At the time this article was published
Shirley B. Elliott was the Legislative Librarian of the Nova Scotia Legislative
Representative government was established in
Nova Scotia in 1758, a year before the battle on the Plains of Abraham,
twenty-five years before the American Declaration of Independence and
thirty-three years before the Constitutional Act granted representative
government to Upper and Lower Canada. Because of the province's early
experience with representative institutions, a history of government documents
is of bibliographical interest to scholars. As shown in this article the
documents can also provide interesting insights into the province's political
and social history.
In a speech to his countrymen, Joseph H owe,
whose passionate love of Nova Scotia is legendary, addressed his audience thus:
"Boys, brag about your country. When I am abroad, I brag of everything
that Nova Scotia is, has, or can produce, and when they beat me at everything
else, I turn around on them and say, "How high does your tide rise?"
Were he living today. Joseph Howe would have every justification in offering a
further challenge to the rest of Canada: How old is your printing, when did you
first produce a government document?
The first elected assembly was convened for
the first time in a wooden building housing the Courts on the north-east corner
of Argyle and Buckingham Streets. on October 2, 1758. Printing in the colony
had become an established fact at least six and one half years earlier, when
John Bushell produced the first Issue of the Halifax Gazette on March 23. 1752.
Before the year was out the first government printing in what is now Canada
became a reality.
At the outset government printing took the
form of proclamations by Governor Hopson, which were printed as broadsides for
posting in various locations frequented by the public. Indeed, as early as
November, 1752, what must be the first bilingual publication in Canada was
printed by, Bushell – A Cartel for the exchange of deserters. It consisted of
two unsigned, unpaged leaves in folio, the text in two columns, English and
French. The Cartel called for the reciprocal exchange of deserters between the
British and French forces in America. The Legislative Library possesses one of
the three known copies. Albeit rather battered, it is completely legible. The
other. two copies are at the Public Record Office in London.
For the six years between 1752 and the
meeting of the first Assembly, with the exclusion of the Halifax Gazette,
barely a dozen examples of printing exist today and these, for the most part,
take the form of broadsides of official proclamations and single laws – such as
An Act for the Relief of Debtors. It is apparent, however, that the infant
Assembly regarded printing as vital to its interests. In the first session
which concluded December 21, 1758, the members appear to have anticipated the
need for "freedom of information", the legislature having passed the
An ACT declaring what shall be deemed a
Publication of the Province Laws
BE it Enacted by His Excellency the
Governor, Council, and Assembly, and by the Authority of the same it is hereby
Enacted, That the public Reading of any Law of this Province, by the Provost
Marshal or his Deputy, on the Parade of Halifax, after Notice by beat of Drum,
shall be deemed a sufficient Publication thereof.
And all Laws already published in that
Manner are hereby declared to have been in Force accordingly, from the Time of
This, however, was by no means a
satisfactory, solution, for the Journal of March 5, 1759 records that the
constituents were "murmuring for want of a Publication of Laws,
particularly the Bounty Act, urging the Printer to get on with it, "so
that there be no further reason for clamour and uneasiness among the
The Laws of the 1st Session of the 1st
Assembly, 1758, when they finally appeared in print in 1759, consisted of one
hundred and fifteen folio pages, issued in parts. The Laws bear no printer's
name – it must certainly have been John Bushell, although it is known he was
ill at this particular time and the work may very well have been done by his
assistant, Anthony Henry, with perhaps the help of Bushell's son and daughter.
The only copy known of the sessional laws for 1758 to 1766, originally the
property of Chief Justice Belcher, is held at the Acadia University Library.
Today the Journal of the first session,
indeed for the first two sessions, exist in manuscript only. There is no clear
evidence it was ever printed, although a reference in the manuscript suggests
it was in the hands of the printer in March, 1759. The original manuscript, the
one tangible link with that first assembly, is held by the Legislative Library
at Province House. It is in surprisingly good condition.
Anthony Henry succeeded Bushell after the
latter's death in February, 1761. As the only printer in the colony he was
unofficially the government, or King's Printer, responsible for the printing of
official publications. The Gazette, the Laws, the Journals, as well as
proclamations and orders-in-council, were his principal mainstay. It was not until
1788, after he had undergone certain vicissitudes of fortune, that he was
formally recognized as King's Printer. His employment of Isaiah Thomas, later
the American patriot printer, during the enforcement of the Stamp Act in 1765,
gave rise to some rather questionable practices, which so irritated the
officials, that they saw fit to import from England a rival printer, Robert
Fletcher, to take Henry's place.
Fletcher arrived in Halifax in the summer of
1766 and immediately set up his own press, which he had brought with him. On
August 14 he published the first issue of the Nova Scotia Gazette, a
semi-official weekly, which was continued into the summer of 1770. The best
example of Fletcher's printing is found in a consolidation of the Perpetual
Acts, which appeared in 1767, the first revised edition of Nova Scotia laws,
indeed the first in Canada. For this revision Fletcher was paid 180 pounds for
two hundred copies, of which at least twenty exist today.
There is no doubt Robert Fletcher was a highly
competent printer, though apparently a poor business man, which may have
prompted him to give up printing in September, 1770 and set himself up as a
merchant in the town. With competition out of the way Anthony Henry resumed his
former relationship with the government and his Nova Scotia Gazette and Weekly
Chronicle became the colony's official publication. For the next thirty years,
until his death in December, 1800, Henry published annually the Laws and
Journals of the Assembly, with the exception of 1788, when there was no
session. A second revision of the Perpetual Acts appeared in 1784, for which
Henry was paid 125 pounds for one hundred copies – at least fifteen survive
today. In addition he printed numerous proclamations and in 1797 the first of a
legion of provincial royal commissions, the report of the Commission on the
For some time now the Nova Scotia
Legislative Library has had an ongoing project of microfilming Nova Scotia
government documents, including the Laws, Debates and Journals, and while it
had been successful in microfilming all the revised editions of the Laws, up to
and including the edition of 1923, there was nowhere in existence a complete
run of the sessional laws.
After considerable correspondence, visits to
Harvard's Widener and Law libraries, the Library of Congress and the Public
Record Office in London, and with the co-operation of the Public Archives of
Canada, the Public Archives of Nova Scotia and the Acadia University Library,
the Legislative Library was finally able to assemble an almost unbroken run the
Temporary Acts o 1780 to 1782 remain missing.
Microfilming of these documents was
completed earlier this year. A veritable jigsaw of hard copy, xerox and
microfilm printoffs, representing nearly 100 years legislation, can now be
compressed into three reels of microfilm. It was a special privilege to be able
to work in close contact with these rare examples of the printer's craft of two
centuries ago, produced as they were on the beautifully textured rag paper so
well preserved today, in marked contrast to our modern papers.
One may well ask if legislation of two
centuries ago is of any consequence today? Apparently it is, for a few months
ago a Justice of the New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench phoned to request a
copy of the earliest gambling law in this Province – it proved to be 1759.
There is also a marked increase in interest in early legislation pertaining to
shipping and social welfare, to mention only two topics. Ministers of Consumer
Affairs may well be intrigued to learn that in 1777 an act was passed
regulating the Price of Certain Provisions in the Town of Halifax and in 1768 a
duty was laid on wheel carriages, ten shillings per pair of wheels, whether
drawn by horse or oxen. Chapter I of the First Assembly, First Session, 1758
concerns an act relating to the duties of import on rum and other distilled
liquors. Is there anything new under the sun?