05/27/2014 05:35 EDT | Updated 07/27/2014 05:59 EDT

Early scrapbookers to thank for rescue of Canada's first parliamentary debates

OTTAWA - If not for the diligent, painstaking work of some history-minded librarians armed with scissors and glue, the words of Canada's first parliamentarians might have been lost forever.

Their efforts — fragile, yellowed scrapbook pages containing newspaper columns from 1867 to 1874 — proved instrumental in piecing together those early parliamentary debates in the absence of an official record.

Now, after 50 years of work, Canada's Library of Parliament has finally wrapped up reconstructing the debates, posting them online for all to see.

"I think the record is democratically important and fundamentally important," said Sonia Bebbington, the library's director of knowledge management and preservation.

"Even though it's never going to be an official record, filling that gap the best we can with what we have, I think, is a really important contribution to readers of Canadian history."

The debates are a composite of different newspaper accounts, mainly from two newspapers of the era: the Ottawa Times and the Toronto Globe. The Times closed a few years later, making the pages even rarer; the Globe went on to merge with the Toronto-based Mail and Empire to form the Globe and Mail in 1936.

Library of Parliament staff used other parliamentary records, such as the text of bills, and advice from historians to validate the articles and help fill in missing details.

Back in the day, a small group of newspaper reporters perched in the gallery above the Speaker's chair recorded Parliament in shorthand, often working into the wee hours.

Where today's record is no-nonsense account of what is said and done in the Commons and the Senate, there was more editorial flourish in those early years.

"Long before three o'clock, the galleries of the Senate chamber were crowded with anxious spectators, and even the space set apart for the sole use of the knights of the quill was ruthlessly invaded by the fair visitors and denizens of Ottawa," reads the Ottawa Times account of the first day of Parliament on Nov. 8, 1867.

Some MPs complained that because the newspapers were tied to political parties, their accounts were biased or incomplete. French reports were also scarce. Late-night debates sometimes got short shrift as reporters battled deadlines.

Sir John A. Macdonald and two future prime ministers, Charles Tupper and Alexander Mackenzie, all fought for Parliament to hire official reporters. By 1875, the first contracts went out for the Commons. In 1880, Canada's first official Hansard was established — thirty years before the United Kingdom would institute their own.

"If we can afford it — and we can afford it — every honourable member who represents a constituency has a right to have his speech reported ... the youngest member has the same right, as the oldest member, to have his utterances as fully spread out in the official report as the leader of the House or of the Opposition," Macdonald said in 1881, in response to a motion to do away with the record.

Library of Parliament employees have fit in work on the debates into their normal schedules and the institution's budget since 1967, when the project first kicked off.

"It's been almost 50 years that we've been doing this project and people have been doing it because they love it," said Bebbington.

"People are really interested in the parliamentary record and interested in history, and so it's been important to library staff through the years."

The historical debates of Parliament can be found at www.parl.gc.ca/hist.

Follow Jennifer Ditchburn on Twitter @jenditchburn