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Parliamentary Debate Reconstitution

Since 1867, there have been many successive legislatures in the Parliament of Québec. But it was only beginning in 1964, with the arrival of the Journal des débats (Hansard), that the debates of the Members of the National Assembly were reproduced in full. Before that time, there was no verbatim record of what was said in the House and, in 1973, the Assembly decided to continue historian Marcel Hamelin’s work to reconstitute the parliamentary debates from before 1963.

The absence of a Hansard prior to 1964 was due, in part, to the customs and practices of the time, but also to the associated publishing costs. In the 19th century, a number of journalists tried their hand at debate reconstitution. In 1871, Roch-Pamphile Vallée published some debates in his newspaper Écho de la session. The Desjardins brothers, Alphonse and Louis-Georges, and Narcisse Malenfant followed Vallée’s example and published an account of the parliamentary debates for the period 1878 to 1892. To illustrate the work of Alphonse Desjardins, the National Assembly Library digitized the transcripts of the debates of the 1st Session of the 4th Legislature (June 4, 1878 to July 20, 1878). This unique edition, produced manually, is a good example of the work involved in reconstituting debates from the newspapers of the time.

The results of these efforts were piecemeal and impermanent. Aware of historical gaps, various historians set to work to produce the most complete reconstitution of the debates possible. The debates of the 1837 Session of the Parliament of Lower Canada were reconstituted by Gilles Gallichan and published in the Cahiers des Dix (Nos. 49 and 50). Elizabeth Nish reconstituted the debates of the Union government sessions (1840–1867) and Marcel Hamelin reconstituted those of the Legislative Assembly of Québec for the years 1867 to 1878. However, pursuing the work for a longer period required much more than just a handful of people, which is why, in 1974, the National Assembly of Québec formed a team of historians to pick up where Marcel Hamelin had left off. The National Assembly debate reconstitution team’s work plan excluded the debates of the standing committees and the Legislative Council.

The sources needed to reconstitute the debates included official documents (Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Quebec, agendas, the Assembly’s Standing Orders and rules of procedure), brochures, major daily newspapers’ parliamentary columns (the only pre-1963 records of what was said in the House) and any other document considered relevant. With this basic file in hand, historians or university interns rigorously compared and analyzed major dailies’ parliamentary columns to establish the order of the speakers and choose the most complete texts. This comparison generated a relatively comprehensive version that meets strict quality criteria. Debate reconstitution requires a thorough knowledge of parliamentary procedure and of the historical context surrounding each session.

Once all the sittings had been reconstituted, the other Québec newspapers published at the time were closely read. By comparing the reconstituted text to these newspapers, missing sentences or parts of speeches could be added to flesh out the base version. To make the speeches and statements easier to read, the references were not included in the final version. However, the National Assembly Library can provide the specific reference for any passage on request.

The goal of the parliamentary debate reconstitution project was to report what MNAs said in the Legislative Assembly as faithfully as possible. Meaning was scrupulously respected. Anglicisms, such as the word bill (rather than the French term "projet de loi"), were left in the French text, as were canadianisms and other expressions of the time, to reflect the level of language used by the parliamentarians.

More information on the reconstitution of parliamentary debates can be obtained by consulting the methodological introduction to the Débats de l'Assemblée législative de la 8e législature, 1893-1897, Québec, Journal des Débats, 1980. For information on the work of journalists, see the following articles by Jocelyn Saint-Pierre: La chronique parlementaire dans les quotidiens québécois de 1871 à 1921 : partisane ou impartiale? in the magazine Communication, Vol. 17, No. 2, December 1996; and Les 125 ans d'une institution parlementaire, la Tribune de la presse au Québec published in La Tribune de la presse vue par..., Québec, Les Presses de l'Assemblée nationale, 1996.

The print version of the Débats de l'Assemblée législative and the complete reproduction of the National Assembly debates in the Journal des débats since 1963 are available in major libraries as well as at the National Assembly Library. All sessions (1867-current) can now be accessed on the National Assembly website’s Journal des débats (Hansard) page.

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