November 23, 2021 12 minutes (audio)
Erin: Welcome to a very special Bonus Episode of the ON Parliament Podcast! We received a lot of questions about the role of the Sergeant-at-Arms following our last episode – specifically related to the long and fascinating history of the role itself. So, I decided to do some more digging to see what I could find out – and boy, did I find some interesting fun facts. I can’t wait to share them with all of you so let’s dive right in!
In our last episode, we said that the Sergeant-at-Arms performs ceremonial and House protocol duties within the Chamber. They’re also responsible for the safety and security of the Chamber and the Legislative Building. These main responsibilities haven’t changed much in the last 150 years or so. But I wanted to know if those duties had carried over from even longer, longer ago. And what I discovered was that the role of the Sergeant-at-Arms can trace its roots back reeeally, really far – I’m talking the time of the Romans far. Or at least some scholars have claimed to be able to trace the role back that far.
Now that’s pretty impressive but the role of the Sergeant-at-Arms that we recognize today wasn’t established until somewhere between the 12th and 14th centuries in Europe. I don’t know about you but that still seems like a pretty long-standing tradition to me. Back then, the Sergeant-at-Arms was actually the King’s bodyguard. In this role as bodyguard, they were responsible for – surprise, surprise – protecting the King at all costs. And how did they do this you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked the question. By carrying some pretty impressive weapons and wearing some very fancy armour. There is even some documented evidence that has them carrying decorated battle-maces as both a weapon and as a badge of their particular station. Obviously being close to the King had its perks. But it wasn’t until the 14th or 15th century that the Sergeant-at-Arms became an important part of Parliament. Fun fact: many scholars believe that the original role of the Sergeant-at-Arms in Parliament may have been to be the Speaker’s bodyguard. With the Speaker being the go-between from Parliament to the King, it only makes sense that they may have needed protecting too. Some historians have deduced that it must have been the King who originally “loaned” the Speaker one of their Sergeants-at-Arms and bam! A new tradition was born.
And speaking of traditions, you may have noticed that I mentioned that the original Sergeants-at-Arms caried Maces too. So, I had to wonder: is that another part of the role that has evolved but also remained the same too? Well, let’s take a look at the evidence: one of our Sergeant-at-Arms’ most recognizable duties involves carrying our Legislative Mace into the Chamber to begin each day in Parliament. Historically, the Sergeants-at-Arms also carried Maces with them [although more for protection than ceremony at that time]. Our Mace is an important parliamentary symbol. The original Maces were meant to indicate someone’s role and place within society – so definitely a symbolic role there too. And I did some more digging and found out that I was actually right: the Mace that we know today in Parliament truly did evolve from being used primarily as a weapon to instead being an emblem of authority. More specifically, the Mace used in Parliament went from representing the authority of the Crown (as exercised by the Members) to nowadays representing the authority of the Speaker while in the House. Fun fact: since the Mace is such an important symbol in our Parliament, no one is allowed to impede the Speaker’s view of the Mace while in the House. That means that no one is allowed to walk between the Speaker and the Mace which is placed on the Clerk’s table – well, okay so the Clerk is the only one allowed to be in between. Still pretty cool though, right?
Now the symbolism of the Mace isn’t the only thing about it that has changed over the years – it has undergone a bit of a physical transformation too. We consider our first Mace in Ontario to be the one that was created in 1792 for the Parliament of Upper Canada [listen to one of our original episodes to learn a cool trick about remembering why it’s called Upper Canada]. Now the first Mace of Upper Canada was made out of wood and only painted to make it look like gold. It’s not the fanciest of Maces. And it was used until 1813. After that, there must have been another one made, but we have no documented evidence of what it looked like. Luckily, this mysterious missing Mace didn’t last very long and another, very fancy Mace was created in 1845 at the request of the Speaker of the day. This new Mace was made out of silver and was covered in pearls and semi-precious stones – by all accounts it was very elaborate. And it had quite an eventful life too – it avoided being destroyed on three separate occasions (two of which included escaping devastating fires). But its luck did unfortunately finally run out in 1916. Given to the Federal Parliament in Ottawa as a gift at the time of Confederation, the silver Mace was destroyed in the devastating Federal parliamentary fire of 1916. Fun fact: the Sergeant-at-Arms did try to enter the Chamber to save the Mace but the fire and smoke were too strong. When they were finally able to enter the Chamber after the fire had been extinguished, all that was left of the Mace was a melted ball of silver.
Luckily for Ontario, we had already created a new Mace before the silver one was destroyed. The last, and current Mace, was made in 1867. It was commissioned by the first Premier of Ontario, John Sandfield MacDonald. Our current Mace is made of copper and is richly gilded in real gold. Now one of my favourite features of the Mace are a much later addition. The first diamonds ever mined in the province of Ontario were gifted to the people of the province and two of them were placed in the Mace in 2009. Fun fact: one of the diamonds in the Mace is inscribed with the Assembly’s motto: Audi Alteram Partem or “Hear the Other Side”.
Another tradition that is associated with the Sergeant-at-Arms has to do with yet another type of weapon – this time though, a sword. The Sergeant-at-Arms in Ontario has always carried a ceremonial sword as part of their uniform from the time of Confederation and they continue to wear one to this day. The sword symbolizes justice, authority, honour and of course, tradition. Our current Sergeant-at-Arms, Jackie Gordon, came into the role in 2017. She is the first woman to become Sergeant-at-Arms in Ontario and the first woman to occupy the role in a full-time capacity in all of Canada. I was lucky enough to find out a little secret about the sword that she carries. It must always be worn on the left-hand side as the Mace is carried on her right shoulder. But because of the length of the sword and the natural movement that comes from walking, the inside of her jacket seemed to be getting a little bit worn. So, her jacket was reinforced with a piece of leather to help protect both the sword and the coat. Fun fact: the sword that Ms. Gordon carries was made in 1997 and has a depiction of a knight’s helmet on the pommel (which is just a fancy sword term for handle).
Well, we’ve talked about the Mace, and the Sword, and the veeeeery long tradition and history of the evolution of the role itself but what about the nitty-gritty of what the Sergeant-at-Arms actually does? Surely those duties must have evolved over time too? Patience young grasshopper. I’m getting there next.
Now the office of the Sergeant-at-Arms in Ontario has been around since before the province existed – the role has been around since 1792 with the first Parliament of Upper Canada. But we use Confederation as a starting point for most things related to Ontario’s Parliament. So, since 1867, there have only been ten people to have served as Sergeant-at-Arms in the province (with Jackie Gordon being number ten). Fun fact: the longest serving Sergeant-at-Arms in the province was our first ever Sergeant-at-Arms, Frederick Glackmeyer, who served in the role for a whopping 57 years! Mr. Glackmeyer served through 16 different Legislatures, under 9 Premiers and 16 different Speakers. He even has a township in Northern Ontario named after him! And he’s also responsible for establishing the impartiality of the role of the Sergeant-at-Arms within our parliamentary system. When Mr. Glackmeyer was in the role, the job of Sergeant-at-Arms could be divided into four categories: guarding the Mace, maintaining the upkeep of the furniture and fittings in the building, being in charge of the messengers, and the security of the building.
These responsibilities remained pretty much the same until the 1970s. That’s when the role was overhauled a little bit. While they are still responsible for guarding the Mace and ensuring that the furniture and fittings are seen to properly, since 1976, the role of the Sergeant-at-Arms has added three more specific duties. First and foremost, their role is to ensure that the MPPs can operate in a safe and secure environment. Basically, their first job is safety and security in the building and in particular, the Chamber. We have established a precinct that the Sergeant-at-Arms is responsible for protecting which falls under the direct jurisdiction of the Speaker. Their second job is to enforce the power of the Legislature and in particular, the authority of the Speaker. This could include removing Members or visitors from the Chamber during a session if the Speaker deems it necessary. And third, the Sergeant-at-Arms is responsible for providing direction to “servants of the House” – which is basically a fancy way of saying that they will be responsible for the security personnel.
Whew! Well, I don’t know about you but I’m spent after taking such a long journey back to the past. It still blows my mind that such a long-standing role and tradition as the Sergeant-at-Arms can remain one of the least documented roles that we have within Parliament! Hopefully that changes so that the generations to come can learn more about the fascinating history of the office of the Sergeant-at-Arms.
But I can’t leave off today without doing a fun fact count! I know I managed to sneak a few in here and there – and looks like today we had a grand total of 6! Tune in next time to learn more fun facts and see what new adventures we get up to next.
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Gotta go, I think I hear the bells.
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