The floors shone like mirrors in the dimly lit hallways; the sound of footsteps echoed off the stone walls as staff hurried from one place to another, or Members of Parliament went about their business.
My wife Kathy and I were visiting the hallowed halls of Canada’s Parliament with a purpose: we were on the trail of clues to the life and times of former long-term Yukon Member of Parliament and Speaker of the House of Commons, George Black.
Black and his wife Martha were a political powerhouse in the Yukon for the first half of the 20th century. It was often said during that period there were two political parties in the Yukon: the Liberals and the Blacks.
We had spent the previous two weeks tracking his story across the country, to his birthplace in Woodstock New Brunswick, to Fredericton, where he first practised law and became involved in politics, and to Ottawa, where, through three decades he walked the very same halls that we did last week.
In the course of seeking to understand George Black, we have learned two things: first, that he has always lived in the shadow of his wife Martha. If you Google his name, you will find that more of the hits refer to Mrs. George Black than do to the man himself.
The second thing that we learned is that much of what has been written about both of the Blacks by themselves, or spun by them in contemporary newspapers, is not entirely correct. Even reputable historians have gotten many of the facts wrong.
Consequently, the truth has often slipped sideways a few notches in the telling of their story.
To understand George, therefore, we have been compelled to probe behind the public persona, and seek out documents that corroborate, or contradict, what was commonly understood about his life.
We had spent the previous few days in the National Archives poring over yellowed, often fragile, documents, some more than a century old, seeking the facts. Now, we found ourselves, thanks to Yukon M. P., Larry Bagnell, preparing to meet the current Speaker, Peter Milliken, Liberal member from Kingston and the Islands.
Denis Sabourin, from Bagnell’s office, met us and took us on a tour of the grand building on Parliament Hill. Among the interesting facts that we learned was that up to Black’s time, Members were provided with a suite of rooms in the Parliament buildings which served both as office and living quarters for those from across the country. Did George and Martha use them for this purpose as well?
Sabourin left us in the opposition visitors’ gallery to observe Question Period, over which the Speaker presided.
From our vantage point, we observed members reading newspapers, using their Blackberries, and chatting back and forth, rather than paying attention to the proceedings. The heckling and noise level increased as the Question Period approached, and while we were later told the acoustics are favourable to the members seated below us, we found it difficult to follow the debate unless we used the electronic listening devices hooked into our seats in the gallery.
I wonder how the Speaker maintained quiet and order in the time before electronic amplification?
Following Question Period, Sabourin reappeared and ushered us to the Speaker’s office, where we waited to meet him.
When we were finally invited to enter the Speaker’s chambers, we found a spacious office characterized by understated elegance. The furniture and office finishes were fine grained and finely finished. The shelves were filled with rows of leather-bound books; a large photograph of Winston Churchill, presumably one taken by Yousuf Karsh, dominated one wall. A multi-faceted crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling.
Here, perhaps, we might begin to understand the daily activities of the Speaker. George Black, while serving as Speaker, was noted for eccentric behaviour. The press fed on the story of him shooting six rabbits with a .22-calibre pistol, supposedly from his office window. Was this credible?
We peered out a window in the Speaker’s office. Sure enough, we had a clear view of the ground-level area behind the building, including vegetation along the edge of the rocky bluff upon which the Centre Block stands.
At the end of our visit, Speaker Milliken showed us the compact, but comfortable, apartment that he currently uses. It includes a commodious dining room and a comfortable suite filled with sofas and chairs for social moments with small groups.
Was this where George and Martha Black stayed? I have made a note to myself to look into this to see if there is an answer. The Kingsmere residence in the Gatineau Hills across the Ottawa River, which the Speakers now enjoy, only became available during the 1950s.
The Speaker is a busy man. While assuming a position of impartiality (he is excluded from caucus), he must, among other things, ensure the smooth and orderly functioning of Parliament. He sets the agenda, and rules on order of motions and amendments. He recognizes the right of members to speak, or he can rule them out of order.
The Speaker oversees the decorum of Parliament and may charge a member with using unparliamentary language. Speaker Milliken referred us to a book containing past examples of unparliamentary language: “blatherskite” (someone who talks much but says little), “Parliamentary Pugilist;”“Bag of Wind;”“Parliamentary babe and suckling;”“Sleazebag,” and most offensive of all, “the political sewer pipe from Carleton County”
George Black once ruled that the term “fourflusher” (bluffer) was not unparliamentary. He also banned the ladies in the visitors’ gallery from knitting while Parliament was in session because he found the noise irritating. In earlier days, I am told, citizens often attended Parliament and sat in the visitors’ gallery to keep warm in cold weather.
Martha Black’s autobiography states that her husband once ruled the prime minister out of order, which stirred up a whirlwind of controversy and almost led to his resignation as Speaker. There appears to be no corroboration in the records of Hansard, so the truth to this story remains unsubstantiated.
Another of the Speaker’s responsibilities is to administer the functioning of Parliament. Today’s Speaker, acting as the Chairman of the Board of Internal Economy, is responsible for the appropriate expenditure of $400 million.
By comparison, during the years of the Great Depression, George Black had a very small budget. The records show he had to balance the laying off of staff due to monetary shortfall with pressures from members for patronage appointments. Did this burden weigh heavily upon his shoulders?
The Speaker is caught up in a busy round of ceremonial and diplomatic duties and social engagements, a function which Martha, if not George, would most certainly have enjoyed. Is it possible to assemble a timetable of the Speaker and Martha Black’s busy social schedule?
When we started on this journey some weeks ago, we knew that we would gain insights into the life of a prominent Yukoner, but we never realized that our quest would provide us with more questions than answers.
Michael Gates is a local historian
and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.