Canadian Parliamentary Review

Current Issue
Canadian Region CPA
Archives
Upcoming Issue
Editorial and Stylistic Guidelines
Subscribe

Search
HomeContact UsFrançais
Reconstructing Debates of the Quebec Legislative Assembly from 1907 to 1962
Jocelyn St-Pierre

At the time this article was written Jocelyn Saint-Pierre was Director of Service to reconstritute the Debates of the Quebec National Assembly Library. This is an edited version of a paper delivered at the 72nd Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association in Ottawa. An earlier version in French only was published in Revue d’histoire de l’Amerique francaise.

Two particularly important dates in Quebec's parliamentary history are 1792, the year of the first sitting of the Assembly of Lower Canada, and 1867, which marked the establishment of the Legislative Assembly of Quebec. While several parliamentary institutions possess a reconstructed Hansard or some similar record dating back to their inception, Quebec historians have no official report of the debates prior to 1964 to relate the work carried on by the Members who sat in the two Houses. Even compilations of press clippings were not available until recently, although for years there was a will among politicians and journalists to rectify these shortcomings. This article looks at the evolution of the reconstruction project.

Few sources exist for information on the debates which took place during the first sessions of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada. Of course, there are the famous speeches on Panet's election as Speaker in 1792 and the well known speech on the French language which Chartier de Lotbinière delivered on January 21, 1793, both of which were published in The Quebec Gazette. But these were the exception rather than the rule. Only with the arrival of newspapers that were more political The Quebec Mercury in 1805 and Le Canadien in 1806 did summaries of the debates of the Assembly and of the Legislative Council begin to appear.

Towards 1820, there was renewed interest in political activity, and a desire to see a wider distribution of the debates was expressed by those who saw this as an important element of parliamentary democracy. In 1825, a motion for the creation of a journal of debates was tabled in the Assembly, only to be rejected by a majority of the Members. For want of a better solution, the newspapers hired stenographers to ensure at least a partial publication of the debates. After the Union, various means were sought to obtain a more accurate report of the speeches made in the House, but given the prevailing linguistic and political climate, things remained much as they had been. Twenty years ago Elizabeth Gibbs and Cameron Nish undertook a long term research project aimed at reconstructing the debates of this period; the results of her work are contained in thirteen volumes. It was not until debates on Confederation that politicians reached agreement on granting funds to stenographers and publishing historical debates.

After 1867, the issue of creating a journal of debates resurfaced in Quebec and encouraging progress was made in this regard. In 1871, Roch Pamphile Vallée launched a weekly publication entitled L'Écho de la session. Several Members, including the young Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau, indicated their support for the creation of an official version of the debates. That same year, the Assembly officially recognized the Press Gallery, thus legitimizing the work of the journalists who reported on the debates. In 1877, a true journal of debates was published for the first time by Alphonse Desjardins, a journalist stenographer who later founded the Caisses populaires. Despite various difficulties, Desjardins continued this work for thirteen years, but in 1890, in the face of opposition from Premier Honoré Mercier, he was forced to hand over the work to Narcisse Malenfant. With the return to power of the Conservatives in 1891, Malenfant was replaced by Alphonse's brother, Louis Georges Desjardins, who was able to keep the publication going from 1892 to 1893.

For the next seventy years, the journal of debates ceased to exist, with only the journalists remaining to continue the work of distributing information. Publication was about to resume under Félix Gabriel Marchand, Premier from 1897 to 1900, but on his death the idea was dropped, although on several occasions the issue was raised in the Assembly, usually by opposition parties. Arthur Sauvé, André Laurendeau, René Chaloult, and Georges Émile Lapalme placed the question on the Order Paper, but in vain. The absence of an official journal of debates was all too convenient for Gouin, Taschereau, and Duplessis and their style of government, as journalists who did not toe the line could be conveniently denounced, or even expelled.

The Quebec Parliament recovered its voice during the Quiet Revolution. The creation of a journal of debates was part of the Liberal program under Georges Émile Lapalme, and this objective was realized after the 1962 elections by the Jean Lesage government. The 1964 session was the first for which an official record was published.

Ten more years passed before work began on the reconstruction of the earlier debates. In 1973 1974, Speaker Jean Noël Lavoie, encouraged by Marcel Hamelin and Jean-Charles Bonenfant, decided to form a team of historians whose mandate was to publish the debates for the period from Confederation to 1963. For twelve years, the team carried out part of the program: publication of the debates from 1867 to 1878 as established by Marcel Hamelin, reconstruction and publication of the sessions of 1893 to 1907, reconstruction of the sessions of 1908 to 1921 and of several others between 1922 and 1930.

In 1986, the reconstruction program was suspended. This gave rise to protests in the form of articles and letters in the press, resolutions by different groups and organizations, and petitions. One of the petitions contained over 1200 signatures and was tabled before the Assembly by the Member for Vanier, Jean-Guy Lemieux. The Speaker, Jean Pierre Saintonge, decided in April 1990 to have the project resumed.

Development, Sources and Methodology

A team is currently in place to continue and complete the program. It is made up of four historians (three are members of the former team), one person in charge of editing, one translator, one or two transcribers, and a number of history students, varying from one to four a year on a one year training program. The team operates within a National Assembly library department called the Service de la reconstitution des débats.

Since the reconstruction of the debates was suspended in 1986, great strides have been made in office automation and computer technology, in particular with regard to word processing. The new program relies heavily on these new techniques. Reconstruction of the debates is carried out using three types of sources: official documentation, the parliamentary columns published in the press, and governmental records.

Official documentation is composed essentially of documents produced by Parliament in the course of its business. First are the Votes and Proceedings of the Assembly, which constitute the official record of House deliberations. The clerk notes down the essential information for each item of the proceedings, but without ever reproducing the debates themselves. In reconstructing the debates, the Votes and Proceedings serve as the framework on which the extracts of newspaper accounts are added. The Order Paper is the official agenda listing the legislative items to be examined by the Assembly. It is prepared by the clerk and distributed to each Member before the sitting. The Speaker relies on it as he calls each major item of parliamentary business. The Order Paper is collated with the Votes and Proceedings and with newspaper columns in order to obtain an accurate picture of House proceedings.

Parliamentary columns published in the newspapers of a given period are our principal source of information. During each session, approximately twenty journalists, members of the Press Gallery representing daily newspapers and some regional weeklies, were writing reports of the debates. We examine primarily the large daily papers from Montreal and Quebec, the major ones being: L'Événement, La Presse, Le Soleil, L'Action catholique, Le Canada, Le Devoir, La Patrie, The Montreal Herald, The Montreal Daily Star, The Gazette, The Quebec Chronicle and a few weeklies. Noted journalists such as Alarie, Authier, Barnard, Fournier, Héroux, Carrel, Dansereau, Dupire, Fabre, and Potvin have at one time or other been members of the Press Gallery.

The articles are not all of equal value. This may be explained above all by the natures of journalism as it was practised at the time. Work days were long; the sittings often continued late into the night, with frequent marathon debates. In addition, the acoustics of the Assembly Chamber were poor, the quality of the speeches at times left something to be desired, and finally, journalists could be sued for libel for what they wrote. Professional journalists were rare and in some cases the work produced was mediocre. All too often party supporters wrote the articles and, in fact, several politicians owned their own newspaper. For example, Félix-Gabriel Marchand was the owner of Le Canada français, a Saint Jean paper, Member Godfroy Langlois was the editor of Le Canada, and Simon-Napoléon Parent, Premier from 1900 to 1905, sat on the Board of Directors of Le Soleil. In spite of these drawbacks and the political affiliations of many newspapers, we have never found any truly biased reports. Generally, any partisan spirit manifests itself only through the length and the layout of the speeches, and, especially, in the comments interspersed throughout the reports. One of the factors which explains this lack of bias in the reporting of debates in a very partisan press is the fact that the journalists worked as a group in the Press Gallery.

Reconstruction is also carried out using booklets and documents from archives collections. So far, however, this source has proved disappointing. Unlike other government departments, the National Assembly keeps its own records and those of Members who have held a parliamentary office. However, the archives collections of ministers or of simple Members are kept at the National Archives. Records kept by the Assembly include all the documents produced by it, its committees or departments, and some individual Members collections. An inventory of the National Assembly archives is presently under way. Private archives collections may well yield more material, but these are less accessible. We have approached Members of Parliament who sat before 1963 as well as former parliamentary journalists. The Press Gallery has virtually no archival documents but we know there was a pool of journalists who transcribed the parliamentary debates and often exchanged notes in order to get through the tedious task, even if they worked for newspapers at opposite ends of the political spectrum. We are at present working to obtain some of these notes.

The reconstruction of debates requires a rigorous methodology and a detailed knowledge of history and parliamentary procedure. It is carried out in two stages.

First, a preliminary version is prepared, based on the parliamentary columns in the daily newspapers. With the help of the Votes and Proceedings, historians annotate the columns and retain certain passages which they insert into the proceedings. They indicate references and note inconsistencies. The speaking order is determined by the frequency of the order in the newspapers. The reliability of the accounts given in the parliamentary columns of the various newspapers can be gauged by their degree of similarity. Only rarely are the accounts of the debates totally identical. Historians use very strict criteria in selecting extracts. They verify the nature of the speeches (quoted in the first person, published in full), the credibility of the newspaper in relation to other newspapers, its place of publication, the political affiliation of the speaker concerned and of the newspaper, the newspaper's centres of interest, and the language used by the Member and by the newspaper. When confronted with two passages that are plausible but contradictory, either with respect to the order in which Members speak or to the nature of a speech as is rarely the case historians report both versions identifying them as contradictory.

All Quebec historians, whatever their area of specialization, need, at some point in their research, to trace the parliamentary debates concerning a particular issue, be it political, social, economic or cultural. The absence of a Hansard hindered them in this regard. Hence the usefulness, indeed the necessity, of this reconstruction effort. The collection provides Quebec historians with a source of information that is reliable and easily accessible and will surely stimulate research into all aspects of our history.

After having identified all the sittings of a session, the historians go over each one, filling in the gaps with the help of other relevant publications, in particular the weeklies. Thus, readers should not expect to find a Member's speech reproduced textually in any one newspaper, since we collate extracts drawn from several sources in order to obtain the most complete version possible. Historians must be true to the import of each speech and to the arguments developed in them. Even interruptions that are unorthodox or that constitute a breach of order and remarks on the atmosphere in the House are preserved. The only corrections made to the reconstructed text are those concerning the spelling, punctuation, agreements, verb tenses, and the use of capital letters. The language of the period, with its turns of phrase, its Canadianisms, and its Anglicisms, is left untouched.

The references do not appear in the final published edition, although they are conserved in the manuscript. They are too numerous and would make a text that is already complex and voluminous even more cumbersome. Indeed, the reconstruction of a speech is very rarely based on a single source. The account of an average sitting may well require over one hundred references, each of which includes approximately twelve titles. To mention them all would pose technically insurmountable annotation difficulties.

In order to standardize the text, English passages are translated. In collaboration with the historian, the translator does his utmost to convey the spirit and even the letter of the debates in the light of the context and of the French versions of the speech.

Publishing the debates for the period up to 1963 is no small challenge, in terms both of the scope of such a project and of the responsibility involved. The reconstructed debates have been described as a "fundamental source.

 

Official Reports of the Parliamentary Debates in Selected Countries*

Place

 

Official Reports (Hansard)

Other Records of Parliamentary Proceedings

United States

1789

Annals of Congress

1774

Journals of the Continental Congress

Nova Scotia

1855

Debates and Proceedings

 

 

Prince Edward Island

1860

Journal of the Legislative Assembly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canada

1875

Debates of the House of Commons

1867

Débats de laChambre des communes (Waite)

 

 

 

 

 

France

1881

Débats parlementaires - Chambre des députés

1878

Archives parlementaires

Great Britain

1909

The Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) Official Report

1066

Cobbett's Parhamentary History of

England

Newfoundland

1909

Verbatint Report (incomplete)

 

 

Ontario

1944

Legislature of Ontario Debates, OfficialReport

1867

Coupures dejournaux, indexed

 

 

 

 

 

Saskatchewan

1948

Debates and Proceedings, Official Reports

1888

Newspaper clippings

Manitoba

1958

Debates and Proceedings

1885

Newspaper clippings

Québec

1964

Journal des débats

1879

Débats de l'Assemblée législative (Desjardins)

New Brunswick

1968

Journal of Debates (Hansard)

1837

Synoptic Reports

British Columbia

1970

Official Report of Debates

1925

Newspaper clippings, indexées

Alberta

1972

Alberta Hansard

1905

Newspaper clippings

* Table is based on the following sources Norman Wilding et Philip Laundy, An Encyclopaedia of Parliament, London, Cassell and Company Ltd., 1958, p. 207-209, 253-258 et 408-409; Vladimir M. Palic, Government Publications, New York, Pergamon Press, 1977, vol. 1, p. 24, 250-251, 264-265; Rodney Caley, «Canada: Parliamentary Reporting», The Parliamentarian, vol. 1X, no 4, octobre 1979, p. 219-223; Elizabeth Nish, Debates of theLegislafive Assembly of United Canada, vol. 1, 1841, Montréal, Presses de l'École des hautes études commerciales, 1970, p. XV-XXIV; A. Paul et Catherine A. Pross, Government Publishing in the Canadian Provinces, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1972, p. 116-117

 


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 18 no 1
1995






Last Updated: 2014-02-18