively endorsed his de.facto creation of the Colony of British Columbia in 1858. Despite some suspicion of Douglas' motives because of his well known connections with the Hudson's Bay Company, the old order of the fur trade was now in permanent eclipse. However, the new order was one clearly subject to a pronounced cycle of 'boom' and 'bust'. As government revenues from gold mining drastically declined in the mid 1860's, it became increasingly more difficult for the treasuries of the two Pacific colonies to sustain the public works and administrative structures of more prosperous times. Consequently, the colony of Vancouver Island was effectively annexed to the Colony of British Columbia in 1866, abolishing the House of Assembly in the process.


The Pacific Province: 1871-1903

The stormy union of the two colonies was merely a precursor to the even more boisterous union with Canada in 1871. While British and American elements in the new colony were indifferent at best to the prospect, the Canadian community actively promoted Confederation. Aided by the promise of a transcontinental railway to restore prosperity, the views of the Canadians ultimately prevailed. Moreover, the agitations of two Canadian journalists and future premiers of the Province, John Robson and Amor de Cosmos, were prominent in ensuring that the constitution of the sixth province would restore full responsible government to the citizens based upon the model of Ontario.

The twenty-five members of the first Legislative Assembly of the Province of British Columbia met in the fall of 1871 with John Foster McCreight acting as Premier in a cabinet of three. It soon became evident that the progress of the railway exerted more influence on the conduct of public affairs than any other issue. Before its final resolution, the railway construction controversy determined political alliances, aggravated regional rivalries and engendered a threat to Confederation itself. Based alone upon Sir John A. Macdonald's commitment to proceed with the railway, British Columbia's entire complement of Senators and MPs pledged their support to his government and the Province remained an exclusive preserve of the federal Conservative Party for the next twenty years. On the other hand, the refusal of the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie to adhere to the letter of the Terms of Union in this regard, produced the first of three petitions to the Queen from the Legislative Assembly demanding the compliance of the Dominion government with the Terms and promising secession from the union as the only alternative.

Ironically, the long awaited completion of' the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 was greeted with a mixed reception. With the establishment of the Pacific terminus of the railway on Burrard Inlet rather than on southern Vancouver Island, the commercial aspirations of Victoria had been dashed further exacerbating the old animosity between Islanders and Mainlanders. However, the coming of the railway did usher in a new period of economic growth. The City of Vancouver was born and flourished on the fulfillment of Victoria's broken dreams and its meteoric growth reflected the affluence of the Province in general. Mining, fishing, lumbering and agriculture all experienced the benefits of improved access to export markets and the boundless optimism of the age was appropriately symbolized by the completion in 1898 of the new Parliament Buildings in Victoria which replaced the now dilapidated 'Birdcages' as the political and administrative nerve centre of British Columbia.

An equally dilapidated political system was also on the threshold of fundamental change. Without the glue of party loyalties, the Legislature had provided support for successive cabinets since 1871 according to an in formal system of personal alliances which became increasingly more difficult to sustain. Suspicion of the motives of a House populated by 'loose fish' constantly being lobbied by parliamentary agents promoting private bills culminated in 1892 with the editors of one newspaper being convicted before the bar of the House for a contempt of the authority of the House involving the publication of a libellous editorial.

By the turn of the century, the political situation had degenerated to the point that effective government had become all but impossible. Although federal party labels were beginning to be applied to provincial politics, no one organization controlled enough of the factions represented in the House to assure the long term survival of any government.

Political instability was such that five governments fell and one Lieutenant-Governor was removed from office in the five: years prior to the election of 1903. In 1903, the Conservative Party of Richard McBride went to the polls promising to impose party discipline on the government of the Province. It was rewarded with a slim but workable majority which wrote an end to thirty years of personal government in British Columbia and ushered in the modern era in provincial politics.


The Modern Era

Since 1903, there have been twenty-three parliaments in British Columbia. The size of the Legislative Assembly has grown from forty-two MLAs in the 10th parliament elected in 1903 to fifty-seven MLAs elected to the 32nd parliament in May of 1979. There have been five electoral redistributions since 1903.

As noted earlier, the political party system was introduced into the BC legislature in 1903 when Richard McBride formed a Conservative government. Several observers have argued that the introduction of the party system has produced a greater degree of stability in BC politics. In any event, the Liberal and Conservative parties dominated BC politics from 1903 until 1952.

These parties rotated between roles in government and opposition and collectively dominated the field in ten general elections. The CCF party became a political force in BC after 1933. The Social Credit Party arrived on the scene in 1952. Each general election since 1903 has been contested by at least three and as many as fifteen political parties. However, since 1952 there has been a continuous move towards the polarization of the forces of the political "right" as represented by the Social Credit Party, with those of the political "left" as represented by the CCF/New Democratic Party. Political polarization became complete in the 32nd parliament with the election of only Social Credit and NDP members.

The political system in BC took over half a century to achieve universal enfranchisement. In 1897, qualified electors were restricted to male persons, over twenty-one years of age, who were British subjects, that had resided in British Columbia for one year and who were not of Chinese, East Indian, Japanese or Native Indian extraction. In 1916, white women over twenty-one years of age were permitted to vote and, after 1917, become MLAs. In 1949, minority groups such as the Chinese, East Indian, Japanese and Native Indian peoples were enfranchised. In 1970, the age of majority was reduced to nineteen years of age. The 1979 Elections Act provides for universal enfranchisement of all Canadian citizens or British subjects over the age of majority who have completed the usual residency and voter registration procedures.

British Columbia has held twenty-three elections since 1903. Provincial parliaments have averaged forty months in duration. The 23rd parliament was the shortest, lasting only one year between 1952 and 1953 while the longest parliament was the 17th, lasting the full five years between 1928 and 1933. Social Credit has held power for twenty-five of the last seventy-seven years. The Liberal Party held office for twenty of the last seventy-seven years as compared to eighteen for the Conservative Party. However, a Liberal-Conservative coalition held office for eleven years in this period. The NDP Party has held office for three years. The CCF/NDP Party has been the official opposition for thirty-nine of the last seventy-seven years. The Liberal Party was the official opposition for fourteen years compared to twelve for the Conservative and three for the Social Credit parties.

The longest serving parliamentary leader was Premier WAC Bennett. He led the Social Credit government for twenty years and the Social Credit Party for twenty-one years. Richard McBride was Premier of BC for twelve years and leader of the Conservative Party for most of that period. John Oliver was Premier and leader of the Liberal Party for nine years while TD "Duff" Pattullo held the same post for eight years.

The longest serving leader of the official opposition was Robert Strachan. He led the CCF/NDP Party for thirteen years. David Barrett held the same post for seven years but also served an additional three years as Premier of the only NDP government ever elected in BC Harold Winch led the CCF Party and served as opposition leader for some twelve years.

There have been several major procedural developments in the BC House in the last decade. The first opposition chairman of the Public Accounts Committee was Alex Fraser, MLA for Cariboo, who was appointed to this position after February 14, 1973. An opposition MLA has chaired this committee ever since. All-party committees were used to recruit and select an Auditor-General and an Ombudsman for BC. The legislature's Committee on Agriculture conducted a major study on agriculture and the food industry between April 6, 1977 and March 26, 1979 summitting. in all, three major reports and nearly one hundred technical reports. BC established a special committee oft he legislature, entitled the Committee on Crown Corporations, with the power to review the management. administration, and operation of selected provincial crown corporations. Several reports have been tabled by this committee and it is assisted by a full time professional staff.

A fifteen minute oral question period was instituted by a resolution of the House dated March 2. 1973 and an oral question period has operated on each weekday except Fridays since March 6, 1973. The legislature instituted a Hansard service by April 1970. It was initially restricted to the recording and transcription of the routine formal business of the House excluding committee work of any kind. A further resolution of the House dated March 2, 1973 introduced a full Hansard service for all House proceedings and since 1973. the service has been expanded to include all public meetings of legislative committees. The Hansard reports, originally published at the end of a session, were gradually made available on a weekly and daily basis.

The BC Legislature recognized the leadership role that the Speaker can play in the matter of parliamentary reform when it passed the Legislative Procedure and Practise Inquiry Act in October of 1972. Under the act, the Speaker can act, or appoint someone to act, as a special commissioner of inquiry in the general area of parliamentary reform. To date, six reports have been tabled pursuant to this act. These reports deal with a wide range of matters including a proposal to broadcast the proceedings of the legislature.

The elected officers of the Legislative Assembly include the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker. There have been twenty-ix Speakers since BCs entry into confederation in 1871. The first Speaker was the Honourable James Trimble who served between 1872 and 1878. The only woman to occupy the Office of Speaker in the Commonwealth until 1980 was the Honourable Nancy Hodges who served as BCs Speaker from 1949 to 1952. The Speaker with the shortest tenure was the Honourable John Hart who was also the only Speaker ever to go on to become the Premier of British Columbia. Since 1903 all Speakers have come from the government party. The current Speaker is the Honourable Harvey W. Schroeder, MLA for Chilliwack.

There have been at least twenty-three Deputy Speakers since 1911. The Deputy Speaker with the longest tenure was A.S. Matthew. He served as Deputy Speaker from 1954 to 1963. The current Deputy Speaker is Waiter K. Davidson, MLA for Delta.

The BC legislature has had the services of a number of appointed officers. From 1903 to 1980 the House was served by eight Clerks. Charles Goode was the first Clerk to serve the Legislative Assembly followed by Thornton Fell who served as Clerk of the House from 1879 to 1918. Ned deBeck served as Clerk from 1950 to 1973, succeeded by the current Clerk, Ian M. Horne, Q.C., who was appointed on April 18, 1973. Since 1905. the House has had at least eight Law Clerks. The current Law Clerk is Ian D. Izard. The position of Clerk Assistant and Clerk of Committees was established in 1975 and Mrs. Evelyn Miller served in that capacity until retiring in 1977. Since 1905 there have been nine Sergeants-at-Arms, the longest serving Sergeant was Denzil Ashby who served from 1957 to 1971.


Structure and Operation of the Legislature

The 32nd parliament, the current legislature, was elected on May 10, 1979. It has fifty-seven members. The House experienced its first redistribution since 1966 in 1979. Only two political parties are represented in the present House. The Social Credit Party, the government, hold 31 seats, and the New democratic Party have 26. The second session of the 32nd parliament has established twelve committees including the Committee of the Whole which is used to consider spending estimates and legislation proposed by the government. The nine select standing committees are:

  • Standing Orders and Private Bills
  • Public Accounts and Economic Affairs 0 Agriculture 0 Municipal Affairs and Housing
  • Labour
  • Health, Education and Human Resources
  • Transportation and Communications
  • Environment and Resources
  • Fair Election Practices

Another committee is the Committee on Crown Corporations which is; established for the life of a parliament and unlike the Select Standing Committees can pursue its mandate independent of the House. A Special Committee on Privilege was constituted to consider a matter of privilege raised by the member for Richmond. This committee has now filed its final report.

The numerous agencies that serve the House are not housed in one coherent administrative organization. Some agencies are operated by the legislature under the jurisdiction of the Speaker. These include:



1. Dorothy Blakey Smith, ed., The Reminiscences of Doctor John Sebastian Helmcken, University of British Columbia Press, 1975, pp. 333-334.

The numerous agencies that serve the House are not housed in one coherent administrative organization. Some agencies are operated by the legislature under the jurisdictions of the Speaker. These include:

  • Office of the Speaker
  • Office of the Deputy Speaker
  • Office of the Clerk
  • Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms
  • Hansard
  • Legislative Dining Room
  • Government Caucus
  • Opposition Caucus

Certain agencies such as the Legislative Library and the Legislative Tour Office are housed in the Ministry of the Provincial Secretary and Government Services. Other agencies that serve the House are located in the British Columbia Buildings Corporation, a crown agency responsible for provincial buildings management. They include the. Security Office and the Office of Building Management. The Ombudsman and the Office of Auditor General exist to serve the House but, for obvious reasons, are separate entities.

The Speaker is responsible for financial and personnel administration in those agencies coming under the jurisdiction of the House. He is assisted both in the formation of policy and the daily administration of services by an Administrative Assistant, a Comptroller for Legislation, and the various agency heads. There is no Board of Internal Economy or equivalent management committee. The Comptroller for Legislation is the line manager responsible for financial services. The legislature does not have a separate personnel office. These matters are handled by the payroll division of the Comptroller's Office. The Treasury Board has a role to play in approving the budgetary estimates for legislative services that are eventually submitted to the House for approval. The spending estimates for the legislature are processed by the Committee of Supply. The Provincial Secretary sponsors these estimates when they come before the House.

The BC parliament has a maximum life of five years under the provincial constitution during which there must be a parliamentary session at least once every calendar year. In the last ten years, there has been a trend towards extending the average length of the parliamentary sessions.

Normally, the House sits from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. every Monday to Thursday and from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Fridays. While it usually sits on two evenings, from 8:00to 11:00 p.m., the House has not held night sittings so far in the current session.

The compensation for MLAs has recently been adjusted according to the indexing formula implemented in 1979. The basic indemnity, for an MLA is $22, 344and the expense allowance is $11, 172 for a total of $33,516. The Speaker and the leader of the Official Opposition each receive $20,216 in addition. The Deputy Speaker receives an additional $9,044. Committee Chairmen each receive approximately $1,000 additional per annum. Whips, House Leaders and Caucus Chairmen do not receive additional remuneration.

Each MLA has a private office in the Parliament Building and is provided with up to $1,300 per month to maintain a constituency office. These funds are intended to pay for secretarial assistance and office expenses. In addition, every member has access to the staff support services in each Caucus. These services include secretarial, research and administrative assistance. Generally speaking, each MLA has one secretary in the Legislative Building during the session. Support services such as printing, photocopying, and office supply services are available from the Queen's Printer and/or the Sergeant-at-Arms.

There are a number of other legislative services available to members. Members receive a full Hansard transcript on a daily basis for all House activities. The Legislative Library has a collection of 350,000 books, monographs, and bound journals; 250 daily and weekly newspapers; and 700 periodicals. It provides reference and bibliographic services and surveys of subject materials for members. It conducts online searches of selected computer based data banks. The library also has special indexes such as the BC newspaper index as well as an interlibrary loan service. The Legislative Library does not have a research branch.

The legislature is provided with security services by the British Columbia Buildings Corporation which is responsible for general building security. The Sergeant-at-Arms and his staff are responsible for security in and about the Chamber. Members and their guests, and legislative staff have access to the Legislative Dining Room. This restaurant and catering facility operates during sessions only. Full restaurant services are available every weekday from 8:00 a.m. until the House rises.

The Legislative Press Gallery has 20 full time members from a wide cross section of both print and electronic media. Major metropolitan, regional, and national media services are represented. In addition there are some 33 part-time press gallery members. The gallery is separate from the House I n that it has its own constitution and its affairs are co-ordinated by an elected executive which works with the Speaker to ensure harmonious relations. The House provides the gallery with office space, basic office equipment, utilities and stationery supplies.

Media coverage during legislative sessions is quite intensive. The radio reporters in the gallery broadcast reports at least every hour. T.V. coverage is daily, often with special interviews broadcast at the major news casts. The newspapers carry stories in both morning and evening editions. There is no official broadcasting of legislative proceedings by radio or TV.

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Last Updated: 2020-03-03