At the time this article was written John A.
Feehan was both an Honours Political Science graduate from Saint Mary's
University (1977) and a graduate of Dalhousie University Law School (1980). Ronald
G. Landes was an associate professor of political science at Saint Mary s
University. This article was written for the 24th annual conference of the
Canadian Region, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association held in Nova Scotia in
As the home of representative and
responsible government, the Legislature of Nova Scotia has significantly
influenced the nature and practices of British parliamentary democracy at both
the federal and provincial levels of Canadian government. The strength of that
parliamentary tradition once led Nova Scotia's most famous son, Joseph Howe, to
instruct Britain herself as to the true principles of democracy. Such
developments have centred on Province House, a building once described as the
"shrine of Canada's political liberty".1
The seat of government in Halifax was
completed in 1818 after eight years of construction and at a cost of 52,000
pounds sterling. The cornerstone of the Legislature had been laid on August 12.
1811, with its official opening by the Earl of Dalhousie on February 11, 1819.
Province House is constructed of sandstone from Cumberland County, with
dimensions as follows: 140 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 40 feet high. By modern
standards it is a small building. Jeremy Akerman, former leader of the New
Democratic Party in Nova Scotia, once described it as having more in common
with the cosy, unpretentious chambers to be found tucked away in the side
streets of Caribbean countries "than with the imposing edifices" of
Ottawa or the central and western provinces.2
The North wing of Province House contains
the Assembly Chamber, while the South wing was the home of the Upper House or
Legislative Council. Since abolition of the Legislative Council in 1928, the
Red Room has been used for special functions. Also included in Province House
are offices for the Premier. A centre room was the original home of the Supreme
Court of Nova Scotia, which in 1835 was the site of the famous trial of Joseph
Howe, the result of which established the principle of a free press. This room
now serves as the Legislative Library.
In addition to its legislative tasks,
Province House has had other uses as well. Perhaps surprising to many would be
the use of the building as the site for the investiture of several Canadian Governors
General. In the Assembly Chamber, the Marquis of Lorne assumed his duties on
November 25, 1878. Over the years, three other investitures occurred in the
confines of Province House, the last one being the Earl of Bessborough on April
4, 1931. The oaths of office were administered in Halifax, because it was here
that these Governors General first stepped onto Canadian soil.
Province House was also the site in 1895 of
the lying in state of Prime Minister Sir John S.D. Thompson, a former Premier
of the province. In addition, it served as the home of the Industrial
Exhibition in 1854, the first such event in what is now Canada.
Responsible Government, Joseph Howe, and All
Throughout the seventeenth century, the
territory of Nova Scotia was a point of conflict between England and France,
with its capital located in Port Royal and its boundaries including the present
Maritimes, the state of Maine, and portions of Quebec. With the Treaty of
Utrecht in 1713, Great Britain was granted control of Nova Scotia, except for
Cape Breton Island. The city of Port Royal was renamed Annapolis Royal and
remained the seat of government In forming a civil administration in 1719,
Governor Richard Phillips was instructed to follow the model of Virginia, not
Massachusetts, because the latter was considered "too republican" in
During the next century, the
"geographical reach" of the province was altered on several
occasions. In 1769, Prince Edward Island was created as a separate entity, with
the provinces of New Brunswick and Cape Breton Island formed in 1784. In 1820
Cape Breton was again incorporated within the boundaries of Nova Scotia.
although the view from Cape Breton, to this day, is the opposite. Against this
backdrop of changing territorial control emerged a pattern of representative
and responsible government in Britain's fourteenth colony in North America.
The principle of representative government
was a mid-eighteenth century development accomplished through the exercise of the
royal prerogative. Initially, the Governor and his Council were the embodiment
of all authority (executive, legislative. and judicial). Nova Scotia was
sparsely settled with a population composed mainly of natives and French
Catholics, with neither group allowed to vote or to participate in a British
Parliament. After the establishment of the city of Halifax in 1749, which
became the capital, Governor Edward Cornwallis was instructed by Britain to
form an Assembly, when he thought it expedient to do so. Interestingly,
Governor Cornwallis never found the time propitious for such an occurrence. As
a result Cornwallis ruled by decree, even though he was the first Governor to
select his own Council.
His successor, Governor Lawrence, was also
opposed to the idea of an elected Assembly. However, due partly to growing
public protest in Nova Scotia, the British government, through the Board of
Trade which was responsible for colonial policy, ordered Governor Lawrence, on
February 7, 1758, to call an Assembly, A total of twenty-two members were to be
elected (sixteen from the province, four from Halifax, two from Lunenburg). In
that first provincial election in the summer of 1758, very few people could
vote: male, freehold property owners, 21 or older, British and non Catholic. To
increase the number of Protestants, the so-called 1"foreign
Protestants" of Lunenberg (i.e., those of german background) were
naturalized as British subjects, The first elected Legislative Assembly in
Canada held its original meeting in Halifax on October 2, 1758. Thus did
representative government begin in Nova Scotia.
The movement towards responsible government
was a more arduous process, which took almost another century to achieve.
Unlike the granting of representative government, responsible government was
opposed by the Crown, thus making it a contentious issue indeed.
After 1758, the inhabitants of Nova Scotia
discovered that an elected Assembly (representative government) did not
necessarily mean Assembly control of the executive (responsible government).
For approximately fifty years, the role of the Assembly was largely a passive
one. Ensconced in Government House, the Lieutenant Governor presided over a
privileged class of wealth and power, which maintained itself through government
patronage. In his attack on the magistrates of Halifax, for which he was
charged with criminal libel, Joseph Howe struck a body blow against that
establishment. His acquittal in 1835 confirmed the principle of tree speech and
gave impetus to a growing reform movement in the province. Led by such men as
Howe and J.B. Uniacke, the reform movement was "conservative" in that
all they wanted were the same political rights enjoyed by their fellow men in
England. Partly in response to such pressures, the British government. in 1838,
altered the Council by dividing it into two parts: the Executive Council (which
retained the executive powers) and a new Legislative Council to sit as an Upper
The reform movement, however, could not be
so easily quelled. The focus of the reformers centered on the Assembly's
control of the Executive Council. In 1840 the Nova Scotia House of Assembly
voted no confidence in the Executive Council. Even though he rejected the vote,
Lieutenant Governor Campbell resigned. However, it took two elections
(1843,1847) and eight years of political infighting before the idea of
responsible government gained acceptance.
The reform movement rejected the results of
the snap election in 1843 and its leading figures (Joseph Howe, J.B. Uniacke
and James McNab) later resigned from the Executive Council to wait for the next
election, which came in 1847. The reformers campaigned on the promise of
responsible government and they won a majority in the Assembly. The new House
began on January 22, 1848 and two days later a motion of no confidence was
introduced. After a debate, the motion carried, the Executive Council resigned,
and the Lieutenant Governor requested J.13. Uniacke to form a new government.
That first responsible government in Canada, as well as in the overseas;
Commonwealth, was sworn into office on February 2, 1848. Popular government had
come to Nova Scotia "without firing a shot," because the battle had
been won "with the political weapons of public opinion and shrewd debate
on the floors of historic Province House".3
The Representation Function
To quality to vote in legislative elections,
the typical individual has to meet certain minimum requirements, such as age
and residency. In the 1980's these criteria are few, so that almost any adult
citizen has the right to participate in the electoral process. Historically,
however, such a pattern has not always been true. One of the most glaring
examples of discrimination would be the early exclusion of Catholics from the
The Catholic Emancipation
When in 1820 Cape Breton Island ceased to be
a separate province and was reunited with the mainland, the Island became one
large legislative constituency. One of the members selected was Laurence
Kavanagh Jr., the first Roman Catholic to be elected to the Assembly.4 Kavanagh
refused to take his seat, because his oath of office included a section aimed
at Catholics, namely, a statement "against transubstantiation and
popery". Several attempts to resolve the matter in the Legislature were unsuccessful,
Finally, with the approval of the British government, it was agreed that
Kavanagh could be seated if he were to take the regular State Oaths, minus the
objectionable clause on transubstantiation. In 1823 Kavanagh received the oaths
and took his seat in the House of Assembly, thus gaining for Catholics in Nova
Scotia a right not yet accorded to Catholics in Britain The "Catholic
Emancipation" was effected in Nova Scotia six years before it was achieved
in the United Kingdom.
The Family Tradition of Legislative Service
Even though universal adult suffrage is
half-a-century old in Nova Scotia, the Legislature itself is not now, nor has
it ever been, a "mirror image" of society. As with the national
legislature and its provincial counterparts, those elected to serve the people
in the House of Assembly are "a socio-economic and demographic" elite
with respect to such criteria as education, class, and occupation.5 One of the
most interesting historical aspects of this pattern in Nova Scotia is the importance
of the "family connection" for legislative careers.
For the first half century of representative
government. a handful of powerful families dominated the Council. Intermarriage
and generational involvement were the means by which these families consolidated
their control of the political process: "The outstanding instance of
family connection was the
Gerrish-Brenton-Halliburton-Stewart-Cochran-Hill-George-Collins group which
contributed eleven (or about one-fifth) of the councillors appointed prior to
1830 and was the closest Nova Scotia came to having a family compact."6
Although somewhat attenuated in more recent
decades, this family connection has continued to play a significant role in
Nova Scotia politics. An examination of the Directory of the Members of the
Legislative Assembly of Nova Scotia 17581958' makes it clear that within
certain families there has been a generational involvement in the political
affairs of the province, as shown by membership in the elected Assembly since
There have been at least sixty-two sets of
fathers and sons who have served in the Legislature, with two sets of fathers
and sons sitting together. There have been twenty-nine groups or sets of
brothers, sometimes groups of three, who have served in the Legislature. Eight
sets of brothers have sat together; one set of three brothers. There have been
at least twenty-four sets of grandfathers-grandsons who have served in the
Assembly to date.
This continuous pattern of family
involvement has existed in all regions of the province and within all major
parties. The preceding statistics include only those who were elected. The list
would be much longer, if defeated candidates were included.
Family involvement in elected political
office has included such old names as Creighton, Chipman, DeWolf, Uniacke,
Dickson, and Archibald. In more recent times names such as MacDonald, Cameron,
Stanfield, Connolly, Nicholson and Donahoe are noteworthy. Three prominent
members of the current Assembly have been preceded by fathers and grandfathers:
A.M. (Sandy) Cameron, Leader of the Opposition; Arthur R. Donahoe, Speaker of
the House; and Terence R.B. Donahoe. Minister of Education.
Nova Scotia's "Long Parliament"
Although the modern pattern since
Confederation has limited the length of the Assemblies to a maximum of five
years, such was definitely not the case in the decades following the
achievement of representative government in 1758. For example, the Sixth
Assembly existed from October, 1785 to January, 1793 with seven sessions. However,
the Fifth Assembly stands as the paramount example of legislative duration.
Known as the "Long Parliament," that Assembly endured for seventeen
sessions. from June 6, 1770 to October 20, 1785. Questions of representation
were intimately linked to such a pattern.
The dominance of the Halifax establishment
around the offices of the Crown was maintained, in part, by holding meetings of
the Assembly when the country members were least able to attend. In response,
country members would refuse to take up their seats and the Assembly would
declare those seats vacant, The voters would then select another individual.
who would also refuse to attend. A total of twenty-nine seats were declared
vacant during Nova Scotia's "Long Parliament".
The Assembly tried several mechanisms in
order to gain the attendance of its members. Interestingly, the one that seemed
to work was to begin to pay members for their legislative service. However, the
question of adequate remuneration for members of the Assembly has remained a contentious
issue right down to the present time.
The issue of legislative salaries became so
visible in 1983 that Nova Scotia adopted a unique pattern for determining
legislative pay. The MacKay Commission (Nova Scotia Commission of Inquiry on
Remuneration of Elected Provincial Officials, 1983) was given an unprecedented
right to determine salaries, in that, its recommendations would be
"binding" on the Assembly (see section 43A of the House of Assembly
An important aspect of the representative
function of the Legislature relates to the perceived fairness of the electoral
system and the drawing of electoral boundaries. Although not mandated by law, a
redistribution has occurred about once a decade during the last half century, with
the county the basic unit of representation for the provincial Assembly. Rural
areas have traditionally been over represented, with urban and, more lately,
suburban ones underrepresented. In Nova Scotia, the Legislature has always
retained ultimate control of the redistribution process: for many years
handling the process itself or, in more recent decades, by a bipartisan select
The last complete redistribution was carried
out in 1978, with the number of Members in the Assembly raised from forty-six
to fifty-two, All seats were single member constituencies, except for the dual
ridings of Inverness and Yarmouth County. Historically, Nova Scotia has made
widespread use of dual and tri-member constituencies, with the single member
district a recent phenomenon. The last two dual constituencies were eliminated
following the recommendations of the Atton Commission in 1981.
Premiers of Nova Scotia 1848-1984
Years in Office
Sir Charles Tupper
W.S. Fielding al
Angus L. Macdonald
Angus L. Macdonald
Henry D. Hicks
Robert L. Stanfield
Gerald A. Regan
John M. Buchanan
Legislative Structure and Operation
The House of Assembly holds an annual
session which usually begins in February and lasts for six to ten weeks,
although longer sessions occurred in the early 1980s. Approximately 100 bills,
on average, are passed each year, with Royal Assent granted to all bills by the
formal executive at the end of the session. Occasionally a Fall sitting may be
held, but this practice has not been used for several years.
Between the setting up of the Legislative
Council to serve as an Upper House in 1838 and its abolition in 1928, Nova
Scotia maintained a bicameral institution. Because of continuing problems of
patronage and a poorly defined role, the Upper House was never an integral part
of the legislative process. By all accounts, its; demise brought few tears to
the people of Nova Scotia.
The Legislature is fairly typical of other
Canadian assemblies; however, a few unique aspects are perhaps worthy of
comment. The Speaker, unlike most of his other provincial counterparts who wear
the familiar tri-corner hats, wears a silk top hat. At one time in the
Legislatures history, the traditional gentleman's dress included the top hat.
The House Rules in the 1850's stated that Members were to "rise
uncovered" to address the Speaker. As the fashion in gentleman's formal
attire changed, Members no longer wore top hats in the Chamber, but the
position of the Speaker was singled out by the fact that he continued to wear
the top hat, a tradition which has continued to the present time.
The rules of procedure were extensively
revised in 1980 and 1981, based on the recommendations of Michael Ryle, deputy
principal clerk of the House of Commons at Westminster. Given the number of
"bell ringing" episodes in the federal Parliament in recent years, it
is of interest that such an occurrence is not allowed under the revised rules
of the House of Assembly. Rule 38-4 limits the ringing of the bells calling
members to a vote to a maximum period of one hour, at which point the Speaker
calls for a vote.
Several aspects of the role and structure of
committees should be described. First, Nova Scotia has, in effect, a "two
tier"' committee structure. All bills are sent after second reading to
either the Law Amendments Committee or to the Private and Local Bills
Committee. Thus, the other standing committees have very little work to
perform. Second, the Public Accounts Committee is strongly controlled by the
government of the day. In the mid1 970s. the Minister of Finance was also the
chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, leading to fairly obvious problems
of possible conflicts of interest. The present pattern is for that committee to
be chaired by a member of the governing party. but not by a Minister of the
While the Assembly is unique in some ways.
overall it is similar in design and function to its federal and provincial
counterparts and true to its, British heritage. In 1841 Charles Dickens
attended the opening of a session in Nova Scotia. It was, he said, "like
looking at Westminster through the wrong end of the telescope. The Governor
delivered the Speech from the Throne. The military band outside struck up God
Save The Queen with great vigour; the people shouted; the Ins rubbed their
hands; the Outs shook their heads; the Government party said there never was
such a good speech; the Opposition declared there never was such a bad one: and
in short everything went on and promised to go on just as it does at
1. J. E. Belliveau, "First of Its
Kinds," The Atlantic Advocate, (October 1958), p. 16.
2. Jeremy Akerman, What Have You Done For
Me Lately? A Politician Explains (Windsor, Nova Scotia: Lancelot Press,
1977), p. 30. This book is an interesting description of the legislator's role
in Nova Scotia.
3. The Nova Scotia Legislature,
Halifax, Nova Scotia: Information Services Division, Department of Government
Services, p. 12.
4. Anthony Traboulsee, Laurence Kavanagh
1764-1830: His Life and Times (Glace Bay, Nova Scotia: Brodie
5. Allan Kornberg, William Mishler and
Harold D. Clarke, Representative Democracy in the Canadian Provinces
(Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall Canada, 1982).
6. J. Murray Beck, The Government of Nova
Scotia (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1957) p. 21.
7. (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Public Archives of
Nova Scotia, 1958).