Mr. Speaker: A Glimpse of the Man and the Office from the Human Interest Side

W. A. CRAICK March 1 1915

Mr. Speaker: A Glimpse of the Man and the Office from the Human Interest Side

W. A. CRAICK March 1 1915

Mr. Speaker: A Glimpse of the Man and the Office from the Human Interest Side


IT is nearly three o’clock. As the hands of the time-piece in the lobby of the House of Commons approach the hour, increasing activity becomes evident in the corri-

dors. Members of Parliament

who have up to the present been dropping in singly and in somewhat leisurely fashion, now enter the main door in larger numbers and with more show of haste. Visitors are seen ascending to the upper hallway, whence entrance to the galleries is secured, there to wait resignedly until admission is granted them. Pages scamper about and attendants go on duty at the doors leading into the lobbies. There is an air of expectancy pervading the place that naturally quickens one’s interest in the proceedings.

Presently a man in a modest half-military, half-civilian costume appears from the west wing. A sword dangles from his side. He wears a black rosette between his shoulders and a little gold lace on his trousers. He bears about him the insignia of authority. As he passes into the lobby on the left of the Commons Chamber, he is given a short sharp salute by the Dominion policeman on duty. He walks on through the lobby to a door at the far end and disappears.

A moment later another figure enters the corridor from the west wing and hurries through the lobby. He wears a long black robe and white tie and he too has the black rosette at the back of his collar. In his arm he carries a bundle of papers.

The first figure was the Sergeant-atArms, the second, the Clerk of the House, and their destination was the Speaker’s apartments at the rear of the Commons’ Chamber.

It is now three o’clock. On the stroke of the hour, bells begin to ring through the building. As their prolonged tones beat on the air, the door at the end of the lobby opens and a small and dignified procession emerges. First comes the Sergeant-at-Arms, bearing on his shoulder the massive ornamented mace; following him there appears a black-robed figure

wearing a three-cornered cocked hat and conspicuously white gloves; behind him walks the Clerk of the House, the deputy clerk and a messenger.

KThe five proceed in single file to the door leading from the lobby into the Chamber, pass through it and disappear.

This little pageant is repeated each day the House sits. It is the necessary introduction to the proceedings of the afternoon. Savoring of the old world, full of formality, it is one of the incidents that adds dignity to the everyday life of Parliament. Its central figure, he of the cocked hat and white gloves, is the Speaker, the man about whom pivots the whole Parliamentary system. Grave, dignified, presumably impartial, he stands for that authority which, despite the wrangling of politicians and the play of passion and prejudice, rides on through the whole history of legislative action unshaken and unimpaired.

No outsider’s eye beholds and no stranger’s ear hears what goes on inside the Chamber from the moment the Speaker disappears within the folding doors until the attendants at the gallery entrances admit the waiting public. Presumably the great mace is laid on the table and Mr. Speaker ascends the dais to his chair; prayers are read, one day in English and the next in French, and such matters as any member may desire to bring up before the press is admitted, are introduced. Apart from that very little may be supposed to happen.

It is in a sense paradoxical to call the dignitary in the cocked hat, the Speaker. As a matter of fact he “speaks” a good deal less than most members of the House.

the name is simply a relict of those good old times when the commons of England had their troubles with would-be unconstitutional monarchs. Some one member had perforce to express the views of his colleagues in interviews with the sovereign and the man who undertook this dangerous duty was known as “the speaker.” In process of time the speakership brought with it the added duty of presiding over the sessions of the Commons and so the presiding official of the House, as he is now known, came into existence.

In the year 1377, about the end of the reign of Edward III., the office of Speaker became regularly established and from that time right down to the present there has been a continuous line of Speakers in the British House of Commons. At first appointed only for a year at a time,

the custom was gradually changed until now the Speaker of the mother of Parliaments holds office with the utmost impartiality through the lives of more than one Parliament and then goes to his reward in the House of Lords. So much above party is he regarded there, that only on one or two occasions during the past hundred years has his seat as a member of the House ever been contested.

But if Mr. Speaker’s life was in jeopardy years ago when he tremblingly appeared before the monarch and voiced the desires of the people, his position was frequently not less uncomfortable in those days in the House itself. To-day his authority is so firmly established that manifestations of lack of respect for his person or decisions are so rare as to be practically negligible. Then, it was often his painful duty to call the attention of

the House to gross breaches of decorum, as for instance when a certain Speaker reported that “Sir E. Herbert put not off his hat to him but put out his tongue and popped his mouth with his finger in scorn,” and another Speaker complained that a member had come up to him and cried “Baw” in his ear.

The British custom under which a Speaker holds office for a dozen years or more is not followed in Canada. Instead the office falls vacant automatically at the end of each Parliament and one of the first duties of a new Parliament is to elect its Speaker. The entire performance savoring of Mediaevalism and carried through with

the utmost formality, is not without its special interest for those who delight in the maintenance of time-honored customs.


Stereotyped descriptions of the opening of Parliament elaborate on the antics of Black Rod and the gorgeous pageant in the Senate Chamber when the Governor-General reads his speech in the presence of elaborately gowned ladies, Windsor-uniformed privy councillors and galleries full of the cream of Ottawa society. They frequently overlook the happenings anterior to this brilliant

On the day before the formal opening, the House of Commons assembles in a sort of free and easy way and the members crowd up to the Clerk’s table to be sworn in, very much the same as schoolboys at the end of a vacation throng into the headmaster’s office to register. Some are new and strange; others old and experienced, but all are eager to be through with the swearing-in process. When this is accomplished the Clerk informs the House that he has received a communication from the Governor-General’s secretary, which he proceeds to read. It is to the effect that the Chief Justice of Canada in his capacity of Deputy GovernorGeneral, will be in the Senate Chamber that afternoon to open the session. Almost before the words are out of his mouth Black Rod’s knock is heard and the Commons are informed that the Deputy of His Royal Highness, the Governor-General, awaits them. The order is

obeyed in a lackadaisical way and, like a lot of sheep without a shepherd, the members wander through the corridor to the scarlet chamber.

On their arrival the Speaker of the Senate addresses them. He intimates that the Governor-General has prepared a speech explaining the cause of his summoning the present Parliament, which he would like to read to his devoted Commons, but he is not inclined to do so until they shall have chosen from among their number a Speaker. One wonders why the Commons could not have elected a Speaker without this hint, but apparently such an idea had not entered their heads.

This formality accomplished, the members wander back to their own

chamber, the whole excursion having occupied only a few minutes and, having taken their seats, the Prime Minister rises in his place and addressing himself to the Clerk of the House, proposes that such and such an honorable member shall become their Speaker. He eulogizes the man of his choice, pointing out how exceedingly wellqualified he is for the onerous duties of the position, and then resumes his seat amid applause. Immediately some other distinguished member of the Government jumps to his feet and seconds the nomination, adding a few more words of appreciation of the nominee. Then, not to be outdone in courtesy, the leader of the Opposition rises to express a cordial approval of the Government’s choice, his words conveying a vague hint that, while, of course, he might have selected a more suitable occupant of the Speaker’s chair, had he been given the chance, yet the Prime Minister had done very well, very well indeed.

The Clerk of the House now puts the motion, which under the circumstances is carried unanimously, and the new Speaker is duly appointed. There is a hearty burst of applause and the first commoner is immediately escorted to the dais on which the Speaker’s chair stands ready for his occupancy. He mounts three of the four steps leading to the platform and then turning proceeds to express his thanks for the honor done him. Of course he makes a mild pretence that the choice of his fellow-members has come as a surprise to him—but why disclose all the secret negotiations that had led up to his appointment? Let the drama run its course in the old approved fashion without any unnecessary display of the stageproperties.

Meanwhile the Sergeant-at-Arms has taken his cue and as the newly-appointed Speaker ascends the dais, he produces from its temporary hiding-place under the table, the great mace and places it gently on its cushion. The movement made silently and unostentatiously is symbolic of the accretion of power which has that moment come into the hands of the man who has just received the important appointment from his fellow-members. Henceforth, or until the Parliament but newly constituted shall have run its course, he and the gilded mace will never, officially at any rate, part company. While he is in the House, it will lie on the table before him; as he passes to and from the House, it will be borne in front of him; and in his apartments, it will stand in its glass case within the walls of his private office.

The Governor-General’s mandate having thus been obeyed and the Commons having selected a speaker, there is nothing further to be done for the present. The House adjourns and the Speaker marches off behind the mace to make an inspection of his apartments. Of course, he has been there before; in fact has everything arranged to suit his needs, for hadn’t he knowledge of the honor that was coming his way weeks, even months ago? What had occurred was just a bit of stage-play and he might quite as well as not have gone into the House that afternoon with the three-cornered hat on his

head which had been ready for him for days, instead of wandering in in his street clothes.


Presuming, however, that he is actually entering the Speaker’s apartments for the first time in the capacity of master, what must his feelings be as he takes a hasty survey of the various rooms? Taste in decoration and furnishing has brought about notable changes in the apartments. He may approve or disapprove of his predecessor’s choice in color schemes or arrangement. If his wife be with him, she is almost certain to do so. From the redcarpeted hall to the gorgeous drawingroom and on into the long and stately

dining-room with its paintings of previous speakers, they pass and, if they are not contemplating alterations, they will doubtless be dreaming of the numerous and elaborate functions that will take place in these rooms under their patronage.

The Speaker’s apartments in the Parliament Buildings are indeed a handsome suite of rooms. Entering them from the lobby of the House, one passes at once from the cold and uninviting corridor of a big public building into the cosiness and comfort of a private dwelling. Even though it is a uniformed footman

who responds to the summons at the door, there is a homeliness and simplicity about the appearance of the hall that immediately gives one the impression that the Speaker is after all a fellow-being. To the right of the hall a stairway ascends to the sleeping apartments, which are, of course, not open to the public inspection, and beyond the stairs is the private secretary’s room with the private office of the Speaker adjoining it. Both are plain rooms furnished for use not show.

The drawing-room and dining-room on the opposite side of the hall are, however, the main attraction. Both are large rooms and both are handsomely furnished. The drawing-room, under the hand of Madame Marcil, was converted a few years ago into a very gorgeous apartment, with bright colors and modern furniture. The dining-room on the other hand still retains its old solidarity and is darker and statelier in tone. In these two rooms all those social fun étions associated with the S p eaker’s tenure o f office, take place-those receptions, lunches and dinners, the giving o f which seem to be of alm o s t as much importance as his duties in the House itself.


When Mr. Speaker next appears on the scene in the House of Commons (which will be the afternoon of the day following his election) there has been a complete metamorphosis. His apparel is changed and even his features have suffered alteration. He is no longer the ordinary everyday member whom his colleagues have been in the habit of chaffing, but a most dignified and serious individual, with an awe-inspiring gleam in his eye and a majestic stride in his walk. The cocked hat, the robe, the white tie and gloves and the glistening patent leather boots all add to the air of superiority that surrounds him, placing a gulf

between him and the other members of the House.

This time, when Black Rod summons the Commons to the red chamber following the reading of a formal message from Rideau Hall, there is a shepherd for the sheep. The Speaker steps into his appointed place as first member and leads the way through the corridors. And the scene is very different. To-day the Governor-General himself sits on the dais, surrounded by all the dignitaries of Church and State. The Senate Chamber is thronged, precisely as described in the society columns, and there is much curiosity among those whose first time it is to witness the spectacle.

The Speaker, with the members of the House crowding round him, takes his place at the bar of the Senate and the proceedings commence. He speaks up boldly and, if he has memorized the words sufficiently well, makes an effective pretence of demanding the rights usually accorded to himself and the members of the House of Commons. The phraseology is stereotyped in form and runs somewhat after this fashion:

“May it please your Royal Highness, the House of Commons have elected me their Speaker though I am but little able to fulfil the important duties thus assigned to me. If, in the performance of those duties I should at any time fall into

error, 1 pray that the fault may be imputed to me, and not to the Commons, whose servant I am, and who, through me, the better to enable them to discharge their duty to their King and country, humbly claim all their undoubted rights and privileges, especially that they may have freedom of speech in their debates, access to your Royal Highness’ person at all seasonable times, and that their proceedings may receive from your Royal Highness the most favorable considera-

The Speaker of the Senate thereupon assures the petitioner that the Commons will be allowed their constitutional privileges, following which the speech from the throne is read. This done, the Commons march back to their own chamber and the first session of the new Parliament is at length officially under way.


It would doubtless be tiresome to enter into a detailed account of all that a Speaker is supposed to do. The text books and rules of procedure have plenty of dry-as-dust information t o supply on the duties of the office. Briefly, he is required to take the chair and call members to order; to announce in proper succession the various matters of business coming before the House for consideration ; to hear motions stated and submit to the House such as deserve recognition; to put the vote and announce its result; to receive messages from the outside world and deliver them to the House; to affix his

signature to bills; to act as the mouthpiece of the House and to see that the rules are not infringed.

The office is no sinecure. Other members may enter or leave the Chamber at will, may loll in their seats, may read newspapers write letters or even go to sleep, but Mr. Speaker must sit up in all his starchy dignity and pay patient attention through all manner of weary debates. Of course, he has a deputy to relieve him when the sitting becomes long-drawn-out and he may even summon an ordinary member of the House to take his place in emergencies, but this does not lessen the necessity for the constant exercise of his authority. The responsibility for the smooth running of the proceedings of the House always rests upon his shoulders.

So far Canadian Speakers have had a fairly peaceful time of it. There have been turbulent scenes, heated altercations and threatened disregard of the rules, but only once since Confederation at any rate, has the trouble gone beyond the stage when Mr. Speaker’s warning has had to be followed up by the actual naming of a member. “Naming a member” is the last resort of a harrassed Speaker. It involves the removal of the unruly one from the Chamber and the decision by his fellowmembers of what shall be done to him. In the one case of “naming” in the history of the Canadian House, the difficulty was settled before the member had actually been ejected.


This incident occurred during the heated debate on the naval question in the session of 1913 and under the speakership of the Hon. Dr. Sproule. The House was in committee of the whole with the member for Kent, New Brunswick, F. J. Robidoux, in the chair. After a pro-

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tracted discussion of a point of order, the chairman attempted to put a motion. The Liberals protested against his action and persisted in speaking. A scene of great confusion resulted and the House got quite out of hand. In the emergency the Speaker resumed the chair, rather an unusual procedure. He at once instructed the chairman of committee to put his motion and added: “So sure as anyone rises to prevent it or violates order, I shall name him.”

To this there was continued opposition and Dr. Michael Clark of Red Deer rose to demand by what rule the Speaker had ventured to resume the chair, while Die House was still in committee. Hardly had he got the words out of his mouth than the Speaker retorted, “Dr. Michael Clark, I name you for absolute and flagrant violation of the rules of the House.”

What would have been the outcome of this desperate situation is doubtful, had not better counsels prevailed. The leaders of the House intervened. A partial apology was drawn from the irate Westerner and business was finally resumed. Still, the incident goes on record as the one case since Confederation when a Speaker has had to go to this length to maintain the dignity of his position and the decorum of the House.


In a sense the Speaker is the head of a department of Government, though, of course, he is not a member of the Cabinet. In his hands is placed the control of the internal economy of the House of Commons and all its subsidiary organizations. It is the Speaker who nominally employs the attendants, runs the Parliamentary restaurant, issues regulations for the management of the buildings and controls access to the galleries. He has a large say in the operation of the library and reading room. Indeed, his authority in and around the House is a very real quantity and may not lightly be tampered with.

Bulking almost as large as his administrative duties are his social duties. He is supposed to do a lot of entertaining. On the opening day, he and his wife usually give a big reception in their apartments immediately after the ceremonies in the Senate Chamber. The invitations are given informally, though the affair itself is formal enough. On the night of the drawing-room there is usually another reception, while hardly a day passes during the session that there is not some function, large or small, taking place. It may be merely a small luncheon at which some notable stranger visiting the capital is the guest of honor, or it may be a large dinner-party with the whole cabinet present. A record book is kept of all invitations issued and it is the endeavor of the Speaker to spread his favors around as evenly as possible. Thus, during the session every member of the House is given an opportunity to taste his hospi-

tality, while the Speaker’s wife vies with her husband in entertaining the ladies.

The Speaker receives a salary of $4,000 a year, which is little enough when one considers all that is expected of him. course certain things, such as the plate, the dishes, the linen, the attendants, are supplied, but even so there are many expenses connected with the entertainment of guests which he must pay out of his own pocket. If he approves of the use wine, it costs him a pretty penny to stock his cellar, while flowers and other table decorations run away with a lot of money.

Since Confederation there have been thirteen speakers of the House of Commons, of whom only one held office during the course of two Parliaments. This was the first Speaker, the Hon. James Cockburn, Q.C., who sat from 1867 to 1874. In two instances it has been necessary elect two Speakers during the life of single Parliament. Sir James D. Edgar, who was appointed in 1896, died in office and his uncompleted term was filled out by the Hon. Thomas Bain. The Hon. L. P. Brodeur, who became Speaker following the election of 1900, was given a portfolio in the Government before the term expired and the office was filled for the final session of that Parliament by the Hon. N. A. Belcourt. With these exceptions, there has been one Speaker for each Parliament since the Dominion was formed, a notable contrast to the British custom.

The practice of alternating French and English Speakers has come to be fairly securely established, though there have been one or two variations. The last Speaker of the former Conservative regime, the Hon. Peter White, was English. while the first Speaker of the Liberal regime succeeding him, Sir James D. Edgar, was also English. On the whole, however, the two nationalities have received equal treatment. When the Conservatives were in power from 1879 to 1896, there were two English and two French Speakers and during the Liberal period in office from 1896 to 1911, there were three of each race in the chair.

It is also an accepted rule that if the Speaker is of one race, the Deputy Speaker must be of the other race. Up to a few months ago, when the latter gentleman was taken into the Cabinet, Mr. Speaker Sproule, an English-speaking Speaker, had as his deputy, Mr. Blondín, a Frenchman. His predecessor in the chair, the Hon. Charles Marcii, a Frenchman, was supported by G. H. McIntyre, M.P., an Englishman, and so on. Frequently the Deputy Speaker in one Parliament becomes the Speaker in the next Parliament, unless, of course, his party happens to go out of power. Thus, the Hon. Charles Marcil, who was deputy during the speakership of the Hon. R. F. Sutherland, succeeded the latter after the election of 1908. In the necessity for evening up the favors between the French and the English lies one important reason for the frequent change of Speaker in the Canadian House of Commons.