Alberta’s First Speaker: Felled By The Flu

Article 14 / 14 , Vol 43 No 3 (Autumn)

Alberta’s First Speaker: Felled By The Flu

One hundred years ago, the world was gripped by an influenza pandemic. Many Canadians succumbed to the disease, including Alberta’s first Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. In this article, the author traces his political career and explains how a virulent and novel strain of the flu cost him his life.

Charles Wellington Fisher, the first Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, was eminently suited for this historic role both by temperament and because of his prior service in the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories. Fisher presided over the Legislative Assembly of Alberta for over 13 years as this new province shaped what was to become its legislative legacy. During Fisher’s tenure as Speaker, the number of Members in the Legislative Assembly more than doubled from 25 in 1906 to 61 in 1919.

After serving a two-year term as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories, Fisher began to campaign for a seat in the newly established Legislative Assembly of Alberta in October 1905. His prior electoral success in the Banff constituency continued during Alberta’s first general election on November 9, 1905. In 1909, the provincial electoral boundaries were redrawn, and Fisher won the next three elections (1909, 1913 and 1917) in the constituency of Cochrane.

On March 15, 1906, the Legislative Assembly of Alberta held the opening of the First Session of the First Legislature at the Thistle Rink in Edmonton. As its first item of business, the new Legislative Assembly elected Charles Wellington Fisher as its first Speaker. Fisher’s nomination came through a motion by Premier Alexander C. Rutherford. Since he was one of only eight Members who had served in the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories, he was considered a veteran in the newly formed Legislative Assembly of Alberta. He was apparently a good-natured man with a keen sense of humour and a talent for mimicry. Premier Rutherford’s speech at the opening of the First Legislature called to mind the significance of the role of the Speaker:

The duties of Speaker are various and important. He is the mouthpiece of the House. It is the duty of the First Commoner to preside over our deliberations. He is responsible for enforcing the observance of order and decorum among the members. We should expect that he will mete out uniform and fair treatment to all the parties, to all the members.1

Fisher was 39 years old at the time of his election as Speaker. The issue of the timely printing of legislative documents was discussed frequently in those early years and, as a result, in 1909, Fisher ruled “that no bills are to come before the House for a second time until they have been in the hands of members for 24 hours.”2 Fisher soon became ‘adept at parliamentary procedures’ and at defining terms and procedures for the Members. Ministers and Members conferred with him regarding both the format and the substance of bills.

During the Second Session of the Fourth Legislature, Fisher fell ill with ear trouble. He presided over the Assembly until March 28, 1919.3 On May 5, after five weeks of illness, he died at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton. Charles Wellington Fisher had succumbed to Spanish influenza at the age of 53.

As Speaker, he was described by William M. Davidson, Member for Calgary North and publisher of The Morning Albertan, as having set the standard for his successors:

He was just the kind of speaker for a new legislature in a new western province. He had the right idea of the dignity that was necessary for the office. … He knew the rules of the house, but was very liberal in his interpretation of them. … He was very generous in his decisions, and knew no party in his rulings. … It is not an exaggeration to say that he has left his imprint, if not upon the legislation, upon the legislature itself, more clearly than any other man in the province.4

Davidson noted that with Fisher’s passing “the last link between the old North West Territorial legislature and the Alberta legislature” was severed as Fisher had been the last Member of the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories still to be serving in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.

Note

  1. “Alberta’s First Legislature Was Opened Yesterday,” Edmonton Bulletin, 16 March 1906, p. 1.
  2. “Members Will See All Bills,” Edmonton Daily Bulletin, 9 February 1909, p. 1.
  3. “Hon. C.W. Fisher, Speaker of the Legislature of Alberta Passes Away at 11:30 Last Night,” Edmonton Bulletin, 6 May 1919, p. 1.
  4. “Life and Work of Late Chas. W. Fisher, Speaker of Alberta Legislature,” Morning Albertan (Calgary), 8 May 1919, p. 5.

The official portrait of Charles Wellington Fisher, the first Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta
The Legislative Assembly of Alberta.