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Library restores first seven years of Parliament’s debates

By Mark Burgess      
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It took more than 50 years, but the record of the House of Commons debates is complete. The scrapbooking of early Parliamentary librarians, the devotion of historians, and the perseverance of current librarians have managed to restore the debates for Parliament’s first seven years, before an official Hansard was created.

From 1867 until 1874, the record of Parliamentary debates was provided primarily by two newspapers—the Toronto Globe, which produced about 14 columns of type every day devoted to the debates and later merged with another Toronto paper, The Mail and Empire, to form the current Globe and Mail; and the Ottawa Times, which folded in 1877. 

Contracts for an official reporter went out beginning in 1875 and the position was brought under House administration in 1880.

Until that happened, the librarians of the day dutifully, though sometimes unevenly, preserved the newspaper accounts in scrapbooks, which are stored in the Parliamentary Library’s rare book collection, two floors down in a climate-controlled room.

The accounts were partisan and tended to focus more heavily on the early hours of debate, said Sonia Bebbington, the library’s director of knowledge management and preservation.

“You get a sense that as press time is approaching, that they’re abridging speeches fairly heavily, just to get their copy to press,” she told The Hill Times.

The project to restore the debates, which began in the early 1960s, was not just about imaging what the early librarians had assembled but editing it, as well, into something approaching a modern debate.

Norman Ward, a history professor from Saskatchewan, initiated the reconstitution in 1961, proposing it to then-House speaker Roland Michener as a worthy centennial project. It was approved the next year but they had “a pretty optimistic sense of how labour intensive the work was,” Ms. Bebbington said.

The 1867 volumes were released just after Canada’s 100th anniversary but it had taken all that time just to do the first year. A standing joint committee of the Library of Parliament put the project aside at that point until more resources could be devoted to it, Ms. Bebbington said.

Two other external editors, P.B. Waite and David Farr, continued to edit the volumes with librarians putting together images of the scrapbooks, transcriptions for the editors to work from, and fact-checking and ordering translations. The debate structure was added to make the reconstituted debates resemble the modern journal format, though the newspaper’s writing style was maintained, providing some narrative flair that’s absent in the verbatim accounts.

Mr. Farr estimated the accounts cover about one-third of the debate in the Chambers.

“It’s definitely not going to be complete and in no way official, but what we’ve done is fill the gap the best we can with what we have,” Ms. Bebbington said.

House Speaker Andrew Scheer and Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella hosted a reception last month to mark the completion of the reconstituted debates up to 1874.

As of 1875, the House of Commons had contracted the service to produce a daily record and the Hansard was brought in-house as part of the House administration in 1880.

The Ottawa Times editor, James Cotton, tried to win the contract, producing the “Cotton Debates,” basically a more packaged version of the newspaper’s accounts, in order to position himself. He didn’t get it, though; the reports for 1875 and 1876 are attributed to “Burgess” and then to “Richardson” for 1877-79, who is then listed as the chief reporter after 1880. The Times folded in 1877.

“I love these scrapbooks. I really think these scrapbooks tell an interesting story about the library,” Ms. Bebbington said.

“It’s about collecting Parliamentary information, it’s about making it accessible, it’s about preserving it for almost 150 years now. I think the scrapbooks are, to me, a little encapsulation of what we try to do with our holdings and what the collection can be about.”

Most of the reconstituted debates have been added to the digital portal that contains all of the Hansards, available at www.parl.gc.ca/hist, with the final ones coming this month.

Media 'cyclone' leading to decline of old brokerage party

Centralized communications to deal with the modern media environment has led to the decline of the old brokerage party in favour of the brand-oriented one, a leading political scientist said at the Canadian Political Science Association conference last month.

Alex Marland, associate professor of political science at Memorial University in Newfoundland, presented the outline for a chapter in his forthcoming book about branding and communication centralization in the Canadian government at the association’s conference.

The book, to be published by UBC Press, is a couple of years away. Its working hypothesis is that decision-making power is increasingly concentrated in “the centre” of both governments and political parties as political elites respond to the new instant communication environment with branding strategy.

This has led to the decline of the traditional brokerage party—the big tent or catchall approach that tries to accommodate diverse interests and resolve social cleavages—and the rise of the brand-oriented party, Prof. Marland said. Part of his research will be trying to understand whether the brokerage party still exists in Canada.

New communications and market research tools allow parties and governments to identify supporters and communicate with them without relying on the national press, he said.

“My thinking is that what’s happening is you have all sorts of narrow messages going out to special groups and yet you need something to unify that, and so the unifying element is the brand,” he said.

Brokerage parties would respond to premiers as the champions of regional interests, but Prof. Marland said he’s investigating how that’s shifting to accommodate “smaller, narrower, more precisely defined interests. And to unify all those interests you have to have a common brand.”

One example is the volunteer firefighter tax credit, a tax break with narrow appeal that can be communicated without the national media and that feeds into the Conservatives’ larger brand of lower taxes.

The brand-oriented party is marked by more two-way engagement with members, since they can communicate much more easily on new platforms. It’s led to more targeted fundraising with all parties engaging in “relationship marketing” to build databases of potential supporters’ concerns.

The leader also takes on more importance as the party’s embodiment, he said.

“Particularly when you have brand message discipline, you have all communication essentially being filtered through a party leader who therefore becomes the message,” Prof. Marland said.

The news cycle, what he called the “communications cyclone,” has been a catalyst in the brand-oriented party’s rise. Journalists in extreme competition to produce news immediately create a mismatch where politicians spend more time producing answers than reporters need.

“The story moves on and you still have people trying to figure out how to respond to it,” he said. “This is where I get to the whole idea of branding. If you can identify what your brand is and you can identify what your core messages are, it doesn’t matter what question you get asked, you find a way to communicate those brand values. That way you can have control of the framing, you can control the agenda, rather than allowing the cyclone of communication to do so for you.”

He is hoping those with experience on the Hill will contact him about his working hypothesis and help inform his research.

Prof. Marland is the lead editor for another book coming out this fall from UBC Press called Political Communication in Canada: Meet the Press and Tweet the Rest.

Hébert, Wells win National Magazine Awards

A number of Hill scribes were finalists for National Magazine Awards presented June 6 in Toronto, and Chantal Hébert and Paul Wells left with prizes.

Ms. Hébert won the Columns category for her column in L’actualité, and Mr. Wells won the Best Short Feature award after taking a step away from his beat as political editor to write about Jacob Barnett, a 15-year-old autistic boy studying at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

In the politics and public interest category, Wells’ colleague at Maclean’s, reporter Michael Petrou, was nominated for his article “Putin’s Last Stand.” Also from Maclean’s, John Geddes received a nomination in the Profiles category for his article on Brian Mulroney, and Nick Taylor-Vaisey’s “Tease the Day” blog was nominated in that category.

Maclean’s also won for best magazine website.

In other political writing, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne’s essay “Repairing the House” and Ron Graham’s profile of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, “Born in the Burbs,” both published in The Walrus, were nominated in the Essays category.

Charlotte Gray received a nomination for her profile of NDP leader Tom Mulcair in The Walrus, called “Prime Minister in Waiting.” Lisa Fitterman, also writing in The Walrus, won the Profiles award for her article on Justice France Charbonneau and the inquiry into corruption in Quebec’s construction industry.

Guly to write book on criminal pardons

Longtime Parliamentary Press Gallery member Chris Guly has a new book deal to examine criminal pardons in Canada and the United States. The freelance reporter, who’s written about the subject before as news stories for legal publications, will write a how-to guide on obtaining pardons for Self-Counsel Press, run by former journalist and media executive Kirk LaPointe.

“It will give some context, history of pardons, how the law’s changed, and essentially help guide people to how to go through the process,” Mr. Guly told The Hill Times.

While pardons are handled federally in Canada, the U.S. system is state-based so he’ll have to research the 50 different systems.

It will be released in print and as an e-book in the spring of 2015.


Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the press publishing Chris Guly's book.

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