Established 50 years ago, Alberta Hansard is basically unchanged

Article 6 / 8 , Vol 45 No. 3 (Autumn)

Established 50 years ago, Alberta Hansard is basically unchanged

Janet Schwegel is Director of Parliamentary Programs at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Alberta Hansard, a milestone achieved in March 2022, the office looked back to a time before the official record of Assembly proceedings existed in Alberta and reflected on early processes as well as how work has evolved over the years. It became evident that the story of Hansard’s establishment, executed by J. Peter Swann and his small team, was worth telling. Much has changed, but the basic practices established then remain 50 years later. This article provides a timeline of the establishment of Alberta’s Hansard, based on Swann’s archived records and his report, A Report Relating to the Publication of the Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.

Janet Schwegel

Alberta was one of the last provinces to produce an official report. As early as 1919 the matter was raised in the Assembly as one of “pressing importance and necessity,” to which the Premier replied that “as the cost would be considerable, and but comparatively few would require the report when published … there was no necessity for [the] Legislative Assembly to have a Hansard.”

Long before an official Hansard was created, Library staff at the Legislature clipped newspaper articles into a collection called Scrapbook Hansard. That collection covers issues of the day from 1906 to 1971 in throne speeches, budget addresses, various bills, and legislative discussions.

In 1965 the Legislative Assembly asked the government to install sound recording equipment in the Chamber, and the Clerk was directed to produce verbatim reports of speeches made by each Member during the throne speech, budget debates, and for other proceedings as directed by the Assembly. Transcripts of other speeches and statements were also provided to Members on request. The first copy of a transcript was free to MLAs and to members of the press gallery. After that, each additional copy cost five cents per page.

By 1971 transcripts were being produced for much of the proceedings, particularly Oral Question Period. But these transcripts weren’t a proper Hansard. They weren’t comprehensive, they weren’t timely, and they weren’t published for the public. A memo from the Assistant Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta outlines transcription services at the time. It mentions transcription difficulties of the past year and suggests that the three or four stenographers operate on a “response to requests” basis rather than anticipate requests, that “automatic” production of transcripts be limited and “at the direction of the House.” The memo notes that “the situation is just a little out of hand at the moment with large volumes of material being produced unnecessarily.”

A 1971 editorial in the Calgary Herald ambivalently described transcripts as “often turgid and never bestselling” but also “of inestimable value to all those who would examine, either contemporaneously or in hindsight, the process of government.” Establishing a Hansard in Alberta was a plank in the platform of political parties and a dream for the local media. In 1971 William F. Gold, Associate Editor of the Calgary Herald, noted that from 1957 to 1962

words from the floor were recorded by neither note nor tape on an official basis. On contentious issues there was endless disagreement about who said what. Calls of misquote were frequent. On reflective balance both sides were right, and wrong, about half the time. The only people who really suffered were members of the public, constantly tugged by conflicting assertions and without access to any definitive record.

Actor Dan Moser dressed up as Thomas Curson Hansard.

Gold went on to say:

It is essential to the intelligent citizen that there be in some areas a bedrock of trust, something in which faith may be reposed. In provincial affairs an accessible, printed Hansard can fill this need … The fact is that Alberta is too big, and too important in all its fiscal and human workings, to continue much longer without an adequate Hansard. To me, adequate means printed.

(At that time the term “Hansard” was sometimes used to refer to the tapes of the proceedings.)

In November 1971 a government news release announced a study into improving and expanding publication of the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. At the time, the projected completion date for setting up a Hansard office was Friday, October 13, 1972.

The government commissioned Mr. J. Peter Swann. In his notes Swann indicates that he was

to prepare a report for the Government of Alberta on “all matters relating to the possible improvement and expansion of publication of the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly.” At the present time, the proceedings are recorded on magnetic tape, and selected debates only are transcribed; the Government does not publish a “Hansard”.

When Swann started on his research project, Alberta, with a population of 1.6 million people, was one of two provinces without a Hansard, the other being P.E.I., which had a population under 150,000. Swann started his research by contacting other jurisdictions. Many times he encountered “incredulity … that there could even exist a Parliament without a full published report.”

Correspondence with Dr. J.B. Poole of the House of Commons Library in December 1971 notes that the House of Commons was “moving slowly but surely towards the use of computer terminals as the primary transcribers tool, using text editing, formatting, and indexing programmes to produce a useful end product.” At the same time, Stenographic Machines Inc. was also working on “programmes to interpret machine shorthand and reconstruct a natural language text with 98% accuracy.” Swann comments that “assuming a reasonable degree of efficiency, [computerized stenography] would seem to be the logical way to convert the spoken word to the printed page.”

While Swann was originally to have Alberta Hansard in production in October, in the first week of February 1972 he was asked to set up an office to produce a daily Hansard for the spring session, opening March 2. That gave him three weeks to get the office running.

Although he was keen on computer shorthand, he settled on a process based on a technique developed at Queen’s University for the House of Commons in Ottawa, which involved

the initial typing of the transcript “into” a computer, so that the raw text is stored in machine-readable form. The computer may then be used subsequently to correct and modify the text, and to manipulate it into whatever output form may be required, or into a form acceptable to some other device, such as a phototypesetter.

That’s essentially the process still used to produce Alberta Hansard 50 years later.

Swann set up an agreement to connect computer terminals in the Hansard office to the Government of Alberta Data Centre. The terminals, which normally required nine months for delivery, arrived in Edmonton within two weeks. Government of Alberta Temporary Staff Services recruited dictatypists as Hansard transcribers. By Monday morning of the week the Legislature opened, four had been recruited, three of whom had never set foot in the Legislature Building.

The staff also consisted of a secretary-receptionist, an indexer-researcher, and a sub-editor. Swann thought that he and one sub-editor could handle the proofreading responsibilities. Later he recognized the understaffing error and decided that three people were needed for the work. “The job is one for which one needs a particular knack, or feel. It is not enough to have a good command of the English language, and yet too rigid views on what constitutes proper prose style may lead to the cardinal sin of overediting.” Once three people were sub-editing, the main problem was “the lack of conformity among sub-editors, and the need to establish standards of style was very apparent. Many hours were wasted when one editor would re-review and re-correct work that had already been reviewed and corrected by another.”

As for the tone of the publication

it was established as an unwritten precept that the Alberta Hansard should be a document designed for the reader, rather than a cold and perhaps cruel mirror for whose words it contains. An editorial style was adopted which, it was hoped, would permit the reader to understand the sequence of events which the publication reported, through the use of the descriptive editorial captions and headings reflecting orders of business and subjects under discussion.

The new publication was advertised in seven daily major newspapers. Although many people weren’t aware of the existence of the Alberta Hansard, interest was higher than expected. By December 1972 the office distributed 950 copies of every Hansard produced and had about 700 subscribers.

When the first session was finished, Swann concluded that

the Spring Session proved to be a very difficult experience for all those involved with the Alberta Hansard … A completely novel system, put into service with hopelessly inadequate preparation and some serious underestimation of the human effort required under these circumstances, on several occasions almost collapsed into total chaos. It did, however, prove its value and its workability during the last week of the session, when three consecutive issues, including two which involved both afternoon and evening sittings, were in Members’ hands on the following sitting day. This performance would have been kept up until the end of the sitting, had our staff not been hit, like everyone else, by the ‘flu bug then prevalent in Edmonton; the fact that we could not maintain this turnaround without all our experienced staff demonstrated quite dramatically our vulnerability to sickness and other causes of absenteeism. [I’m sure we can sympathize.]

By fall, though, all but three issues were published within 24 hours.

Swann reported that “my choice of procedures to be used in the preparation of the Alberta Hansard has been vindicated, by the demonstration of its ability to produce an overnight Hansard during the fall session, by the impending availability of the computerized Stenograph machine, and by the comparison of our manpower requirements and those of Maurice Chazotte’s in B.C.” That said, the production of Alberta Hansard was costly and the print quality was poor due to the low quality of the artwork provided to the Queen’s Printer. In December 1972 the Speaker “decided to dispense with my services as Editor of the Alberta Hansard for the Spring Session.”

When summing up his Hansard project for the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, Swann articulated what was needed for more ideal production conditions and processes. He admitted that there were problems associated with the implementation of “pioneering new techniques in the production of a Hansard” and that “phototypesetting, and therefore a good quality product, will be possible in the spring, and new input terminals, unfortunately not available until May, will make the transcribers task more pleasant, efficient, and economical.”

Even if the possibilities that Swann noted did not come to fruition within the short time period of his study, his efforts realized a few key practices that remain today. Fifty years later Alberta Hansard uses the same basic production model of inputting text into a computer, then using that computer and software programs to edit and typeset documents. Further, Alberta Hansard still uses editorial captions and headings to guide the reader, and the tone of the publication is consistent.

Mechanics aside, the story of how Alberta Hansard got its start and how it continues to operate emphasizes the importance of a persevering staff. To quote Swann, “much of the efficiency of a Hansard group comes from the morale of the staff.”

Current Hansard staff on the occasion of the 50th anniversary event: (Left to right) David Letersky, Janice
Connor, Amanda LeBlanc, Janet Schwegel, Charisse Steward.