Ep. 12: Parliamentary Traditions



February 3, 2022 19 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast. Where we help spread the word on Parliament. I’m Erin, and today I have someone very special joining me for this episode.


David: Thanks Erin. I’m David and I’m the Communications Officer at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Some have also called me the resident historian or is that historic. I’m really happy to be on the Podcast with you today to talk about all of our parliamentary traditions. And I want to congratulate you for all of the fantastic work you’ve done so far on this podcast.


Erin: Thanks David. And that actually gives me a really great idea for a bit of an icebreaker game to get us going in our episode for today. What do you think?


David: Sounds like a great idea to me.


Erin: Excellent. Okay, so I have a list of real and fictional parliamentary traditions from some other Senates and Legislatures, and I want you to tell me if they’re fact or fiction.


David: Ooh that could be tough. But I’m game to give it a try.


Erin: Okay, fact or fiction: in the British Parliament, the elected Members are assigned coat pegs and sword holders outside of the Chamber.


David: Well, seeing as swords were pretty common when the British Parliament first began, I’m going to say fact.


Erin: Correct! Each Member has a designated purple ribbon where they are meant to leave their sword before entering the Chamber.


David: I’m thinking those don’t get used very often these days…


Erin: Hmm I’d say you’re probably right on that! Alright, next one. In the American Senate, there is a specific day in June that is designated “Seersucker Thursday” when all of the Senators wear seersucker suits.


David: I’m going to have to go with fiction on that one. No one wants to wear seersucker head to toe.


Erin: Actually, that one is a fact! Back in the early 1900s, seersucker suits became all the rage to help combat the heat while still looking presentable. By the 1990s, fashion and technology had evolved past that but a Mississippi Senator re-introduced Seersucker Thursday as a way of showing that the Senate wasn’t just a bunch of people in dark suits and the tradition stuck.


David: Speaking of parliamentary dress codes, did you know that there is a rule in the British Parliament that states that no one is allowed to wear a suit of armour in the Chamber? And it’s still applicable today.


Erin: I think you just had your very first fun fact moment on the podcast!


David: Wow! My first fun fact. What an honour.


Erin: It truly, truly is. Alright, I have one last fact or fiction for you. To this day, during the reading of the Speech from the Throne in the British Parliament, an elected Member is “kidnapped” and held hostage until the reigning monarch has delivered the speech.


David: Now this one I know to be true. And it harkens back to a time when the Monarchy had a, shall we say difficult, relationship with Parliament so one MP would be used as a bargaining chip in case the Monarch was threatened while at the Palace of Westminster.


Erin: Well, I have to say David, I’m very impressed by your knowledge of obscure parliamentary traditions.


David: Thank you… That is the topic we’re going to be discussing today, isn’t it? I may have brushed up a little to get ready.


Erin: Well in that case, do you want to start us off by giving us a bit more background on what a tradition actually is?


David: Absolutely. A parliamentary tradition is usually seen as a vague notion, encompassing precedents from all over the globe. Many aren’t written down in any kind of rule book.


Erin: In other words, a parliamentary tradition can sometimes be difficult to pin down since many of them are customs or practices that have evolved over time.


David: Exactly. Traditions can also be subjective – a tradition somewhere may be different somewhere else. However, there are some practices in Parliament that most people can agree are traditions. And those are the customs we’re going to be focusing on today.


Erin: Now many of our traditions in Ontario aren’t necessarily ours. Some we borrowed from our Federal Parliament and others come to us from the Parliament of Great Britain. That being said, we did put our own unique spin on them and we did come up with some others all by ourselves.


David: Take the election of the Speaker for example. The concept of a Speaker Election exists in the British Parliament, the Canadian Federal Parliament, and here in Ontario’s Legislature as well. But all three processes look different and have evolved separately over time.


Erin: In Ontario, up until 1990, there technically was an election to choose the Speaker, however in practice, the decision was made behind closed doors ahead of time and so there was no real “voting” element to speak of.


David: Contrast that to the system we have today, where Members are nominated by other MPPs and then all of the elected Members vote using a secret ballot system to ensure impartiality. It’s actually the only time MPPs have a secret ballot vote during voting.


Erin: The British Parliament uses a similar system now but their rules are much more specific regarding nominations and re-elections. And our Federal Parliament doesn’t have a nomination process but rather an un-nomination process. All Federal MPs are considered automatically nominated to be Speaker and those who do not wish to have their names added to the ballot must issue a letter withdrawing from the vote.


David: Despite these differences, each Speaker Election process we mentioned requires there to be a majority vote towards one candidate. In the case of a non-majority vote, the person or persons with the lowest percentage of votes will be removed from the ballot and another vote will take place. This will continue until they have reached an absolute majority.


Erin: Once they have selected a new Speaker, another tradition takes place here in Ontario: dragging the Speaker to their seat. At this point, the Speaker feigns reluctance as the MPP who nominated them and the person who seconded the nomination, take their arms or hands and pretend to drag them toward the Speaker’s Chair.


David: Wow. Erin… Fun fact: some scholars believe this tradition can be tied back to Sir Richard Waldegrave in 1381. It is thought that Sir Waldegrave anticipated a possible dispute between the King and the British Parliament of the time and was worried it would result in his own embarrassment. So, he had to be “helped” to his seat.


Erin: Hmm, well little did he know that he was actually starting a new parliamentary tradition! Because to this day, each new Speaker does this ritual of pretending to be dragged to their seat in homage to Sir Waldegrave.


David: Speaking of people who weren’t aware that they were starting a new tradition, there’s another Speaker who created a very specific tradition for our provincial parliament: Speaker James Clark.


Erin: Of course! I know this story too. Up until Speaker Clark in 1943, Speakers traditionally received their chair from the Chamber as a parting gift when they were done in their role.


David: Rumour has it that Speaker Clark didn’t want to keep his chair because he lived in an apartment and didn’t think the chair would fit in his home. In lieu of his chair, he was given a copy of his portrait instead.


Erin: And the tradition of the Speaker’s portrait has continued ever since. To this day, all outgoing Speakers are able to choose the artist, style and pose for their portrait. Some have even included family photos or other mementos to make the paintings more personal.


David: Each Speaker has two copies of their portrait made: one that stays in the Legislative Building and the other that they get to keep as a parting gift.


Erin: Fun fact: although each Speaker can personalise their own portrait, some have even included wearing their Speaker’s uniform in the painting. Part of that uniform used to include white gloves. You can still see these gloves featured in 23 of the portraits currently hanging in the halls of the Legislature.


David: Another more recent change to the Speaker’s uniform has been the forgoing of the tricorn hat. This can be seen most prominently during our next tradition: the Procession.


Erin: The Procession is almost like a mini-parade that we have to begin each sitting-day of Parliament. It involves the Sergeant-at-Arms, the Speaker, multiple Clerks, and some of our Legislative Pages.


David: It is believed that the Procession began in England hundreds of years ago when the Speaker may have needed protecting when entering and exiting the building. This is one of those traditions that has come and gone over the years and isn’t practiced by every Parliament, but it’s a tradition we have kept in Ontario.


Erin: Too true. And continuing on the theme of how some traditions can evolve and change over time, our Procession has moved around throughout the years. Currently, it begins in the Speaker’s office, travels up the Grand Staircase and into the Chamber to start off the session each day. However, in the past, it began in other offices on other floors – but it always ends up in the Chamber [as you might expect!].


David: I think you’re forgetting an even more obvious tradition that’s part of the Procession.


Erin: Well, we already mentioned the uniforms… so… is it the Pages?


David: Well yes, I suppose we could say that the practice of having Pages would count too. But I was thinking more about the Mace.


Erin: Oh right! The Mace! How could I have missed that one…


David: Well as I was saying, the Mace is one of our more prominent and tangible traditions. The Mace is a symbol of power that has existed since the early 14th century. Originally meant to signify the permission granted by the Crown to allow Parliament to assemble, today, it also represents the authority of the Speaker to preside over the Legislature.


Erin: Now most Westminster-style Parliaments have their own Mace, but in Ontario, we’re lucky because we have not one but two Maces! The first one was made in 1792; it’s carved out of wood and painted gold. It also has a rather simple-looking crown-shape on top made of brass. But, despite its rather humble appearance would you believe that this Mace was actually stolen?


David: That’s right Erin. It was taken by American soldiers during the Battle of York in 1813. It was of course a battle that took place during the War of 1812 that left York, nowadays Toronto, the worse for wear afterwards. The American soldiers also set fire to the Parliament Building that was being used at the time and took many items, including the Mace, as trophies of war when they left for the United States.


Erin: Fun fact: the Mace was kept at the Naval Museum in Annapolis, Maryland until 1934. When it was returned to the province by a Presidential Order from Franklin D. Roosevelt.


David: Erin, earlier, you mentioned another group of people that sometimes get overlooked when we’re talking about parliamentary traditions: the Legislative Pages.


Erin: I love talking about the Pages! And hey, there’s a lot to tell so maybe we’ll have to do a whole episode just about them.


David: That’s a great idea!


Erin: Well, I do tend to have a few great ideas from time to time… And the Pages are the official messengers in Parliament. In Ontario, we’ve had a group of Pages actively helping in our Legislature since the time of Confederation. Back then, the Pages were a group of 10- to 14-year-old boys who were tasked with carrying messages, running errands, and fetching glasses of water for the MPPs.


David: The role of today’s Pages has largely remained the same: they continue to deliver documents and messages to the MPPs [both inside the Chamber and throughout the building] and provide glasses of water upon request in the Chamber too.


Erin: One of the big differences that we see in our Pages today is that we typically have a group of 20 to 25 Pages at a time, and they are all students in Grade 7 and 8 in Ontario.


David: Get ready… Fun fact: did you know that the first female Pages were appointed by Speaker Cass in 1971? And since then, we have always tried to have an equal number of female and male pages in our cohorts.


Erin: Hmm that’s a pretty good one, but I think I have another fun fact…


David: Do tell…


Erin: Fun fact: Ontario’s Legislature has some of the youngest Pages out of all of the Commonwealth countries! Usually, Pages tend to be high school or University aged students whereas our Pages usually range from about 12 to 13 years old.


David: Now we mentioned that the Pages work mostly inside the Chamber. So that seems like a good place to go next with our discussion on parliamentary traditions.


Erin: I agree. One of the most striking features in our Legislative Chamber has to be its colour-scheme. It’s one of its most recognizable and defining characteristics.


David: What if I were to tell you that there’s a reason for the distinctive green and gold colouring in the Chamber.


Erin: Then I guess I’d have to say we have another tradition on our hands!


David: Too true. Now in Canada, our Federal Parliament is a bicameral legislature, that means that it has two Chambers. Whereas at the Provincial level, the Parliaments are all unicameral – they have one Chamber.


Erin: Many Westminster-style Parliaments use a bicameral system, like you said, and each Chamber has a different colour-scheme. Typically, the Upper House or Senate, is done in red, whereas the Lower House is usually green.


David: Many scholars believe that green was reserved for the Lower House because it was the colour associated with the pastures and fertile land, which was used by the common man. Others theorize that it may have been a more practical reason than that: making green dye was much cheaper and easier than making red dye.


Erin: Well, whatever the reason, green has been synonymous with the Lower House in Parliament for hundreds of years. And for those unicameral legislatures we mentioned, they tended to use green since they didn’t have an Upper House.


David: Although, Ontario’s Chamber did break that tradition for a time. Back in the 1970’s, the decision was made to update the colours a little bit.


Erin: I think I would say it was more than just a little bit…


David: Yeah… Alright, fine. They changed the colour-scheme a lot. In fact, they went with a bold red and blue theme. The carpets and window coverings were done in red while all of the upholstery and accents were in blue.


Erin: It was definitely a statement all right…


David: With the restoration work that was done throughout the building in the 1990’s, the Chamber obtained its current green and gold look.


Erin: Another prominent feature of the Chamber is its seating arrangement. Like most Westminster-style Parliaments, Ontario’s Legislature has the MPPs facing each other on two sides of the Chamber. This setup is based on a style of seating dating back to St. Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster in England during the 16th century.


David: Quite intriguingly, the first dedicated chamber of the House of Commons had the intentional design that allowed debating politicians to face each other in close quarters, a seating arrangement that is also replicated in the modern version of the Commons.


Erin: Again, there was a brief interlude to this traditional setup here in Ontario. In the 1930’s, the seating was altered to allow the Members to hear one another better during the debates. This was of course before the time of microphones.


David: Of course. And what shape did they settle on may you ask? Why a horseshoe-shape.


Erin: We do have a few photographs of that seating arrangement but alas, it was not to last.


David: In the 1940’s, they reverted back to the seating arrangement that we know today.


Erin: Now, there’s one other Chamber tradition that I can think of that isn’t actually located in the Chamber.


David: What? Then how can it be a Chamber tradition if it’s not physically in the room?


Erin: Well, I guess I should say it’s more related to the MPPs and specifically when they meet in the Chamber…


David: Ah. Well in that case, you’re referring to a certain luminescent device in the attic?


Erin: Indeed, I am! And in my opinion, it’s one of our most unique traditions. So, there is a light in the shape of a star located in the attic of the Legislative Building. If you look closely at the upper middle window on the south side of the building, you may be able to make out its outline. But what is it actually for?


David: Well, when the building first opened in 1893, the city of Toronto was quite a bit smaller than it is today. The light was used to let MPPs and the public know that there was an evening session of Parliament. In fact, reports from the time state that the light could be seen all the way from the Toronto Islands!


Erin: Nowadays, we still use the light for the same purpose. However, because of changes to the Standing Orders, night sittings are a lot less frequent. And it’s a lot trickier to see the light with all of our other buildings and bright lights on the ground. But I promise that we do still use it!


David: Wow Erin. That was quite an adventure we took through our parliamentary traditions!


Erin: I know, right? But, David, if you had to pick just one, do you have a favourite?


David: Actually, my favourite tradition is probably the composite photos we have of all of the MPPs. You can think of them almost like yearbook photos. Although the original ones got a little more… creative… shall we say?


Erin: You can’t leave the people hanging now! You have to tell them what that means!


David: I guess you’re right. Well, the original composite photos were more like a collage than a group photo. Back then, it was very difficult to take a photograph of a large group of people so instead they took individual pictures of each person and then stuck them onto a canvas and had an artist fill in the rest of the details like the look of the room, the desks, and all the finer details.


Erin: As you can imagine, some of the perspective and sizing gets a little interesting but they are a really neat tradition that we continue to this day! Although these days, we just take individual photos of each Member.


David: Your favourite tradition Erin?


Erin: Hmm I guess I’d have to go with the wall of names on the first floor. It really reminds me of the history of the building and all of the important things that have happened in Parliament.


David: It is a pretty neat tradition too; inscribing the names of each MPP to be elected to Ontario’s Parliament.


Erin: Agreed. So, I think that’s why that one’s, my favourite. Now I know that this is your first episode David, but we always have to do a fun fact count at the end! So, do you want to do the honours today?


David: I would be honoured Erin. Today’s fun fact count is…6!


Erin: Amazing! Join us next time to learn more fun facts about Parliament.


David: Thanks for listening to ON Parliament, where we help spread the word on Parliament.


Erin: Got to go, I think I hear the bells.

The ON Parliament podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

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