The story of the making of Hansard official record of the debates in Can ada's Houses of Parliament
I. NORMAN SMITH
AHUSKY oath rang through the decorous Senate Chamber at Ottawa, some weeks ago, reverberating shockingly in every sensitive ear except those of the discriminating Hansard reporter who, in such circumstances, is like the monkey who hears no evil. “Sit down,” shouted a venerable Conservative statesman to Senator Dandurand. “Who told me to sit down?" retorted the Liberal leader of the Upper House. "I did.-you," came the reply. Opposition Leader Arthur Meighen jumi)ed up to regret such goings-on but was quickly assured that he need not
worry—that the words would not appear in the record.
Thus, to Hansard, again was left the decision of what is and what is not a verbatim record of the debates of the Senate and Commons.
This preservation of dignity along with the record of debates is deemed expedient not only in our Canadian Parliament, Lloyd George once remarking of a certain Speaker of the British Commons that he had the most discriminating ear in England. So, although there are innumerable instances where the debates both here and in Britain are brightened by healthy epithets, they often don’t make the printed report—which is Hansard.
And what is Hansard?
Hansard is a pile Of clothbound books containing a verbatim report of the proceedings of the Canadian Commons and Senate since 1880.
Hansard is the souvenir, the cameo of a nation’s growth; the record of its hopes and fears, its failures and its triumphs.
Hansard is a word-for-word report of a speech made to Parliament: word-forword, that is, so long as the words are grammatical and the sentiment is not below the dignity of the Speaker’s hearing.
Hansard ' is “a vast necropolis of dead political debates, of extinct party war cries, of the reputations of forgotten politicians."
Hansard is the custodian of the purest streams of language that ever have flowed in this country.
T_TANSARD was also the name of a printer who, at the end of the 18th century, began reporting the British Parliament and
thus gave his surname to the business of reporting Parliament. May 4, 1940, marked the diamond jubilee of Official Hansard in Canada’s Parliament, Hansard reporters on that day, in the year 1880, being “engaged and recognized as officers of the House."
The early firm of Luke Hansard and Sons had a tough time of it. They had to employ their own reporters and depend for revenue on the sale of their product. In 1878 the British Government granted them $15,000, but by 1899 they had gone bankrupt and the name Hansard alone remained Of the first effective attempt to harness the tides of oratory that have been characteristic of man since he stopped hanging from branches by his toes.
Prior to the Hansard firm’s effort, Parliament records were virtually unknown. Indeed, for many sessions they were banned. After the collapse of the Hansard firm, the system of letting out printing and reporting contracts was maintained with varying degrees of thoroughness. The reports were sometimes of a very hit-or-miss nature.
The British House disliked the publicity a verbatim report would mean and, as late as 1888, T. P. O’Connor was a lonely petitioner when he pleaded it was “an absurd and false economy on the part of a great nation to leave to chance the records of the most important factor in the making of its history." However, by 1909 the British House took the reporting into its own hands and has printed a “Hansard” ever since.
Thus the Canadian Parliament has really led the Mother of Parliaments in this matter of recording speeches, the Canadian House, since 1880, having its own staff which, in the words of the late Hon. Martin Burrell, Cabinet Minister and later Parliamentary Librarian, “has recorded verbatim the spoken words of the people’s representatives in the national forum, animated by the sole desire to make the great record complete, authoritative, and unimpeachably accurate.”
We perhaps cannot do better here than to quote something further of what Mr. Burrell once wrote of these Hansard men — men who toil with fountain pens, each for ten minutes; then spend the next fifty minutes dictating their hieroglyphics into the ears of women typists and revising the first result:
“It is, and always has been, a cardinal principle with Hansard that no alterations, no emendations, should be of a material character, and, to the credit of Hansard and members alike, the principle has been honorably observed. It would be a task beyond human powers to report every word as uttered. Indeed, repetitions and redundancies would vitiate the written record, and I could count on my fingers the number of those who, in my twelve years experience in the House, could speak for half an hour without slip or flaw.
“Hansard loves the member who, with clear voice, rolls off 150 words to the minute. His despair is the man whose speech, at 200 words to the minute, is, to quote the words of a reporter in the English House, like a ‘Highland river in spate, full, swift, and rather turbid.’ The longest speech I recall is that of a member who, in a fiery and sustained attack on a minister, consumed seven hours. As he was not a slow speaker, I roughly calculate that his effort in book form would be about the length of Mr. Wells’ ‘Men Like Gods.’ I express no opinion on the respective merits of the two works.
“Last session nearly five million words were emitted
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from the mouths of members and subsequently embalmed in Hansard. In this Serbonian bog, one might well be lost were it not that Hansard is better indexed than any other author or compiler that ever walked the earth. There are 27,000 references to the mass of verbiage referred to, making the way so plain that a wayfaring man, though a fool, could not err therein. I suppose no sane man would contemplate a steadydiet of Hansard with any excess of pleasure. Nevertheless, there is abundant treasure for those who seek it. No phase of human activity or human interest is untouched and—amid much dullnesstragedy, comedy, wit, pathos and intellect reward the searcher in those fields of the past.”
Hansard’s indexing system has been called “a marvel of detail and accuracy.” The reader can judge for himself of the system of cross indexes that is entailed. When the Prime Minister mentions Anticosti Island in the budget debate, it is indexed under budget, under Mackenzie King, under Anticosti, under whatever he was speaking of in Anticosti, and so forth. Thus Hansard not only can produce, for a man engaged in research, copies of every speech made in the Commons since 1880, but it can tell him where to find anything and everything. And when such a system can be maintained over such an unsystematic flow of words as rushes into the Commons and the Senate.it is a system of no mean stature.
* I 'HE PHYSICAL task of getting out Hansard has something of the inevitability of a newspaper pressroom. The shorthand is written by experts who must have far more than mere speed. In a Commons debate, five members are sometimes keen on talking all at the same time, two in French and three in English. And the language is the language of 11,000,000 people —slang and erudite polysyllables, technical phrases of business, of banking and trade, new and old idioms of the farm and the sea.
The shorthand man (he uses an advanced style of Pitman) dictates his copy to the typist, and the typist submits it to Hansard’s editors. The members may look over the first copies of this report and make minor changes in text, but the context and sense of the original must not be altered. A member may rise in the
House the next day to say he was misreported, and Hansard will report his complaint.
Hansard goes to press each night after the evening session’s work has been cleared up; goes to press several blocks away in the Government Printing Eureau. By eleven next morning, in fifty or so pages neatly printed, it is on the desk of every member of Parliament and senior government official and in the mails to the 1,500 people throughout the country who subscribe the necessary three dollars a session. Extra copies of any one day’s proceedings may be had for five cents.
There is, of course, a French edition of Hansard as well as English, and it, too, is available to all who wäll pay the three dollars. The circulation of Hansard seems small in consideration of what it is, and what it costs, but efforts to increase the public appetite for this fare have thus far proved almost fruitless. Twenty years ago there were only 100 subscribers. This was boosted to 1,400 in 1930, following a fairly active effort to “popularize” Hansard, and today the circulation to subscribers is 1,500. These figures, however, do not includemembers of Parliament who get ten free copies, and may buy any number of extra copies at the regular price of five cents per copy, or three dollars for the session, to send back to their constituencies. The total circulation of Hansard is about 8,500.
Many strong arguments can be put fomard that it would be a good thing for the country if Hansard were more w-idely read. It might even be held, with some good reason, that every citizen earning more than $2,000 a year should be obliged to subscribe to Hansard. If this were done, not only would he know what was going on in Parliament—often to his intellectual betterment—but he would know, as well, what was not going on in Parliament. It is a good bet that if every member knew that the whole country was going to read his speech he’d put into it a lot less guff and a little more thought. However, the snag here is that, although the citizen may be obliged to buy Hansard, nothing in our Democracy can make him read it.
There is another snag to Hansard, even as it is today. All too many members “speak to Hansard,” regardless of the fact that their topics have been covered more than adequately by previous speakers in the same Chamber. It is common practice for some members to get their views into Hansard on every*
thing that arises in the Chamber: then they may rise on their soap-boxes back home and say with ponderous, but not pardonable, pride: “On page twenty-six of Vol. LXX No. 367 of Hansard, you will find what I told the Prime Minister should be done about that back concession road. There it is in black and white. Read it for yourselves and you’ll see that I am not a man to be cowed by Parliament. 1 told ’em where to get off straight and plain.” But what the member doesn’t tell his listeners back home is that, when he was telling them in Parliament, the only man listening was a Hansard reporter, and he only because it was his job.
’yES, HANSARD can be abused.
-IMembers aren’t supposed to read speeches in Parliament: but they do. Members, too, are supposed to keep their questions to essentials; but they don’t. In April, 1929, for instance, a member asked the Secretary of State how many rooms there were in the Centre Block of Parliament used as offices by members of Parliament, and what members used which rooms. The answer called for two full pages of Hansard beginning like this:
Adshead H. B. Room 618
Allan H. Room 514
Anderson A. J. Room 611
And so it went, right on through the alphabet to N. M. Young, Room 673.
It was fine stuff to pay money to have printed in the House records—a list.that could only be of use to the members themselves and they already had one in f the House telephone book.
That was in 1929, in those earlier days that used to permit a member to read a long official document pertaining to the case and then, in the words of A. C. Campbell, a former editor of Debates, “expressing anxious solicitude lest some of the opposite party might not have sufficiently grasped its meaning and so might be misled, proceed to read the whole thing backward.” They’re still talking by the yard on Parliament Hill, but the forty-minute rule passed in 1927 has imposed quite a limitation on verbosity in comparison with those earlier, fearful days. Speakers now just can’t go on and on as they used to. The Speaker of the House “is sorry, but the Hon. gentleman’s time has expired,”—and the Hon. gent sits down.
Yet abuses of various sorts have brought upon Hansard every so often the unreserved criticism of the press and public spokesmen. Senator Dennis has urged that the Senate drop Hansard entirely, firstly, as he pointed out, because most of the talk wasn’t worth preserving, and secondly, because of the cost. Others have urged that Hansard be allowed to “report” the speeches in both Chambers rather than reproduce them: that is to say, the speeches might be related in third person, with necessary first-person quotations for the more essential pieces. Speeches which added nothing to the Chamber’s knowledge, or served no parallel purpose, would be eliminated in the report with the customary: “Mr. Jones also spoke.”
But these protests have made little headway, and their failure is really to be regarded as only relatively regrettable. After all, if members of Parliament see their duties in the light that they are presented by Hansard, the least of our worries is the cost of reporting them.
Hansard costs the country roughly $80,000 a year—this including editors, reporters and clerks for the Senate, Commons and Parliamentary committees combined. Compared to other parliamentary costs, and what members of Parliament can cost the country, $80,000 seems indeed something we need not worry about too greatly at this moment. Hansard we need ; if we must do away with something let’s do away with things we don’t need.
Hansard reporters, as are all permanent members of the public service, are ap-
pointed under Civil Service examination and remain as members of the official staff of the House of Commons. At the head of Hansard today is Earl C. Young, Editor of Debates and Chief of Branch. Reporters— of which there are twelve, including five Committee reporters and seven for the Commons, and whose average age is about 39—begin at a salary of $2,600 a year and can advance to a maximum of $3,480. During Parliamentary recess, if they are not doing work for Royal Commissions or some such other enquiries, they may find some time on their hands. But during the session they work like stokers, and men of their capacity would simply not be available for Hansard work — subject to call at any time in the year—at roughly $3,000 if they were obliged to toil as clerks during recess.
Oratory—225 Words A Minute
A POINT, the public is always interested in, is the speed of Parliamentary oratory. How fast can a reporter write?
The question has had many answers, but we have the word of the late George Simpson, who was Editor of Debates until his death in 1936, that Dr. R. J. Manion is the fastest speaker to have spoken in the House in recent years and that his top run is about 225 words a minute.
Prospective Hansard reporters are given three different tests, with the top speed at 200. But speed is not more essential than educational background and experience. Hansard reporters equip themselves, of course, with special “wordsign characters” which serve for common phrases. Thus “Canadian National Railway Company,” and such long titles, have a symbol of their own that can be written in a fraction of a second.
But the reporter working against speed, or amid a noisy House, is nevertheless bound to make occasional slips. For instance, a statesman said of another who had a reputation for being stern and strong, that he was in reality merely “a lath painted to look like iron.” He was reported as saying his antagonist was “a lark painted to look like a lion.”
Yet most of the slips that appear in Hansard have been made, not by the reporters, but by the speakers. The Hansard men will fix misquotations and rearrange grammar; but when the material is intentionally off the line it has to go into the printed record as:
“The government stepped upon a nest of adders, and dropped it like a hot potato.”
“The honorable gentleman found when he had opened the Pandora’s box that out stepped the Trojan horse.”
“I have only one more word to say, and I can say it in two words.”
Naturally enough, Hansard has come in for its criticism as well as its praise. Mr. Balfour began it in England many years ago by calling it an “unfathomable bog” and asking if there was “any man whose tastes are so unnatural and debased that he would put his feet on the fender and take down a volume of Hansard for his recreation?”
But the fact remains that, as a day-today habit of reading, it is informative, and quite often intensely interesting. Few would want to read it through as a book after the session’s close, but as a three-dollar investment for progressive observation it is not excelled anywhere on the bookstalls.
Even Mr. Balfour knew it was more than an unfathomable bog. And, as Mr. Burrell aptly quoted him, it is Mr. Balfour’s second thought about Hansard which means most:
“The only form of history which is really immortal is the contemporary record from which future historians draw their materials. Every generation will insist on rewriting the history of the past in its own fashion. But the original sources remain. They only remain; they only are perpetual.”