His Grey Eminence
A portrait sketch of Arthur Beauchesne, untangler extraordinary of parliamenttary snarls
WHEN gongs clang on Parliament Hill, shattering the silence of marble corridors, a procession forms outside Mr. Speaker’s door. Members of Parliament stand aside, casual visitors eddy into little recesses under Gothic arches, while Mr. Speaker, the Clerk of the Commons, the Bearer of the Mace and other dignitaries, all resplendent in their robes of office, march solemnly to the council chamber of the people.
There are eager enquiries. Everyone knows Mr. Speaker, but who is the fourth man in the procession? His figure is robed in flowing folds of black silk. A three-cornered black hat crowns his head. One gathers a fleeting impression of his features. Pale skin, dark piercing eyes under heavy black eyebrows, a small mustache.
“Who is that man?” one whispers to an attendant guard. The answer comes in an undertone, “His Grey Eminence.”
“His Grey Eminence”—that is the name by which Arthur Beauchesne, Clerk of the House of Commons, is known in Parliament. People tell you that they have had a word with “His Grey Eminence,” or that such a great Parliamentarian has just left his office, or another one is waiting in his anteroom to see him.
An Authority On Parliamentary Lore
X_TE MOVES in a little world all his own; a world in which, in some miraculous way, he has compressed the essence of the law of Parliament, of Parliamentary tradición, from the time of the early Edwards until today. Constitutional law and that occult science, “Parliamentary procedure,” are his hourly concern. He has devoted years to the study of the machinery of Parliamentary Government; that queer, unprecedented form of self-rule which generations of Anglo-Saxons have built up.
How he gained the sobriquet, “His Grey Eminence,” is unknown. Parliament Hill has a queer way of clothing men with catch names. Laurier was just Sir Wilfrid to the people, but to the folk on the Hill he was beloved as “The Old Man,” and he inherited the title from Macdonald.
But “His Grey Eminence” is a different sort of title. It connotes more of respect and less of affection. There is a certain awesomeness about the phrase, “His Grey Eminence.” It fits Beauchesne, sums up the part he plays in the Parliamentary scheme of things. Undoubtedly the title fell upon him naturally, because for fourteen years he has played the part of Father Joseph aloof, remote, guiding, advising — to successive Parliamentary Richelieus.
Who is he? Whence cometh his influence?
Beauchesne, phrasemaker, essayist and political pamphleteer, today is the greatest living Canadian Parliamentary authority. Upon his slender shoulders has fallen the mantle of Bourinot and Todd. He is to Parliament what a rudder is to a ship. He is almost as essential to the efficient functioning of the Commons as the Mace. Of all those who share the spotlight on the “Hill” he would be the most difficult to replace.
Little wonder that a certain reverence and awe are attached to the figure of “His Grey Eminence.”
Journalist And Lawyer
"D EAUCHESNE is a Canadian in the truest sense of the term. His ancestors came to this Dominion in 1617, nearly 150 years before the Conquest. They lived in the paradise of the Acadians, the land of Evangeline. When expelled by the British they moved northwestward to the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and pioneered in what are now counties of Bonaventure and Gaspé.
Arthur Beauchesne was born in .1876 at Carleton, Bonaventure, a quaint, white cottage hamlet. As a lad he played on the sandy shores of the Bay of Chaleur. His father was a lawyer and a politician of note, and young Beauchesne was educated in the Acadian county college of St. Joseph de Memramcook. Upon graduation
he entered Laval University to study law. Here in his student days he felt the irresistible lure of politics and journalism. Beauchesne received his initiation into politics as private secretary to Sir Pierre Evariste Leblanc, Speaker of the Quebec Legislature, and Sir Adolphe Chapleau, then Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec.
There were episodes in his relationship with these men of which he has never spoken and will not speak today; secret political history which may never see the light of day. He is said to have been the confidential messenger who carried dismissals to Governments and defiances from politicians to constituted authority. It was a time when the political lists in Quebec were thronged with doughty champions. In the confusions and cross-currents of issues, party ranks had broken and strife was more deadly because it was, in a sense, internecine.
Young Beauchesne, with his milk-white shield, sought honorable adventure. But his political hopes received a check in 1897 when the Conservatives went down to defeat.
Overnight he became a journalist, an achievement which is comparatively simple in Quebec. To his new profession he brought a genius for epigram and lampoon. He worked on papers that succeeded and others that failed; never upon a newspaper which was dull. There was in him an unerring instinct for saying things differently and charmingly.
His law studies continued. There were classes at Laval, and these had to be fitted to his job as reporter on the Minerva. One day he came to the office to find a notice on the door stating that the newspaper had failed. He went to Chapleau, and such was Chapleau’s affection for him that on his deathbed the Tory chieftain sent for Richard White, owner of the Gazette, and asked him to look after Beauchesne. And so he became for a time a reporter on the Gazelle.
To Beauchesne journalism meant something more than recording events. He musí have a medium through which to express his opinions. A few years later he left the Gazette and joined the staff of Le Journal, founded by Sir Rodolphe Forget, of Montreal. He was successively city editor and editor-in-chief. Under his editorship Le Journal sparkled with wit and vivacity. The Manitoba School question still agitated political waters. Beauchesne held strong views upon it, which, unfortunately, did not coincide with those of the Bishop of Montreal. No whit daunted, Beauchesne blithely entered into battle with the leader of his church. The contest was furious, and in its final phase revealed Beauchesne as the central figure in one of the most curious newspaper sensations in Quebec. Beauchesne had been unable to give full rein to his views on the school question in his own paper, so had hit upon the plan of contributing fiery editorials to another newspaper in Montreal. Everything went well until the editor of this paper got into a libel action with an insurance company. When the case came to trial, the counsel for the prosecution considered it good policy to acquaint the jury with the stand taken by the defendant on the Manitoba School question. To that end a number of editorials were read.
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Beauchesne was following the case closely and noticed that all the editorials used against his fellow editor were the product of his pen. The following morning Beauchesne appeared in court and asked leave to make a statement. Leave being granted, Beauchesne admitted the authorship of the editorials. It was one of those situations in which Ned Farrar might have been caught— Farrar who used to contribute editorials concurrently to t he Mail and Empire and the Globe. There was this difference. While from the narrow viewpoint of editorial ethics, Beauchesne might be deemed to have committed an indiscretion, he had never wavered in his loyalty to principle. His crime, if any, was that he had held opinion more precious than editorship.
He walked out of the courtroom, returned to his office and wrote out his resignation. But while he could no longer continue as editor, the owners could ill afford to lose him. The upshot was his transfer to the press gallery at Ottawa.
Meantime law studies were completed, and in 1904 Beauchesne was admitted to the bar. He was no stranger to the privations inescapable in the pursuit of a career. He hung out his shingle as a lawyer, waited for clients and supported himself by freelance journalism. One year later his spare hours were being devoted to the nourishment of a new journalistic foundling, L’Opinion. Clients appeared from time to time, and Beauchesne became a fairly constant pleader before the courts.
A Tremendous Task
A TALENT for public speaking, a proficiency in political invective and epigram, marked him out as a promising political recruit, and in 1908 he contested Bonaventure in the Conservative interest against Hon. Charles Mardi, the present member. He was defeated, and four years later essayed unsuccessfully the difficult task of winning the riding for the provincial Conservatives. These were the days of unchallenged Liberal supremacy in the province of Laurier and Gouin. Conservatives could not hope to win. It was, indeed, considered a triumph if Liberal majorities were reduced. Beauchesne entered these contests with the ardor of a young crusader. And yet he never lost his sense of humor. On one occasion a Liberal friend offered to bet that Beauchesne would lose his deposit. Beauchesne accepted the wager. Election day revealed him in a vast minority. The election deposit was forfeit, but when his friend appeared Beauchesne explained coolly that, while he had lost the election, he had won the bet. “The fact was,” he said, with the hint of a smile in his eyes, “we made a good fight, but unfortunately I lost their deposit.”
Beauchesne continued to practise law, run a newspaper, tilt-in the political lists until 1913, when the Borden Government brought him to Ottawa as one of the legal advisers in the Department of Justice. Three years passed pleasantly. Beauchesne proved himself an able lawyer, winning a place among those highly important individuals referred to as “the law officers of the Crown.” He maintained his social contact with the Parliamentary press gallery and, debarred from ¡ political pamphleteering, launched out on a career as an essayist. His monograph
on Sir Robert Borden was the work of these years.
Although nearing forty, his real work in life had not begun, and it is doubtful if he would ever have found his true place had the Parliament Buildings not been destroyed. Among those who perished in the fire was J. B. R. Laplante, the assistant clerk of the House of Commons. Beauchesne was his successor.
His career then began. He addressed himself to the task of mastering the constitutional law of Parliament as well as the rules of Parliamentary procedure. To do this he must obtain a detailed, working knowledge of innumerable volumes of the great constitutional authorities. He must also carry out original research into the records not only of our own Parliament, but of Westminster. Canada in sixty years has produced two great constitutional authorities—Sir John Bourinot and Alpheus Todd. Their knowledge is spread liberally through the printed pages of many volumes. Seven years of unremitting study made Beauchesne a master of their knowledge. He then began to compress this Parliamentary law into a form in which the average member of Parliament could understand and make use of it. In 1924 he issued a little volume bound in green cloth, Beauchesne's Parliamentary Rules and Forms. It became at once a Parliamentary bible.
In 1925 the clerkship of the House of Commons fell vacant, and Beauchesne, although a former Conservative candidate, was appointed by the Liberal Government. Since then he has proceeded to break new ground in constitutional law and Parliamentary procedure. He is now completing a digest of every constitutional decision made in the Canadian Parliament since 1867, and his next step will be to issue the fifth revised edition of Bourinot. This work will rank him not only as the outstanding constitutional authority of the day, but will give him a place in that select company—Bourinot, Todd and May.
But Beauchesne’s contribution is even greater than that.
Parliamentary procedure is like a telescope. It may, by unanimous consent, be contracted into the smallest possible dimensions. Anyone who has watched Parliament at work knows that legislation can be put through all stages, receive Royal Assent, and become law within twenty minutes. And yet if one man desires to oppose a measure, he can, unaided, delay the enactment many weeks. Every member has inalienable rights under the rules of Parliamentary procedure. To show what these rights are, to apply the precedents of the past to the questions of today, these are the functions of constitutional authority. This is the task which Beauchesne discharges every day that Parliament is in session.
A Forgotten Precedent
BEAUCHESNE ÍS one of the busiest
men on Parliament Hill. After all, it is no light task to make the wheels of
Parliamentary Government run smoothly. It was said of Todd that he was the only man in Canada who made a habit of compelling the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to kick their heels in the waiting room until he was ready to see them. Beauchesne is not like that. He is most accessible. He is consulted almost daily by leaders of parties on matters of Parliamentary procedure.
Particularly the friend of the private member, he is never too tired to try and find a constitutional way whereby a backbencher may accomplish his desires. One recalls the occasion upon which A. W. Neill, of Vancouver Island, astounded Parliament by delivering a fierce assault upon the Senate. It is, of course, against the rules of Parliament for the member of one House to refer to the actions of the other House. Neill had a particular grievance against the Senate, and his problem was to discover a way in which he could voice it constitutionally. Beauchesne obliged him by digging up a rule adopted at Westminster in the reign of Elizabeth. The House of Lords had been under a cloud of suspicion. The Commons had passed a bill; it had gone to the Lords and never been heard of again. Whereupon the Commons adopted a rule providing that a motion could be moved for a committee to proceed to the Lords and search for the missing bill, if necessary by force of arms. To the consternation of everyone save Beauchesne, Neill rose in the Commons one wintry day in March and moved for a committee to search the records of the Senate. The motion entitled him to speak and never before or since has the Upper Chamber been more roundly abused. And then the matter dropped.
Nor is Beauchesne concerned only with events on Parliament Hill. He is the constant adviser of Provincial Legislatures. Whenever there is a constitutional crisis, Beauchesne is called upon to advise as to the procedure that should be followed. When the Norris Government was defeated on a snap division in the Manitoba Legislature in 1922, the House was adjourned and the clerk of the Legislature wired Beauchesne for advice. More recently when a constitutional crisis arose in Saskatchewan, it was Beauchesne who pointed the proper path to pursue.
And yet Parliamentary law has not entirely immersed him. Since he took on the job of being the rudder of Parliament he has not abandoned literary composition. He finds time to write occasional essays. He is the president of the French section of the Royal Society. He is also the secretary of the Canadian branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association and an active member of the Authors’ Association. A small volume of his essays will be issued shortly, among them a study of Napoleon as a journalist. The essays are the fruit of his summer months at Carleton, his ancestral home, where after strenuous months in Parliament he finds relaxation in a quiet game of chess with village cronies.