When Cicero asked his slave Marcus Tullius Tiro to preserve important speeches of the Roman Senate, it was unlikely that shorthand was more than a tool for providing political advantage. Speech capturing has grown to include a variety of formats, a diverse group of stakeholders, and an array of technology. The increasing desire to record speech and to have access to data-rich information exists in many jurisdictions but, for the purpose of this article, the focus will be Canada and, in particular, the Hansard produced at the Senate of Canada.
The Official Report
One of the traditional and central functions of an official report of debate or Hansard is to provide access to an accurate record of the political discussions of the day (Vice & Farrell 2017). Faithfully reporting the spoken word and preserving it in readable text allows those who were not present to understand what was discussed but also extends that access well into the future. The value of the historical parliamentary record allows the legal community to understand the reasoning behind laws; academics to research a variety of fields (from politics, finance, and social development to linguistics, culture and shifts in ideology); and most importantly provides the public with the ability to understand their country and representatives better. None of this would be possible without the access provided by a reliable and politically neutral reflection of speeches and debates. Since Confederation in 1867, both of Canada’s federal Houses of Parliament have produced Hansard in order to provide access to the work of parliamentarians. As language, culture, and society have developed, so too have the manner, style, and art of transferring spoken language to written text. However, the commitment to providing a record that is considered to be a faithful rendering of the oration remains a central and driving philosophy.
Evolving Understanding of Access
In the last 152 years, the concept and understanding of access has grown generally, and this is also true in the parliamentary context. For instance, in countries where there may be more than one official language, access takes on additional meaning. The path to achieving linguistic inclusion for minority languages is usually a long one, where sociological and political events lead to a point where the majority will realize benefits by including the minority (Esman 1982). In Canada, the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s saw the rise of French-Canadian political action after years of marginalization and alienation. In order to address valid concerns about inequality as well as the rising threat of separatism, the federal government enacted the Official Languages Act in 1969 and thus entrenched French language rights and services. This included the provision that all federal documents must be available in both official languages. While its success as a political tool can be debated, the Official Languages Act was intended to defuse political and societal tensions through providing access.
Other Canadian legislation such as the Bill of Rights (1960), the Human Rights Act (1977), the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), and An Act to Ensure a Barrier-Free Canada (2019), have helped to lay a strong foundation for equality of access. Like many countries, Canadian legislation has evolved as the demand for increased access has grown. The rights of people who have auditory challenges and their desire to have greater access to the spoken word has partnered well with the provision of services in the speech-capturing industry. Whether subtitling for large audiences such as Parliament, television, arenas, theatres, online events or reporting more one-on-one or small group audiences in the educational, legal, and medical fields, several sectors have benefited from a variety of speech-capturing techniques.
Hansard and Access at the Canadian Senate
Representing the voice of minorities is one of the founding principles of the Senate of Canada. Although this focus began as linguistic representation for the French-speaking minority, the core tenet has become more inclusive and strives to reflect the interests of all marginalized groups in Canadian society. Being able to provide broad access has been central to administrative priorities for decades and both stenography and Hansard have played a large role throughout the various stages of what access has meant in this country. Canada’s Parliament provided Hansard in both official languages for many decades prior to the passage of the Official Languages Act and reported the debates with pen shorthand for most of that time. Beginning in 1993, the Senate of Canada transitioned to a team of real-time machine shorthand stenographers (both French and English). The real-time data produced by the stenographic reporters is used for the production of the Debates of the Senate as well as closed captioning for broadcast of the chamber and committee proceedings. In addition, this same data feed is used for personal screen viewing for senators and members of the public who may require access to better understand the proceedings.
In recent years, the Senate introduced an in-house XML application referred to as “Iris”. This application allowed for significantly greater information sharing between legislative departments as well as enhanced communications tools for senators. While many directorates use various components of Iris, the XML structure benefited greatly from the fact that the stenographic shorthand machines use a time code for every stroke of shorthand. This meant that real-time text could be married with digital video and results in the provision of a range of communications options. A senator’s speech as published in Hansard is now automatically extracted for use on their website in both French and English. The links are used for news flashes, to feed social media, or to reach out to constituents. Interested parties or stakeholders can follow and search debates and receive information that encourages discussion and a greater understanding of the work of parliamentarians. More than ever, the words that are spoken in committee or plenary session are used to provide access in technologically advanced and multi-directional ways. For the Debates of the Senate and the transcripts of Senate committee meetings, the source of that data is the shorthand machine.
As technology improves and the needs of the public change, access will continue to grow and develop. People’s desire for reliable and trustworthy documents that reflect the most important political discussions of the day will not diminish. How information is shared, searched, and retrieved will continue to evolve in order to eliminate barriers to information and to improve transparency. As Hansardians and speech capturers, we have much to look forward to and a great role to play in how we provide our services and enable clients to communicate their message—I hope that Tiro would be proud.
D’Arcy McPherson is the Manager of Debates and Publications at the Senate of Canada and is the Editor in Chief of the Debates of the Senate.
Vice, J. & S. Farrell (2017). The History of Hansard. House of Lords Hansard.
Esman, M. (1982). The Politics of Official Bilingualism in Canada. Political Science Quarterly, 97(2), 233-253.