Inside Politics

Latest batch of post-Confederation debates bring 'acrimonious' Second Parliament to life

Parliamentary/Canadian history wonks, rejoice!

Courtesy of the Library of Parliament, a brand new batch of reconstituted debates is now available for your reading pleasure. 

Canada's Second Parliament opened on March 5, 1873 with Sir John A. Macdonald still at the helm. The First Session of this Parliament lasted only three months, adjourning on May 23 and resulting in an abrupt and dramatic prorogation on August 13, 1873.

Debates were often acrimonious and focused on what became known as The Pacific Scandal, which related to  accusations of government irregularities in granting the charter. The issue eventually became so contentious that a Royal Commission was struck to conduct a formal inquiry into the transactions, the outcome of which would be the subject of debate during the entire, short, Second Session.

Despite the tone of debate throughout this First Session, many important issues were discussed and key legislation passed, continuing the nation building begun in 1867. Chief among these were the New Brunswick school law question, legislation to end dual representation, and issues arising from the treaty of Washington, as Canada forged its own identity vis-à-vis the Imperial government, and our neighbour to the south. Other themes were the protection of citizens: seamen facing the dangers of water transportation and Canada's indigenous population facing pressure from the movement of settlement westward. And a new province, Prince Edward Island, was admitted to Confederation.

The site makes it clear that this collection is not a verbatim transcript, but a painstaking reconstruction of parliamentary proceedings between 1867 and 1875, when the House first began to record debates in Hansard, using newspaper reports, Journals and other unofficial records of the day.

There has been no attempt to clean up awkward or incomplete sentences. The reader must adopt the mindset of a reporter in the late 1800s, writing furiously in a noisy, bustling environment.

Likewise, the language of debate is rooted in the times, with the appearance of archaic words and turns of phrase and liberal references to the classics of the day. Those with a keen eye will note some creative spelling and variations in the capitalization of parliamentary terms, a lack of consistency that honours the flavour of the times.

For a sample of that flavour, here's the account of the opening of Parliament on March 5, 1873:

The first session of the second Parliament of the Dominion was opened with the usual brilliant ceremonial. Never were the out-of-door influences of opening day more auspicious. The weather was perfect. Not a cloud dimmed the deep blue of our Canadian sky.

The sun shone as brightly as at midsummer, and there was just warmth enough in the atmosphere to make exercise in the open air pleasant, without taking anything away from its crisp, bracing qualities.

During the morning the unwonted bustle in the streets near to the Houses of Parliament betokened the coming event, while the flags which were flying from the main tower of the central building, and from all the principal public buildings, supplied a warm and welcome colouring to the surroundings. As the hour appointed for the ceremony approached the scene in and around Parliament square became more and more animated. Little groups of volunteers in uniform were seen hurrying past; the pathways were thronged with members going to and from the House; and as early as two o'clock, little parties of men and women had taken up their stations in what they considered as good positions from which to view the show. Gradually these parties increased in number, and some time before three o'clock the crowd assembled on the terrace and on the steps was very large indeed.

Soon the detachment of Foot Guards, under command of Captain Tilton, arrived and took up position as a guard of honour; the Ottawa Field Artillery, commanded by Capt. Stewart, came up very soon after and took their station on the square, at the same time unlimbering and making the necessary preparations for firing, with precision and celerity. As the clock was on the stroke of three the leading files of the cavalry escort, who accompanied His Excellency, appeared at the eastern gateway, and at the same instant the artillerymen opened a salute. A moment later, the cavalcade swept into the square and drove rapidly up to the main entrance of the Houses of Parliament.

Here Lord Dufferin accompanied by his secretaries, aid-de-camps and a brilliant staff, alighted and entered through the ranks of the guards who lined a pathway in the vestibule. He then proceeded to the Senate drawing room and afterwards entered the Senate Chamber and took his seat upon the throne, the staff as usual distributing themselves on either side of the dais. His Excellency was attired in the vice regal uniform, cocked hat, gold laced tunic, sword, etc. etc., and wore besides the broad blue ribbon of the order of the Bath, the Star of the St. Michael and St. George, and several other decorations. Being seated, the Governor desired the presence of the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.

Black Rod was in attendance, as ever, faultlessly attired, and having received His Excellency's message to the members of the House of Commons requiring their presence at the bar of the Senate Chamber, he departed, first, however, giving those three inimitable bows, the like of which are not to be seen elsewhere in the wide world. Soon he returned, followed by the Clerk, the Sergeant-at-Arms, and the members of the Commons, whereupon the Speaker of the Senate, Hon. Mr. Chauveau, in a fine clear voice, and with that admirable elocution for which he is celebrated, read the Governor's message to the Commons, requiring them to elect a Speaker and return on the following day to hear his speech from the throne.

Thus the show was completed, the members of the Lower House returned helter-skelter to their chamber, Lord Dufferin and his staff returned to their sleighs, the Guards presented arms, the band played, the cannons were fired, the crown cheered lustily, and amidst a merry uproar, His Excellency took his departure, surrounded as when he came by an escort of cavalry under command of Captain Sparks.

By mid-August, the lusty cheers and merry uproar had been replaced by "groans and hisses" as Alexander Mackenzie -- who would ultimately serve as Canada's second prime minister -- took to the floor of the Commons to protest then-PM Macdonald's move to prorogue Parliament before the committee charged with investigating "certain grave charges in connection with the granting of the charter and contract for the construction of the Pacific Railway" could begin its work:

Hon. Mr. MACKENZIE rose and said: I propose to address you Sir, and the House upon a question of privilege. In the present grave position of the country and the extraordinary circumstances under which we are called together. I feel it incumbent on me to place this motion in your hands.

The SPEAKER then rose and amid cries of privilege! privilege!and great disorder, drew attention to the fact that the doors had not yet been opened.

The doors having been opened, Hon. Mr. MACKENZIE read the resolution, which was as follows:

Moved by Hon. Mr. Mackenzie, seconded by Hon. Mr. Holton; --

"That this House during the present session, ordered an enquiry by a Committee of its own into certain grave charges in connection with the granting of the charter and contract for the construction of the Pacific Railway, which if true, seriously affect the official honour and integrity of His Excellency's constitutional advisers and the privileges and independence of Parliament. That the investigation thus ordered, has so far not been proceeded with, owing to circumstances not anticipated when the enquiry was ordered, and that it is the imperative duty of this house at the earliest moment to take such steps as will secure a full Parliamentary enquiry that constitutional usage requires that charges of corruption against Ministers of the Crown should be investigated by Parliament, and that the assumption of that duty by any tribunal, created by the Executive would be a flagrant violation of the privileges of this House, and that this House will regard as highly reprehensible any person who may presume to advise His Excellency to Prorogue Parliament, before it should have had an opportunity of taking action in the premises inasmuch as such prorogation would render abortive all the steps taken up to the present time, would inflict an unprecedented indignity on Parliament, and produce great dissatisfaction in the country."

The SPEAKER again rose, and cries of privilege arose, and so much disorder prevailed, that he was inaudible in the gallery. After some time quiet was restored and Mr. Speaker proceeded to say that he must request the hon. gentleman to allow a message from His Excellency to be read which the Sergeant-at-Arms had conveyed from the hands of the Usher of the Black Rod.

This announcement was received with groans and hisses and loud cries of "Go on."

Hon. Mr. MACKENZIE continued: No message shall interrupt me. I stand here representing a constituency in this Province and I have reason to believe the opinions of a very large number of people throughout the country. I propose to call the attention of the House to circumstances affecting the independence of Parliament. There is nothing in the circumstances which justifies His Excellency to prorogue Parliament for the purpose of preserving an accused ministry, and I propose hereafter to proceed with the discussion of this matter to which our attention has been called to on previous occasions. I have placed this motion in your hands, because I have heard it is the intention to prorogue this house.

At this juncture the Sergeant-at-Arms came forward and announced the attendance of Black Rod at the door of the Commons. Mr. Speaker rose amid loud cries of "privilege", which continued despite his command to the House to maintain order. Black Rod was then admitted, but owing to hisses and cheering in the House and galleries his Message to the Commons was inaudible.

Here The SPEAKER again interposed and the excitement grew terrible.

Hon. Mr. MACKENZIE persisted in his efforts to obtain a hearing, and was cheered to the echo and amid all the confusion.

The SPEAKER read what was supposed to be the message of His Excellency calling the members to the Bar of the Senate, but he was quite inaudible in the gallery, and must have also been in the House.

The Sergeant-at-Arms again took up the mace. The SPEAKER left the chair, the clerks fell into line in the usual order, followed by the members of the Administration and a very few others, and made their way to the Senate Chamber, amid the loud and long continued groans and hisses of those dissenting. There were over one hundred members, not one of those dissenting left the floor of the House. [...]

The complete set of early debates can be found here

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