Ep. 29: Taking a Page Out of History: The Story of Hansard


February 8, 2024

15 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast. Where we help spread the word on Parliament!



David: I’m happy to be back again this month Erin, for another really exciting episode!



Erin: Me too David! You might even say that I’m tickled “ink” about our topic today.



David: Ooh good one! I was going to say that this episode is already on the “write” track.



Erin: While all of these puns have truly been quite “novel”, I think we should get to the subject at hand!



David: I guess you’re right Erin. Although we were on fire with the puns today!



Erin: Let’s see if we can keep that momentum going with a tried-and-true classic game: true or false!



David: You know what? I’m even looking forward to your tricky games today. It seems like it’s been a long time since you quizzed me.



Erin: I know, right? That’s why I thought I’d go back to an oldy but goody.



David: You mean just like me?



Erin: I would never call you an oldy David! Just a goody.



David: Hopefully I do “goody” on your quiz then.



Erin: Sounds like you’re ready to go! Here’s your first question. True or false: as a member of the public, you are not allowed to bring a pencil into the Chamber during a session of Parliament in Ontario’s Legislature.



David: While many people might be shocked, the answer to that is actually true! It’s a practice that dates back centuries and one that I’m sure we’ll cover today.



Erin: Correct on both fronts David! On to the next question. Computers are not allowed anywhere on the Chamber floor during a debate. True or false.



David: That one I know is false. If you’ve watched a portion of a debate in person or on TV recently, you would no doubt have noticed a few individuals with laptops sitting in the middle of the Chamber floor!



Erin: Correct again! Those folks may be important to our episode today too. I have one last question for you. And I saved the trickiest for last.



David: Of course you did, Erin. I would expect nothing less from one of your games.



Erin: You’ve got to end with a bang! Alright, here we go. True or false: up until the 1850s, it was a punishable offence to report publicly on the British parliamentary proceedings.



David: Hmm you always manage to make me doubt myself for one of your questions. I do know that it was a punishable offence to report on the British Parliament but it’s always the year that you use that stumps me. You know, I’m going to have to go with my gut and say that this one is false.



Erin: Even though you complain about how hard the games are, it’s still nearly impossible to stump you, David! Correct for a third time today!



David: Oh wow! I really thought that one could have gone either way.



Erin: Now in case you hadn’t guessed it already, today our topic has to do with the written account of everything that happens in our Parliament. Nowadays, you’ve most likely heard it referred to as the “Official Report of Debates” or “Hansard.” For the purposes of our episode today, we’re going to refer to it as Hansard.



David: But where did the term Hansard come from? And how did it become what we know it as today? Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to delve into in this episode.



Erin: To understand how Hansard works today, we have to take a look at its origins.



David: Although Parliament had existed in one form or another since the 1300s in Britain, there had never been a true public record of what was said in the House. This secrecy was intended to protect the Members from any attempt by the Monarch to restrain their power or privileges.



Erin: There was instead, an official record of the actions taken by the House, like who voted for what bill, that was publicly available, but there was no written record of what the Members actually said during the debates.



David: It was determined that the publication of such remarks, would be a breach of a Member’s parliamentary privilege. Punishments if found guilty included fines, being dismissed from your job, or imprisonment.



Erin: It wasn’t until 1803 when all of that changed.



David: With growing interest in what was actually being said in the Commons, and facing intense backlash from the public, the British Parliament finally allowed a man named William Cobbett to include unofficial summaries of the debates in his magazine called “Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register.”



Erin: Fun fact: despite being allowed the rights to publish the first accounts of the debate proceedings publicly, William Cobbett eventually ended up in jail after being found guilty of libel for an article he wrote against the British Government.



David: Double fun fact: Cobbett’s article was published by none other than Thomas Hansard, the namesake of our episode today.



Erin: Ooh good one David! Double fun facts are rare!



David: I know! But I felt like this one was definitely warranted.



Erin: I would have to agree! But getting back to Thomas Hansard, he was a printer and publisher based out of the London area. Hansard and Cobbett actually worked together for many years before Cobbett sold his magazine to Hansard in 1811.



David: With the change in ownership came a change in name of the weekly magazine to “Hansard Parliamentary Debates.” Over time, the name of the publication was abbreviated until it was simply called “Hansard.”



Erin: Neither Cobbett nor Hansard ever employed anyone to sit in the Chamber and take notes during the debates. Instead, they compiled their reports from multiple sources, including a variety of local morning newspapers. As a result, the earliest versions of Hansard could not be relied upon for total accuracy.



David: Thomas Hansard passed away in 1833 but his younger brothers continued the business, even growing it to include official reporters, and it managed to outlast any other competitors who attempted to take over the reporting of House business.



Erin: Thomas Hansard’s nephew, Henry Hansard, finally moved the business in another direction in 1889, but the family name had already become synonymous with the daily reports and remains the name used in many jurisdictions to describe the daily transcripts of what takes place in Parliament.



David: Fun fact: nearly 30 countries still refer to the official record of their parliamentary debates as “Hansard.”



Erin: Shifting gears away from Britain, it would be a little longer for a daily Hansard transcript to take root in Canada. After Confederation in 1867, it was a couple of years before reports of all of the debates in both the Senate and the House of Commons became commonplace; 1871 and 1875, respectively.



David: Although these reports replaced a “scrapbook Hansard” that had been previously compiled from newspaper clippings, official reporting staff weren’t appointed in the House of Commons until 1880. The Senate saw similar reporters hired in 1916.



Erin: These first official Hansard transcripts were created in multiple steps. Shorthand writers would transcribe events as they took place. These notes were later dictated to typists who created the final product.



David: The emphasis of the reports was on them being “verbatim” – essentially “as spoken” in the Chamber.



Erin: Fun fact: the British Parliament apparently “borrowed” the idea of using a verbatim style of transcript from Canadian Hansard reports. They switched from the more summary-based reports started by Thomas Hansard to the substantially verbatim report we know today, in 1909.



David: In Ontario, there had always been “Journals of the House” that were published publicly since the time of Confederation. These Journals contained the detailed actions of the House [also called Votes and Proceedings] and some excerpts from various speeches.



Erin: Other reports had been sporadic at best and included transcripts of the Committee of Public Accounts, that is the Committee responsible for reviewing all public accounts and reports from the Auditor General, and occasional speeches from party leaders and financial critics.



David: By the 1930s, a desire to have a more complete public record of Ontario’s Parliamentary proceedings had led to an opportunity to introduce a permanent and full-time Hansard in the province’s Legislature. Unfortunately, Premier Hepburn dismissed the idea in 1935, largely due to the expense of creating such a service during the Great Depression.



Erin: And so it was that Ontario’s first, in-house, verbatim Hansard transcript was launched in 1944. Which makes this year, and actually this month, its 80th anniversary! Now those original Ontario Hansard reports were printed on something called “onionskin” – a thin, lightweight, often translucent paper. It was chosen because it could be used with carbon paper for typing duplicate copies quickly in a typewriter.



David: Fun fact: although it’s called onionskin paper, there are no onions used in its production. The paper acquired its name because it superficially resembles the thin, papery texture of the skin found on an onion.



Erin: Due to the fragile nature of the paper, Ontario’s Parliament switched to using mimeograph copies instead. This process uses a stencil that is filled with ink in a special machine to produce copies quickly – sort of like the precursor to a photocopier. This also enabled Hansard reports to be bound into volume form. In fact, some of the original mimeograph versions can still be found in the Legislative Library today.



David: Despite production times being shortened with the new copy system, it was becoming more and more difficult to find skilled shorthand writers to transcribe the debates in the Chamber.



Erin: That’s why in 1957, debates in Ontario’s Legislative Chamber began being tape-recorded. This allowed the typists to work with the shorthand writers to listen to the recorded sessions and compile the transcripts together at a faster pace.



David: Even with all of these advancements, it wasn’t until 1970 that Hansard became a full-time branch under the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Up until that point, all of Ontario’s Hansard transcripts were produced externally.



Erin: Advances in technology continued, with stenograph machines eventually being used in the Chamber to make shorthand writing even faster.



David: The only part of the original system that was still in use was the typewritten aspect. But those were not to last either. Word processing replaced the need for typewriters and allowed improved editing capabilities in the late 1970s. Not only that, but the improved draft transcripts could also be sent to the printers by modem, which greatly sped up the entire production process.



Erin: Despite these improvements, Ontario was still only producing a daily Hansard for the proceedings in the Chamber. Committee meetings were still not recorded on a consistent basis. But all of that changed in the 1980s.



David: By 1989, technology had gotten to a point that our Hansard Department could begin producing full copies of the House proceedings as well as transcripts of all of our various Committee meetings. This was a real breakthrough moment.



Erin: Now it might not seem like a lot, but this change was pretty significant. Up until then, the Hansard Department was relatively compact, but they had to grow exponentially to be able to cover all of the new proceedings.



David: Not only that, but all Hansard transcripts in Ontario are produced in the language that was spoken. That means that if a Member chooses to speak in English in the Chamber or Committee Room, then that part of the transcript will be in English. But if they give their remarks in French, then that section will reflect that as well. Fun fact: sometimes Members will include remarks in a language other than French or English. When this happens, the Hansard transcript will simply say remarks in…followed by the name of the language.



Erin: The 1990s saw another huge leap in editing and publishing technologies. By this stage, not only were they able to edit the transcripts in-house, but now they were finally able to format the transcripts so that they could be printed faster. That meant not having to rely on two external services to create a final product, only one, the printer.



David: Hansard transcripts went from taking up to 3 days to prepare to being ready overnight.



Erin: You know David, it always astounds me how fast technology progressed. They went from typewriters and it taking 3 days to produce one document to using computers and it taking less than 24 hours for one report, in the span of 20 years!



David: It’s pretty remarkable when you put it that way Erin. Especially when you consider that it took them close to 100 years to go from writing shorthand to typewriters in the first place! And those weren’t all of the improvements that Hansard has seen!



Erin: That’s right David. By 1993, electronic transmission of the parliamentary television channel meant that Hansard was also available on any computer in the province. For the time, that must have been a huge deal!



David: It was Erin. It might not seem like it since we’re all so connected to our various devices today, but the ability to turn on a computer in Thunder Bay or Windsor or Kapuskasing and find out what was said in Parliament the day before was a revelation.



Erin: The most recent development that our Hansard team has undergone is actually a name change. While we still refer to the actual document as Hansard, the team who puts it all together is now called House Publications. This branch also includes a reference and indexing department.



David: And recently, they joined together with our interpretation and French languages team to create a new branch called House Publications and Language Services.



Erin: These two offices work closely together to ensure that the broadcast you see on your tv or online is available in both languages and that the Hansard transcript is produced verbatim. And all of this in a timely manner!



David: I think my biggest takeaway from today is just the fact that Hansard went from being one of the first offices of the Assembly when it was established as a branch under the Speaker back in the 1970s to the sophisticated service it has evolved to today.



Erin: Too true David. They really have come a long way since their beginnings in Ontario 80 years ago.



David: That was a real whirlwind of an episode today Erin!



Erin: I know David! We time travelled all the way back to the early British Parliaments and made it back to today. Who knew that one man publishing something as commonplace today as the parliamentary proceedings, could have taken us on such a journey.



David: We definitely have Thomas Hansard to thank for that.



Erin: Indeed.



David: We can’t end today without doing a fun fact count!



Erin: How could I forget! Especially with your double fun fact at the beginning! By my count today we had 6!



David: Not too shabby at all!



Erin: Thanks for listening to the ON Parliament Podcast, where we help spread the word on Parliament. But we’ve got to go. I think I hear the bells.



David: Bye for now!



Erin: The ON Parliament podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Social media by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Additional research provided by the Table Research Office for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please support the podcast by sharing it with others and subscribing. For more fun facts about Ontario’s parliament, follow us on Twitter and Instagram@onparleducation. Et en français : @parloneducation. Thanks again and see you next time.