D-Day in the House: 'An indescribable sense of oneness'
Inside the House of Commons on June 6, 1944
There were, of course, no cameras in the House of Commons Chamber on June 6, 1944.
But thanks to a joint effort by Library of Parliament and Canadiana.org, we can get a sense of how what would eventually be known as D-Day unfolded on the Hill from the parliamentary record.
CBC's complete D-Day coverage
- CBC D-Day Live shows historic moments from the invasion as they unfold in real time
- Surf, sand and shrapnel? Relics still scattered across D-Day beaches
- The gutsy weather forecast that changed D-Day
- Dramatic before and after views of D-Day sites
- CBC readers share stories of the invasion
The sitting got underway at 3 p.m. ET, and began with Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King advising the just-convened House that, "at half-past three o'clock this morning," his government had received word by radio that operations to liberate Europe had begun.
"Honourable members will realize that at this state it is very difficult indeed to give the House much information of an official and authentic nature," King warned the Chamber.
"It would be a mistake, I think, for me to attempt to give anything in the nature of details relating to the events that have happened within the past twenty-four hours."
After reading part of Prime Minister Winston Churchill's address to the UK Parliament into the record, King told the House that he agreed with his British counterpart.
The offensive launched that day, he said, was "the most complete coordination and integration of effort among all the allied forces," although he cautioned his colleagues that "the enemy strength, while not precisely known, is very formidable."
"Conjecture in these anxious days will not do any good, and it may, in fact, give help and comfort to the enemy," King noted.
"The people of Canada will expect, and it will be the duty of the government to provide, so far as possible, a correct and sober representation of events as they occur. The future, however, must unfold itself."
'We have not forgotten France, Mr. Speaker'
In response, then-Opposition Leader Gordon Graydon, acting leader of the caucus that would soon become the Progressive Conservative Party, stressed that "there are no divisions of opinion and no cleavages in thought in this House as we rivet our attention upon the progress of the long-anticipated offensive in Europe."
"An indescribable sense of oneness pervades this Parliament and this nation today," he told the House.
After a few more interventions, Liberal MP Maurice Lalonde rose to point out that, in his view, it was "fitting that a French voice should stress the epoch-making fact that the hour of liberation has now come for France."
"We have not forgotten France, Mr. Speaker, we have not forgotten her," he averred.
"For hundreds of thousands of young French Canadians are, perhaps at this very moment, driving the German invader force from the shores of old France."
On that note, he observed that the occasion "calls for the singing of the national anthem of France."
At his suggestion, Hansard reports, "Members rose and sang "La Marseillaise" and "God Save the King."
Government propaganda also on House agenda
Even on what would become such a momentous date, there was, of course, previously scheduled regular parliamentary business on the Commons agenda, which also provides a rare peek at the day-to-day political priorities of the era, both war-related and otherwise:
- A private bill put forward by Edmonton East Liberal MP Cora T. Casselman to change the name of the General Missionary Society of the German Baptist Churches of North America by removing the word 'German', as it had, she said, "become objectionable to its members."
- A telegram from then-Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, thanking Canada for a recent shipment of food, which he described as "vital help" for a "cruelly decimated nation" under threat of "total extinction," as well as King's response.
- An explanation from Mines and Resources Minister T. A. Crerar on why he refused to meet with Jules Sioui, the self-styled 'Leader of the Indians of Canada', on the grounds that, as per the minister, he was not, in fact, "the leader of the Indians of Canada," and what's more, had been 'convicted of offences twice in the last six or seven years and has served gaol sentences."
- A request for an inquiry into the wreck of the Olga on Lake Erie, during which "fifteen passengers were drowned," to look into "what life-saving equipment is carried by boats of this kind, what aids to navigation are provided, and what precautions are taken."
- The latest batch of proposed allocations for war-related expenses, including $475,000 in government money "for expenditures in connection with looking after Canadian interest abroad" — specifically, Canadians nationals "in enemy countries" unable to come home and in need of support for clothing, food and other necessities.
The most contentious budget request by far, however, was the government's bid to set aside $995,707 — a vast sum at the time — to fund the "Wartime information board."
Established to communicate with Canadians, the board was run by the Privy Council Office, "from which it regularly issued bulletins that Progressive Conservative MP Richard Hanson described as "nothing but propaganda."
It was a charge bolstered by comments from his caucus colleague, Gordon Fraser.
A recent bulletin, he noted, had included a forecast on the outcome of the upcoming provincial election in Saskatchewan, which predicted that the "main fight" would be between the Liberals and the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation, or CCF, the precursor of today's New Democratic Party.
That, Fraser avowed, was "absolute bunk," because "the Progressive Conservatives are going to come out on top there."
Debate, not surprisingly, ensued, and continued for several hours.
Just before midnight, they adjourned for the night, entirely unaware that the day they'd just wrapped up would be remembered — and commemorated — for decades to come.
Courtesy of the Library of Parliament and Canadiana.org, here's the complete transcript from the June 6, 1944 sitting of the House of Commons: