Sins of Commission: A Royal Commission to Investigate Abolishing Parliament?

Article 8 / 9 , Vol 46 No. 1 (Spring)

Sins of Commission: A Royal Commission to Investigate Abolishing Parliament?

A 1949 “Royal Commission” contemplated the unthinkable: the abolition of Parliament. Fortunately, for parliamentarians past and present, the resulting report was a Parliamentary Press Gallery parody that was “disrespectfully submitted” and not a real prescription for shuttering the Parliament Buildings. In this article, the author explores this elaborate joke text. He notes that while some of the humour probably still holds up today, the racism and sexism within the document means most readers will not shed any tears in learning this text has been long forgotten and gathering dust – just like some of the real commission reports it parodied.

Forrest D. Pass

Forrest D. Pass is a curator in the Programs Division at Library and Archives Canada. He has a penchant for unusual Canadian ephemera.

Reading royal commission reports is either a perk or an occupational hazard for parliamentarians and historians alike. I have thumbed through my fair share over the years, from the Kellock-Taschereau Commission report on the Gouzenko Affair of 1946, which reads a little like a John Le Carré novel, to the Report of the National Transcontinental Railway Investigating Commission (1914), which reads like, well, the Report of the National Transcontinental Railway Investigating Commission. Still, when I came across one such report at an Ottawa estate sale, it took me a moment to realize that I was holding a long forgotten parody rather than the genuine article.

Even in these days of digital deep fakes, there is much to appreciate in the analog artistry of this mid-century prank. As an object, the Report of the Royal Commission to Investigate the Proposal that Parliament be Abolished painstakingly mimicked the look and feel of genuine royal commission reports, from its blue cover and its typeface down to the printing block used for the coat of arms on the cover and title page. Perhaps the King’s Printer was in on the joke. Besides the title, the date of the order-in-council appointing the commission – April 1, 1949 – is the clearest indication that the proposal to abolish Parliament was not made entirely in earnest. The culprit was the Parliamentary Press Gallery, which prepared the “report” as a keepsake for its annual dinner.

At a mere 46 pages, the Report was, by its own admission, a little smaller than a typical royal commission deliverable. “You will find it short, as Royal Commission reports go,” the commissioners apologized in their letter of transmission, before quipping, “Where do they go, incidentally?” However, noting that “this brevity has been a matter of concern,” the commissioners noted that they were appending to the report the entire contents of the Library of Parliament. They anticipated that the appendices to the report would be available at the same time as the fulfillment of the Gréber Plan. That ambitious project for the improvement and beautification of the national capital had been published in 1948 and has never been fully implemented.

Like any historical document, the report is a product of its time, and its timeliness sometimes leaves modern readers scratching their heads. Take, for example, the names of the commissioners. “Honourable Mr. Justice Charles I” is clear enough: no friend of Parliaments, the seventeenth-century Stuart king might well be expected to preside over such an inquiry. The other commissioners would have been well-known to the report’s contemporaries. Hepburn was former Ontario Premier Mitchell “Mitch” Hepburn, a long-time thorn in the side of the federal Liberal party; Houde was Camillien Houde, the former Montreal mayor who had been interned during the Second World War and emerged as an unwelcome booster of the Progressive Conservatives during the 1949 election campaign.

The final commissioner, C.B.C. Rawhide, was a rising, and controversial, Canadian icon. A plain-talking and acerbically opinionated ranch hand, “Rawhide” was the alter ego of CBC broadcaster Max Ferguson, who hosted a weekly cowboy music program called Breakfast Breakdown. Originally conceived for CBC Halifax, Rawhide made his national network debut early in 1949 and not all listeners were impressed. In a question to the Minister of National Revenue, then responsible for the CBC, on March 3, 1949, Toronto-St. Paul’s MP Douglas Ross condemned Rawhide’s “meaningless ravings and tripe, couched in the poorest possible illiterate English, an insult to the intelligence of the Canadian people.” Surely a figure who had been so maligned on the floor of the House of Commons would have strong opinions on the value of the institution.

The “testimony” that Rawhide and his fellow commissioners heard was replete with inside jokes and groan-worthy puns. For example, the leaders of the opposition parties, George Drew of the Progressive Conservatives and M.J. Coldwell of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), become “George Drewl” and “M.J. Hotwell” respectively. The contributions of the latter consisted mainly of alternate meanings for the CCF acronym, “Come Clean, Fellows”, “Cheap Crook’s Foes”, “Catch Conservatives Flatfooted”, and “Cash, Comrade, First.”

Verbal and visual shenanigans also permeated the written submissions. A brief from the Province of Newfoundland included an acrostic on the correct pronunciation of the province’s name. The lampooning of the new province was ironic, as Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation had been deliberately moved up a day so that it would not coincide with April Fools Day – the Press Gallery clearly did not get the memo. Exhibit A, the “Whimsey Report On The Sex Life of Senators,” might still provoke a chuckle, playing as it did on persistent stereotypes about the Red Chamber. On the other hand, the racism of a submission purportedly from a First Nations chief makes the twenty-first century reader cringe. Similarly, a number of sexist jokes remind us that both Parliament and the press gallery were, in the 1940s, old boys’ clubs with limited space for women.

Illustrating the report were a half-dozen cartoons, the work of some of the best-known Canadian editorial cartoonists of the period, including Jack Boothe of the Globe and Mail, Les Callan of the Toronto Star, Gordie Moore of the Montreal Gazette, and Bob Chambers of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. In most cases, they were drawn specifically for this publication; one cartoon, by Winnipeg Free Press cartoonist Arch Dale, illustrates commission “testimony” and pokes fun at the cartoonist’s own shortcomings. As Peter Kuch, a Dale mentee, would recall after Dale’s death, the cartoonist would frequently call upon Kuch to “pencil in” George Drew’s face in his cartoons. In his cartoon for the Report, Dale depicts a hard-drinking cartoonist growing increasingly frustrated because, as a small dog in the corner notes, “he can’t draw Drew!”

Like some of the commission reports it parodied, the Report of the Royal Commission to Investigate the Proposal that Parliament be Abolished was ephemeral and soon forgotten. Only a few copies survive. Library and Archives Canada has two copies, and there is one at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. There are, no doubt, a few others collecting dust in private attics and basements.

In the end, the commission granted Parliament a reprieve, with conditions. The commissioners “disrespectfully submitted” that the House of Commons chamber be redecorated with “a boulevard café motif at afternoon sittings,” and in the evenings with “seats arranged cabaret fashion.” Needless to say, no one has ever acted on these recommendations – yet. Perhaps there is still time to incorporate them into the plans for the newly renovated Centre Block.