Evidence of meeting #25 for Official Languages in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was hansard.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Michael Chong

Welcome to the Standing Committee on Official Languages. This is our 25th meeting. Today is Tuesday, February 14, 2012, and we are here to continue the work of the committee.

We will continue debating Costas Menegakis' motion and Mr. Harris' amendment.

Mr. Aubin, go ahead.

8:45 a.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin Trois-Rivières, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair. Welcome home and welcome to the committee. I hope that jet lag is a thing of the past, or almost. In any case, we are very happy to see you again. I am very pleased to see Mr. Menegakis among us again.

I don't know if everyone is absolutely set on me wishing you a happy Valentine's Day, but I am somewhat bothered by commercial holidays. If Valentine's Day helped people connect, that would be the best thing we could gain from it. Although I may respect you, gentlemen, I am not in love with you. I want that to be clear.

That being said, I want to extend a special welcome to Mr. Menegakis. I think that his presence in the Standing Committee on Official Languages is absolutely necessary for us to resolve the matter we have been debating for a few meetings already. That's because he is the one who moved this motion. I want to remind you that the motion asks “that all committee business of the committee be conducted in camera.” We have been divided on that issue since the motion was moved, since its interpretation could be very broad.

I would like to provide a very brief summary to begin the meeting, since we are lucky to have new members at the table.

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

Mr. Chair, a point of order.

Since Mr. Menegakis is back, I am wondering whether he could explain what “all committee business of the committee” means. I think that there may be a misunderstanding. This could help with the committee business.

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Michael Chong

It's clear what the motion reads: “That all Committee business of the Committee be conducted in camera.”

I don't think we need an interpreter to tell us what that means.

Is there another point of order?

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

Costas Menegakis Richmond Hill, ON

I want to be abundantly clear that my motion speaks only to the 10 or 15 minutes per meeting that we take to discuss the housekeeping business of the committee, not the entire two hours. That was very clear to the opposition members when I made my motion, and unfortunately it got lost somewhere in the translation.

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Michael Chong

Thank you for that intervention. I think we're getting into debate here, but I'm going to allow Mr. Bélanger to have the floor.

Go ahead. You just said point of order.

8:45 a.m.

Liberal

Mauril Bélanger Ottawa—Vanier, ON

No, I said that is not a point of order.

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Michael Chong

Sorry, I misunderstood you.

8:45 a.m.

Liberal

Mauril Bélanger Ottawa—Vanier, ON

Exactly. It's not a point of order. It's your clarification that doesn't stand.

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Michael Chong

The chair is trying to speak.

In both cases I think we're getting into debate. I think the motion and the amendment are clear.

Without further ado, I'll return the floor to Mr. Aubin.

8:45 a.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin Trois-Rivières, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I will try to bring some context to the debate we have been engaged in for a few weeks already. This morning, we once again have new members joining us at this table. I don't know whether that is a sign of interest in the Standing Committee on Official Languages, but it looks like every Conservative representative may come, one by one, to spend some time here.

This is the third lecture of the democracy 101 course, but let's quickly go back to the second one in order to summarize what we talked about last time. First, I pointed out how outrageous the motion was and said I felt that introducing the motion would be like using a canon to kill a fly. Then I tried to explain whom and what we were fighting for in order to prevent this motion from being adopted. I will not go back over all that, out of respect for those who were here. I guess those who are really interested could consult Hansard. Hansard is actually the first issue I will discuss this morning, since that is what I began talking about when the previous meeting ended.

I also talked a lot about and provided a few excerpts from the House of Commons Procedure and Practice. I think that those excerpts clearly illustrated the importance of the right to freedom of speech we as members of this house have, be it in our House of Commons or committee work. I want to remind you that freedom of speech does not exclude in camera proceedings. I even shared some examples where proceeding in camera is not only allowed, but preferable. On this side of the table, we are never against a portion of the committee business being conducted in camera. That is a long-standing practice. What divides us is this motion asking “that all committee business of the committee be conducted in camera.” Therefore, I spent a long time talking about the right to freedom of speech and its importance.

We also discussed the proposal for an open government. Regarding that, I brought up some government documents intending to demonstrate the idea of openness the government wants to implement in its relationship with Canadians. We felt—and I still feel—that this completely contradicts the motion before us.

I dare not talk about fighting because the word seems to be too strong. However, when I first spoke in defence of the right to freedom of speech, I spontaneously used the expression “marathon of indignation ”. What I meant was that, as long as I drew breath and was allowed to speak, I would try in every possible way, imaginable and unimaginable, to defend this vision.

The first idea that went through my head was to appeal to those for whom I feel I am speaking. I am talking about Canadians from across the country who are increasingly facing restrictions, not only on their right to speak, but also on the information they are given. Then, I posted on my personal Facebook profile a letter inviting people, those who feel that my current marathon must continue, to write me, to give me their opinion and fuel my efforts. I wanted to be absolutely certain that what I am saying is still relevant and current, not only to those who elected me in Trois-Rivières, and whom I hope to represent as much as possible, but also to people from across the country who elected all the members and want our work to be public.

People also want the media to be able to report on that work. Although some Canadians watch the CPAC channel regularly and follow our work very closely, most people prefer the summaries provided by the media. People obtain enough information from those summaries to form an opinion about topics that play a part in their everyday lives and in the country's political development.

I talked a lot about the CPAC and ParlVU channels. I stopped when I was about to begin talking about Hansard. All those tools have been implemented over the years by the government to make politics a public interest. It seems to me that, if we were to use in camera proceedings almost systematically, we would be throwing away huge amounts of money by not using so many tools available to parliamentarism.

I wrapped up my comments with a third element that makes the openness mentioned earlier and the public's awareness of our work possible, Hansard. I would like to take a few minutes to read a document about Hansard's origins, its purpose and its bilingualism—which is completely relevant because this is the Standing Committee of Official Languages. It is of the utmost importance that Canadians across the country be able to not only receive information, but also receive it in one of the two official languages we defend so passionately. That's probably what confuses me the most in this marathon. I definitely feel I am fighting a fundamental fight, that of freedom of speech. At the same time, I am aware that the real work this committee should be doing is somewhat on hold for a few hours. I think that, faced with such disastrous options, we have to be brave enough to establish priorities among the issues. I hope that we will get back to doing our work properly, so that we can once again defend the rights of people who belong to linguistic minorities across Canada.

First, I want to get back to Hansard, the ultimate transparency tool. The following is stated:

Hansard is the name traditionally given to official transcripts of parliamentary debates in Westminster-type governments. In fact, a Hansard is kept not only at the Parliament of the United Kingdom and its regional institutions, but also the Oireachtas of the Republic of Ireland, the Parliament of Canada and the country's provincial legislative bodies, the Parliament of Australia and the parliaments of the Australian states, the Parliament of South Africa and the country's provincial institutions, the Eastern African Legislative Assembly, the New Zealand Parliament, the Parliament of Fiji, the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, the Parliament of Malaysia, the Parliament of Singapore, the Legislative Council of Brunei, the Parliament of Sri Lanka, the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago, the Kenya National Assembly, the National Assembly of Tanzania, the Parliament of Ghana, the Parliament of Uganda, the Parliament of Zimbabwe, the Parliament of Mauritius and the Senate of Jamaica.

I assume that the list may grow over the next few years. The reason so many parliaments are equipped with this tool for information dissemination is certainly not to have in camera proceedings preventing people from reading the records of their proceedings.

Now, I will talk about Hansard's origins:

Before 1771, the British Parliament had long been an extremely secretive legislative body.

Imagine my surprise at reading that! I thought I could not have been more informed about the topic at hand. I was wondering whether this was a matter of going back to the future, or going from the future to the past, back to a parliamentarian culture where as many proceedings as possible would have been secret. That way, neither side's position would be heard.

On the contrary, I am more of the opinion that, in a healthy democracy, truth emerges from the clash of ideas. That expression says it well. We should not be afraid of ideas clashing. We must certainly stop perceiving opinions that differ from ours as personal attacks. They are not personal attacks, just different ways of seeing an issue. It's a good thing those debates can be held publicly.

I will continue reading about the history of Hansard:Parliament's decisions were of course made public, but there were no records of debates. What is more, disclosing remarks made in the House was seen as a breach of parliamentary privilege, and was punishable by both houses. Since an increasing number of people were becoming interested in parliamentary debates [...]

I hope that is still the case today.

[...] more and more individuals started publishing unofficial accounts of those debates.

We have all played telephone at least once in our lives. We know what can become of information when it does not come from an official and reliable source. We know that, when information is passed on through word of mouth, it changes with every person.

It is likely that, on days when we proceed in camera, members will not be able to speak publicly about the work done in committee. When it comes to public opinion, even the media, that may be enough to give rise to theories, since there would be no way to check what was really said. Everyone would have their own theory, and each would be just as plausible as the next, just as close to or as far from reality as the next. Hansard is the very remedy for this twisting of information. It is a credible, official and easy-to-find source.

I will continue reading. I was just saying that a number of unofficial debate accounts were being published.

Authors would at worst be fined.

I hope we have not gotten to that point.

Some of them presented the parliamentary debates as debates of fictitious societies or bodies. For instance, the debates were published under such titles as Proceedings of the Lower Room of the Robin Hood Society [...]

There was something colourful about that, but it doesn't mean I want to go back to that time.

[...] and Debates of the Senate of Magna Lilliputia, Samuel Johnson's column in the Gentleman's Magazine. In 1771, Brass Crosby, then Lord Mayor of London, summoned a printer, by the name of Miller, who dared publish reports of parliamentary proceedings.

He was subject to a fine.

He released the man, but afterwards, he himself was asked to appear before Parliament to explain his actions. Crosby was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but during the trial, a number of judges refused to hear the case, and following public protests, Crosby was released. Parliament stopped forbidding the publishing of its debates, in part thanks to John Wilkes' campaigns for free speech.

A few centuries later, we are having the exact same debate—without the same fears, of course. I do not fear being imprisoned. I also don't think that anyone will be fined. At least I hope it will not come to that. Nevertheless, the right to free speech is still at the heart of our discussions this morning. It is of the utmost importance that, in a democratic society like ours, we not give up any ground gained in the fight for freedom. I will continue reading:

Then, there were several attempts to publish reports of debates. Among early successes, the Parliamentary Register, published by John Almon and John Debrett, ran from 1775 to 1813. William Cobbett, a well-known radical and a publisher, began publishing Parliamentary Debates in 1802 as a supplement to his Political Register, which itself dates back to the Parliamentary History.

I did not have time to go to the Library of Parliament to see whether there was a copy of all those publications, but I think it would be interesting to read a few excerpts to you some day, for cultural purposes.

Cobbett's reports were printed by Thomas Curson Hansard from 1809 [...]

Now we're getting somewhere. You see that this word did not come out of nowhere. It came from a very important historic figure.

[...] in 1812, with his business suffering, Cobbett sold the Debates to Hansard. From 1829, the name “Hansard” appeared on the title page of each issue. Neither Cobbett nor Hansard ever employed anyone to take notes of the debates. Their information came from many morning newspaper sources. For that reason, early editions of Hansard should in no way be considered a reliable source for the content of parliamentary discussions.

So, historically, there is support for the argument I advanced earlier. We absolutely need an official tool everyone can rely on to know what truly happened and what was really said. We definitely need those texts so that there is no room for interpretation and so that the source is unquestionable, unless the speakers are unclear. Equipping ourselves with such a tool only to then prevent its use by saying that Hansard will not be available for any meetings of the Standing Committee on Official Languages because the proceedings were held in camera seems to be a procedural flaw, if not a discrepancy between our wishes and our actions.

Hansard was remarkably successful in keeping out competition such as Almon and Debrett, and later Mirror of Parliament, published by J.H. Barrow from 1828 to 1843. Barrow's work was more comprehensive, but he checked each speech with the members and allowed them to “correct” anything they wished they had not said.

It's pretty interesting. I hope we won't revert to that practice either.

The last attempt by a commercial rival was The Times, which published debates in the 1880s. In 1889, Parliament decided to subsidize Hansard's publication so that a permanent record would be available. From then on, Hansard included more speeches, with those delivered by ministers being reported practically verbatim.

That was an important historic moment. One day, a decision was made to use public money to fund the transcripts of proceedings, so that everyone could have access to them. It was also a matter of preventing the truth and reality from being revised or corrected as parliamentarians wished, under the claim that it was not exactly what they had said or meant to say. So, what is said is said. Pilate said that what has been written, has been written.

Therefore, Hansard contains a reliable translation and account of our discussions and debates.

The Hansard of today, a fully comprehensive account of every speech, began in 1909, when Parliament took over the publication. At the same time, the decision was made to publish the debates of the two houses in separate volumes, and to change the front cover from orange-red to light blue.

Even then, the colours were portentous. It is anyone's guess as to why.

In 1980, new technology led to a larger page format being introduced.

That isn't very important, but I thought I'd mention it anyway.

Hansard in the United Kingdom Hansard is not a verbatim account of the debates in Parliament. Its terms of reference are those set by a House of Commons parliamentary committee in 1893, as being a report “which, though not strictly verbatim, is substantially the verbatim report with repetitions and redundancies omitted and with obvious mistakes corrected, but which, on the other hand, leaves out nothing that adds to the meaning of the speech or illustrates the argument.”

Unfortunately, I feel that my words will take up a few pages in our minutes of proceedings for a negative reason, but also for a positive one. The negative reason is that we must fight this motion with all the civilly acceptable means available to us. That's a point of debate and not of battle. I repeat that the motion asking “that all committee business of the committee be conducted in camera” is completely unacceptable to us. My right to speech is probably the most civilized way to speak out not only for myself, but also for all like-minded people.

To that end, it would be my pleasure to take a few minutes to read some letters sent by Canadians in response to the appeal I launched a week ago.

I will continue reading. Let's look at an example of redundancy. By the way, I myself will possibly have made a few redundancies five or six hours into the marathon. I apologize to the illustrious assembly listening to me. However, you can be sure those redundancies will not appear in the Hansard, so those who want to follow the course of these epic proceedings will not have to suffer the repetition. One such instance of an eliminated redundancy involves the calling of members in the House of Commons. In that house, the Speaker must call on a member by name before that member may speak, but Hansard makes no mention of the recognition accorded by the Speaker. However, Hansard sometimes adds notes to make the remarks less ambiguous. For example, though members refer to each other as “the hon. member for X constituency” rather than by name, Hansard adds, in brackets, the name of the member in question the first time that member is referred to in a speech or debate. When a member simply points at another whose constituency he or she cannot remember, Hansard identifies the member and his or her constituency.

That makes up for the memory lapses we often have, since there are 308 members. If each of the 308 members had a constituency that was one word long, there would be only 616 names to memorize. However, some ridings have four or five names, such as the Montmagny—L'Islet.... You see, I am already drawing a blank. Those names go on and on.

9:05 a.m.

An hon. member

Kamouraska

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin Trois-Rivières, QC

That's it. Teamwork makes us stronger.

Interjections from seated members are generally not included in Hansard [...]

I'm sorry, but your interjection may not appear in Hansard. Nevertheless, I thank you for it.

[...] unless the member who is speaking at the time refers to it.

I did my part.

Any interruption to debate, whether a member's shouts or the physical invasion of the chamber, will be designated by the word “Interruption”.

Political correctness is maintained.

Hansard also publishes written answers made by government ministers in response to questions formally asked by members. Since 1909—and prior to that for important votes only—Hansard has listed how members have voted in divisions. Furthermore, the proceedings and debates in committee are also published in separate volumes. For many years, the House of Commons Hansard did not formally acknowledge the existence of parties in Parliament, except indirectly, when members would refer to other members of the same party as “hon. friends”. That changed in 2003, and members' party affiliations are now identified.

The Hansard of the House of Lords operates entirely independently of its Commons counterpart, but with similar terms of reference. It covers parliamentary business in the House of Lords itself, as well as the debates in the Moses Room, known as the “Grand Committee”. Parliamentary written answers and statements are also printed. The Internet, with the help of volunteers, has made the UK Hansard more accessible. The UK Hansard is currently being digitized for on-line publication. Since June 2000, it has been possible to review and research the UK Hansard, with the exception of standing committees. It is also possible to set up key word email alerts for topics of interest, or to receive emails whenever a given MP speaks in the Commons or receives an answer to a written question.

What about Canada's Hansard? Did we copy the UK Hansard? Is there anything about our Hansard that applies specifically to our objectives? Here's something about that:

House of Commons differences from UK practice As with the Westminster Hansard, the Canadian version is not strictly verbatim, and is guided by the principle of avoiding repetitions and redundancies, and correcting obvious errors. Unlike UK MPs, Canadian MPs are referred to by the parliamentary riding they represent—for instance, the member for Oak Ridges-Markham—or by their cabinet post. Hansard provides [...]

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Mr. Chair, a point of order.

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Michael Chong

Yes, Mr. Gourde?