Letters of a Woman M.P.
An insider looks at the opening of Parliament and discovers that Comedy sits enthroned with Pomp and Circumstance
H. F. GADSBY
Note: Although they have a background of current
events in Parliament, the letters of Miss Clarice McAllister, M.P., to her friend, Miss Mary Duggan, back in her home town at Seebach, Ont., are not to be identified with any person in particular. If the sentiments appear familiar it is because a woman is speaking and her opinions are part of the eternal feminine. In a word, Miss McAllister is a type, not an individual.—The Author.
Ottawa, Feb. 8, 19 29. Parliament Hill.
MY DEAR MARY: I suppose they’ve got to open Parliament this way. They couldn’t do it with a corkscrew or a pair of jacks—so they do it with ceremony. It lends dignity to our deliberations even if they do not amount to much.
As a democrat I’m stoutly opposed to any such display of pomp and power, but as a woman and a human being I just dote on it. I’m like the prohibitionist down in Maine who said: “I got to go to Portland Saturday night and get drunk and, gosh durn, how I dread it!” I always feel that way about the opening of Parliament. I adjure the sin but I like the glow I get from it. There was a citizen of the great republic to the south behind me while the show was going on in the Senate Chamber and he whispered: “This beats the U.S. all hollow. When you people over here are all dressed up you’ve got some place to go.” There may be something in that. After all, republican simplicity can be carried too far.
Anyhow, it’s a great performance, better than any fancy drill the Knights of Pythias can put on, and, sturdy champion of the common people though you are, my dear Mary, I feel sure that you would be delighted with the fuss and feathers—cannon booming, flags flying, horses prancing, and the Guards band blowing its head off, careless of danger from the B flat cornets back-firing. I must say I get a real kick out of it.
A Matter of Knocks and Bows
BUT to begin at the beginning. Here we are in the Green Chamber, everybody present except the Premier who is absent on an affair of state at the other side of the building. There’s a knock at the door. “What of that?” you ask. “Isn’t there always somebody knocking in the House of Commons?” Yes, Mary, but this is a knock out of the ordinary—a highly significant knock— like the knocking in Macbeth—there is more behind it. One knock—two knocks—three knocks! Knocking, knocking, who is there? The expectancy is almost painful.
Colonel Bowie, our graceful and gallant Sergeant-at-Arms, looking for all the world like a dignified beetle in his black shorts and swallow tail, draws his sword and strides to the door to face the danger. Nothing to be afraid of there! Only the Chief Messenger with his silver gavel and the Usher of the Black Rod with his ebony wand and an official countenance. Black Rod with his wand
at the salute falls in behind the Sergeant-at-Arms with his sword carried in the same polite manner and together they proceed to the foot of the Speaker’s dais where Black Rod delivers his message. This message, as everybody knows, is from His Excellency the Governor-General who demands the presence of his faithful Commons in the Chamber of the Honorable the Senate. He repeats the words of authority in French — so that the good Lord will thoroughly understand what is afoot—and this time the accent is on the “rabble” in “honorable,” which is the distinctive adjective of the Senate but is supposed to slam the House of Commons in the last two syllables. Speaker Lemieux receives the haughty summons with his customary imperturbability and prepares to obey.
But what about the bows, you may ask. Well, Mary, they are perfectly good bows and they get better every year.
Captain Thompson, the present Usher of the Black Rod, is in my opinion the best Black Rod we ever had. He is a hero of the Great War and was considerably shot up in the struggle. So, when he first took over, his bows were a bit stiff and creaky, but time
which heals and massages has limbered him up a lot until now his bows are all that could be desired. As far as I can see, his bows lack nothing—just the right blend of ease with responsibility. No cringing, if you get me— just a manly independence mingled with a sense of dignity. The Woman’s Progressive Association of Seebach, Ont., might learn the art of bowing from him, and even you, Mary, the stalwart president of that
association, could take a few lessons to advantage.
Captain Thompson bows low—but not too low. True, when the bow is at its lowest his stern is most in the ascendant, but take it by and large it is a good selfrespecting Canadian bow, and stops short at the waist. It is a freer and easier bow than anything you will see in the Senate where Colonel Snow, His Excellency’s Military Secretary, does most of that sort of thing. Colonel Snow bows from the neck—a truly English bow which saves strain on his uniform and his feelings of rank and station. It is, of course, a mere newspaper jest that Captain Thompson draws his salary for making
three bows a year. Every time he enters the Green Chamber, which he does perhaps half a dozen times during the Session, he makes six bows, three in and three out—that’s thirtysix, isn’t it—and he puts his back into all of them.
Bowing is hard work for a proud spirit, but it is said to be good for the liver. The Captain also does a certain amount of bowing in the Senate though his duties do not end there. He is Chief Ceremoniar of State drawingrooms, banquets and such like, and I am told that he has a deuce of a
job with the Table of Precedence which has the Table of Logarithms looking like the kindergarten class in simple arithmetic.
Believe me, Mary, Black Rod earns his pay if ever man did. His Excellency has some bowing to do, too, but he makes and takes his bows sitting down, which relieves the pressure on the British North America Act. He throws in a few extra gestures with the cocked hat but not enough to raise beads of perspiration on the viceregal brow. On the whole I’d rather have his job than Captain Thompson’s—there isn’t so much to do. At least that’s what the champions of equal status tell us. So much for the bows:
“There is a Smell of Powder in the Air”,
HERE we are in the Red Chamber— the color scheme based on the theory that the senators need something more than the proceedings in the Divorce Committee to keep them warm. The Red Chamber might also be called the Painted Chamber because it has great pictures on the walls, battle pictures which are ultimately to find a home in the National Art Gallery, but which remain here, for the time being, to give the senators a contrasting theme when they talk about the League of Nations—which subject Senator Sir George Foster raises as often as possible. My guess is that the pictures will stay here for keeps. When the senators are asked: “What did you do in the Great War?” they can point to the evidences— they hung the pictures.
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The Red Chamber is a glorious room. It is too small for a big crowd like the opening of Parliament and there is talk about letting it out at the sides so that more people can get in. Her Excellency’s train has swept something like a hundred and fifty society dames into the outside lobby and the great wail comes from them. They say they “want to see.’’ What they really want is to be seen in their new clothes. If they’re really in earnest about wanting to see, let ’em use periscopes! I hope John Pearson, the architect, won’t let them spoil his beautiful room, his chef d'oeuvre, to make an Ottawa holiday.
The senators are conspicuous by their absence. They have given up their seats to the ladies and when I think how long the dear old chaps have waited for those same seats I think it is a crying shame that they are robbed of them for this one brief hour of glorious life. But there you are! Place aux dames! The Rights of Man must yield to the Rights of Woman —but for how long? Will this wave of feminism of which I am a beneficiary last? In the end, I fancy the Rights of Nature will prevail. Meanwhile, Mary, let us make the most of it.
The ladies, God bless ’em, are in full toilet—which means that they are wearing as little as they can and get away with it. They are showing plenty of back—a southern exposure, in fact, which is almost indecent. They remind me of Venus rising from the sea, with this difference that they know just where to draw the line. Not that I envy them their fine clothes. I know a good deal more about clothes than I did when I came here a few short years ago, and can sport sheer hose, high heels and chiffons with the best of them. I am not jealous —why should I be?—but speaking from the outside of the brass railing, one of the mob from the Commons yammering, as it were at the gate, I say it is wrong to let these butterflies hog the scenery.
There is a smell of powder in the air, but it is not gunpowder, and His Excellency’s long-legged aides wear their dress uniforms, which are gorgeous beyond belief, as the proper equipment to meet the occasion. The sober khaki of ten years ago has faded from the picture and nothing is left now of the war but the national debt. Never, Mary, would I bring up a son of mine to be a soldier, no matter what clothes he wears, though I’m free to admit that Colonel Snow, Captain Raines and Captain Fiennes do cut a fine figure and are a complete object lesson in military deportment, not to mention the glass of fashion and the mould of form as to what’s latest in Bond Street when they are in mufti.
The only thing I don’t like about them is their mustaches, which strike me as too feeble for warriors. I was brought up to believe that the heavy cavalry mustache, which our viking ancestors borrowed from the walrus, were the proper thing for a soldier, and these misplaced eyebrows which are the style now do not seem to fill the bill. Senator Calder has the kind of mustache I admire. I have often wondered that it did not lead him into a martial walk of life. But safety first, eh Mary? What would we do if our Senators were subject to war’s alarms? All the killing they should be called on to do is Old Age Pension bills from the Commons, which is quite natural, seeing that they are already provided for.
A Bullion Show
A FEW more details. I am so familiar with the picture now that I have become a bit of a critic. The grouping is wonderful. The show hits you right in the eye. The GovernorGeneral on his throne, a pleasing confection of dark blue and silver—and don’t forget the cocked hat—with Her Ex-
cellency at his side. The glittering colonels in their panoply. The Supreme Court Judges in their scarlet and ermine— they don’t wear this best bib and tucker very often and I can smell the moth balls from here. The diplomats, a blazing parterre of glad raiment. But why do they all wear the same kind of clothes? Gorgeous, I’ll admit, but no varietyjust a swallow tail plastered with gold braid and short pants to match. Why doesn’t Mr. Chow appear as a mandarin with a yellow button on his cap? Why doesn’t Mr. Shuh Tomii sport a kimono embroidered with chrysanthemums? I fear me that picturesque beauty is being standardized out of existence and that presently the whole world will lie under the pall of Western civilization.
Among these scintillating personalities whose gold braid flashes back the afternoon sun my eye singles out the Hon. Georges Jean Knight, the French Ambassador, who is a giant among men. How came a Frenchman to be so tall? They tell me that his great, great grandfather was a Scotsman. That explains it. All the male McAllisters have been tall of their inches. Another long man with a long face is Sir William Clark, the British Trade Commissioner, also the Hon. William Phillips who has an Oxford accent he never learned at Washington.
Premier King is to the right of the throne in his dazzling harness of Privy Councillor which he will change as soon as the show is over, to appear as the champion of the people in modest tweeds while the House of Commons passes the usual act respecting Oaths of Office. Which is all very nice, but not to be compared with the oaths of those who are out of office which are much more robust. Meanwhile he takes an almost boyish interest in the proceedings.
When I see all this display of bullion on coats and waistcoats, I feel reassured that the gold reserve is in a healthy condition and listen with confidence to the Speech from the Throne which contains a little bit of everything but nothing that I have not already seen in the morning papers. The Speech from the Throne is not like the tariff changes of the budget—it’s a secret that nobody cares to keep and is open to everybody who’s a good guesser. It is supposed to be the work of the Premier, assisted by the members of the Cabinet, and the style is what you might expect of the soup when more than one cook takes a hand in it.
The Speech from the Throne is all dolled up with a red seal and a blue ribbon and looks like a box of chocolates wrapped for Christmas. His Excellency reads the speech in both languages. Of His Excellency’s French I have only to say that I can make out every word of it, which leads me to suspect that the accent is not of Paris. Be that as it may, it is the Speech from the Throne and I often wonder what becomes of it after Colonel Snow, bowing low to its magic words, takes it from His Excellency's hand and stows it under his arm. There have been sixty-one of these Speeches from the Throne since Confederation. What have they done with them? Are they filed away in the Archives to gather dust and crumble? Or are they to be published as Collected Works of our Canadian Premiers and thrown open to posterity?
And Now Cake and Ice Cream
"V\ TELL, Mary, the show is over now.
W The captains and the Premier Kings and all the other dignitaries depart and we troop back to the House of Commons. I must say I enjoyed it. I had a good place near the brass rail—it’s my privilege as a lady—and I heard and saw everything. Speaker Lemieux was not far from me in his official listening post, which is a little bay in the brass
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Continued from page 28 railing. He is a steady man on his feet, is Speaker Lemieux, and can stand for half an hour with never a fidget, wearing his three-cornered hat the while, with an air of cheerful disdain which, I fancy, is the proper way to treat it. He wears his hat, I may say, to advertise the independence of the Commons which does not uncover before Kings, unless their first name is Mackenzie—and seldom at that.
Remains now the official hospitality. This is a three-ringed circus—the big show in the Senate, and two side shows—a reception by the Speaker of the Senate and a reception by the Speaker of the Commons, to which we all flock to eat sandwiches and drink lemonade. There is nothing in the lemonade to cause alarm among strict moral reformers but the pink ice cream is another story. The Progressive party as a whole is passion-
ately fond of pink ice cream. Some of the members are what might be called addicts. They simply can’t resist it, when provided at somebody else’s expense. For instance, there is Comrade Woodsworth, here bodily at my elbow, but far away in spirit with the pink ice cream. There is a gleam in his eye which tells the fatal story. He will, I hazard a guess, eat six dishes of it and will have to take an A.B.S.C. when he goes to bed to-night. I don’t know what these pink ice cream statesmen are coming to. The next thing they’ll be wearing spats and wrist watches and that will be their finish with the voters back home. Good-by and write soon.
Editor’s Note—In this article Mr. Gadsby presents the first of a series of Miss McAllister’s letters. The second will follow in an early issue.