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The Speakers of the Canadian House of Commons

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The House of Commons Speaker’s chair

Introduction

The Speakership of the Canadian House of Commons traces its origins back many centuries in British parliamentary history, but has evolved over the past 140 years as a distinctly Canadian institution. As the presiding officer of our House of Commons, the Speaker is the key to ensuring that this institution, central to Canada’s federal system of government, operates smoothly. The Speaker also performs many other roles and functions, and holds an essential position in our parliamentary system of government.

Origins of the Speakership

The roots of the Speakership can be traced back in England at least to the 14th century. In 1376 Sir Peter de la Mare was selected by the House of Commons to be its spokesman, and in 1377 his successor Sir Thomas Hungerford became the first of more than 150 members of the British House of Commons who have been called Speaker. Early Speakers — charged with representing the Commons to the King — were not in an easy position: between 1399 and 1535 seven Speakers were beheaded, one was killed during the Wars of the Roses, and one was murdered. The role of the Speaker crystallized in 1642, when King Charles I entered the House to demand that he be told the whereabouts of five parliamentarians whom he desired to be surrendered to him. Speaker William Lenthall refused to provide the information, in historic words that have been used from time to time in the Canadian House to define the relationship between the House and the Crown:

May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here; and humbly beg Your Majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me.

Speakers were a part of early Canadian colonial legislatures. The first Speaker in what would become Canada was Robert Sanderson, a Boston merchant, chosen to chair the first representative House of Assembly of Nova Scotia in 1758. Over the years before Confederation, the Speakers of British North American legislative assemblies strengthened the independence, impartiality and non-partisan nature of their positions, in parallel with developments in the Speaker’s office in the United Kingdom.

The British North America Act, 1867 — now the Constitution Act, 1867 — created the Dominion of Canada “with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” The Constitution Act, 1867 provides that the House elects its own Speaker, who presides over all its meetings, and that it must elect a new Speaker if the office becomes vacant permanently or temporarily (a provision that changed in 1885 when a Deputy Speakership was created). The Speaker may vote only in case of a tie. Much of the office of Speaker, however, is not set down in any constitutional or statutory documents, but rests on history, practice and convention.

A Uniquely Canadian Speakership

Below are several distinguishing features of the Canadian Speakership:

Duties of the Speaker


The House of Commons Speaker’s parade

The most visible element of the Speaker’s work in the Canadian House of Commons is his or her procedural duties while presiding over debates from the Speaker’s Chair. It is here that the importance of the position becomes clear: ensuring that the nation’s business is conducted efficiently, and balancing the rights and interests of both the majority and the minority. The Speaker is responsible for interpreting and enforcing all rules and practices, and for acting as the guardian of the rights and privileges of individual Members and of the House itself.

As a representative of the House of Commons, the Speaker has a number of traditional ceremonial and diplomatic duties. He or she is the spokesperson for the House in its dealings with the Senate, the Crown and other bodies outside Parliament. When entering or leaving the House, the Speaker is always preceded by the Sergeant-at-Arms carrying the Mace, the symbol of the Speaker’s authority. A day on which the House is sitting always begins with the Speaker’s Parade, in which the Speaker walks in procession through the Hall of Honour and into the Chamber. Members rise while the Speaker proceeds to the Chair and the Sergeant-at-Arms places the Mace on the Table. Once satisfied that the constitutionally required minimum of at least 20 members of Parliament is present, the Speaker reads the prayer (part of the daily proceedings of the House since 1877) and formally opens the sitting. The Speaker leads the procession when the House is summoned to the Senate to attend the Queen or Governor General, both at the beginning of a new session of Parliament and when there is a ceremony to grant Royal Assent to bills.

The Speaker also has extensive administrative and financial duties, being responsible for the overall direction and management of the House of Commons. Matters of administrative and financial policy affecting the House are overseen by the Board of Internal Economy, which is chaired by the Speaker. The management of the staff of the House of Commons falls under the Speaker, although the Clerk of the House and its senior officials generally manage them on a day-to-day basis. The Speaker oversees the premises of Parliament, as well as matters of security and policing within the parliamentary precincts. In addition, along with the Speaker of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Commons oversees the direction and control of the Library of Parliament.

In a diplomatic capacity, the Speaker receives foreign visitors on Parliament Hill, including ambassadors, heads of state, and parliamentary delegations from other nations. He or she regularly leads delegations to Parliaments in other countries.

Serving Canadians


The House of Commons Chamber

The brief biographical notes that follow offer perspectives on the careers of all Speakers of the Canadian House of Commons elected from 1867 to date. They illustrate the variety of backgrounds — in terms of occupation, income and education, among other things — from which Speakers have come. Many Speakers assumed office after acquiring substantial political experience at the federal, provincial (for early Speakers, in legislative assemblies and executive councils) and/or municipal levels. For some, the Speakership was the height of his or her political career; for others, distinguished careers followed the departure from the Chair. Until the second half of the 20th century, the Speakership was often a stepping stone to Cabinet. Several Speakers went on to be eminent judges, and two recent Speakers were appointed Governors General of Canada. A few Speakers, however, ended up in relative poverty or obscurity. Some have served long terms, while others have chaired the House for less than a year. Each brought individual strengths to the position, such as deep knowledge of parliamentary procedure, impeccable judgement, an ability to defuse tense situations, or a congenial manner that fostered co-operation.

Only 34 of 4,089 members of Parliament have been nominated and elected as Speakers of the Canadian House of Commons. Their personal qualities and experience led each of them to fulfil the office differently. Each one presided at a unique time and dealt with a different composition of the House and specific issues and challenges. Whatever the reason for his or her election to the office, each of the men and women serving as Speaker has had an important part in the orderly passage of the laws that affect all Canadians and the operation of our House of Commons. The following biographical sketches pay tribute to the distinguished Canadians who have served in this important office and made a contribution to Canada’s Parliament and the country.