Sir John George Bourinot: Vistorian
Canadian-His Life, Times and Legacy, McGill-Queens University Press, 2001.
Throughout my over thirty
years of procedural service to the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan, the
Senate of Canada and the University of Saskatchewan, three parliamentary
authorities have been my guides. Sir Erskine May, a Clerk of the House of
Commons, Westminster, wrote Treatise on the Law, Privileges and Usage of
Parliament, an authority on British parliamentary rules and precedents.
Arthur Beachesne’s Parliamentary Rules and Forms, is the Canadian
version of May and has, until recently, been the authority used by the Canadian
parliament and the provincial legislative assemblies. The third of the
procedural triumvirate was Sir John George Bourinot with his Parliamentary
Procedure and Practice in the Dominion of Canada, originally published in
1884. The fourth and last edition of Bourinot was published in 1916, but it is
still a useful discussion of parliamentary principles. Bourinot offered the
logic behind a particular procedure. He also wrote a procedural handbook for
the layperson who was working with municipal councils or community meetings.
But who was John George
Bourinot? Up until now, little was known of this parliamentary proceduralist
and former Clerk of the House of Commons for 22 years? Margaret A. Banks,
Professor Emeritus of Law and former law librarian at Western University has
attempted to answer this question in her biography of Bourinot. The timing of
this book is perfect, coming out less than a year after the publication of
Marleau and Montpetit’s House of Commons Procedure and Practice, which
was the result of the “Bourinot project”. Banks’ book is well researched and
documented with nearly one hundred pages of endnotes. However, a detailed
bibliography would have been helpful to the student of procedure.
Bourinot was born in Cape
Breton, Nova Scotia and during his early working life, became a journalist. His
newspaper articles and editorials shed some light on his thoughts and the times
but Banks did have difficulty in knowing all that Bourinot wrote since, in
those days, many letters or articles in the newspaper were unsigned or signed
with a pen name and newspaper editorials were unsigned. Nevertheless Banks does
an excellent job of ferreting out Bourinot’s work.
Since Bourinot learned
shorthand and reported on legislative debates for the newspaper, it was an easy
transition to becoming a legislative “Hansard” reporter. His father was a
member of the Nova Scotia legislature and later, a member of parliament, so
John George Bourinot’s connection with political circles was obvious.
In the discussion of
Bourinot’s early life, Margaret Banks had to rely on sketchy resource material.
As a result, she has gone to great length to show how she tried to fill the
gaps in the description of Bourinot’s life. It is frustrating to the reader how
often the author uses the word “probably” to describe what Bourinot may have
been doing or where he was in his early life. The documentation obviously
improved for Bourinot’s mid and later life because the narrative becomes more
complete with fewer suppositions. The reader has to have sympathy for Banks
because she noted that Bourinot did not keep copies of letters he sent to
others. Banks was forced to piece the puzzle together based on only one side of
the story, the incoming mail.
The biography shows a great
difference between parliamentary officers then and now. Bourinot wrote articles
on political events and even on politicians. Although he used a pen name, it
was apparently quite well known that the writer was Bourinot. When Bourinot was
an officer of the Canadian House of Commons, the opposition complained about
the practice, in general, of House of Commons officers commenting on partisan
politics. Prime Minister Macdonald agreed and Bourinot, even though he was not
the particular object of the criticism, discontinued his political articles.
However, this did not stop him from writing about parliamentary procedure and constitutional
questions. It is hard today to imagine a parliamentary officer making public
partisan political statements like Bourinot did.
Alpheus Todd, the
parliamentary librarian, was the first to write a guide on the Canadian
constitution. In 1884, Bourinot published the first edition of Parliamentary
Procedure and Practice which became the Canadian parliamentary procedural
guide for many decades. Bourinot did not intend the book to be a discussion of
particular rules, but instead it was to be an outline of parliamentary
principles. Bourinot, as Clerk of the House of Commons, served seven different
Speakers and the biography gives some flavour for the political turmoil of that
time. He became not only a noted author of procedural works but also was known
as Canada’s first political scientist. He published How Canada is Governed,
a guide for the public on Canadian governance. He wrote his books while at the
Table in the House or at his cottage at Kingsmere. He had close ties with the
British system of government and admired the Westminster model of responsible
government. This did not mean though that he was anti-American. He wrote that
it was acceptable to use American procedures in meetings as long as the full
implications were understood in advance. It was not uncommon for Bourinot’s
letters of procedural advice to be published and to become part of the
procedural debate. This is in contrast to the practice today of the Clerk’s
advice to the Speaker or members being private. The partisan profile of the Table
officers today is virtually nonexistent in comparison to Bourinot’s times.
Bourinot wrote not only on procedure and the constitution but also on history
Banks does an excellent job in analyzing and
describing Bourinot’s written work in the many fields including his work in the
formation of the Royal Society of Canada. However, there is one aspect of the
biography that is missing. Who was Bourinot as a person? Chapter eleven is
dedicated to a description of his family life but it deals mainly with his
children and his third wife and not about him. There is a vague reference to
Bourinot having depression after his second wife died. The biography does not
mention whether the depression was long term or the extent of the ailment. Was
he incapacitated and away from work or was this depression a passing phase,
part of his mourning the loss of his second wife?
The biography shows us
Bourinot as a historian, proceduralist and political scientist. From his
written work, we know what he was thinking professionally but the personal side
of the man seems to be missing. Perhaps the documentary evidence does not show
the inner man but this is a disappointing aspect of the biography. When
Bourinot died in 1902, it is sad to note that the House of Commons, when next
in session, did not express condolences on his passing. The records show only
the announcement of his replacement.
Margaret Banks expresses
disappointment in the failure to continue publication of further editions of
Bourinot’s procedural manual. When Sir Erskine May died, his successors
at the British Table did periodic revisions and published subsequent editions.
In contrast, after the 4th
edition of Bourinot in1916, there have been no further revisions. Arthur
Beauchesne, a later Clerk of the House considered updating Bourinot’s work but
instead published his own Parliamentary Rules and Forms. The Bourinot
legacy was allowed to lapse.
Notwithstanding the gaps in
the account of Bourinot’s early career and the lack of insight into Bourinot,
the man, Margaret Banks has contributed greatly to the understanding of the
written work of John George Bourinot. She gives an excellent description and
analysis of his work and his discussion of parliamentary procedural
principles. She brought to light the times and legacy of John George Bourinot,
a largely forgotten Canadian leader in procedural and political thought. He
wrote not only for the procedural experts, but offered guidance to the
layperson who was trying to organize a public meeting. This is truly recognition
of the work of a forgotten man.
Gordon Barnhart, PhD
University of Saskatchewan
(Former Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan
Former Clerk of the Parliaments and Clerk of the Senate)