Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Sharp Wits and Busy Pens

With the publication of Sharp Wits & Busy Pens: The Role of the Parliamentary Press Gallery Over the Years, we're all a little wiser to the storied history of Canada's national press gallery. Written and edited as a volunteer effort of the gallery as a whole, the book marks the sesquicentennial of the journalists' arrival on the Hill, back when the new Parliament Buildings were being used for official "Province of Canada" business. 


Journalists and book contributors Josh Wingrove, Manon Cornellier and Hélène Buzzetti, in conversation with Hill Times publisher Jim Creskey, shared an honest look at the organization's boozy, boys'-club history and reflected on the positive changes over the years.


1. Journalists were basically embedded in Centre Block


According to Josh, in the early days the government and press were "hand in glove." The press gallery takes its name from the prime viewing area allotted journalists in the House of Commons, but the journalists' original working room, called the "hot room," was also in Centre Block. This in itself didn't pose a problem, but journalists also working as government staff sure did. When an opposition party member complained about the practice, John A. Macdonald defended it as a way to support the newspapers that supported the government. 


Journalists also had unprecedented access. Whereas Stephen Harper was able to circumvent journalists by announcing his cabinet lineup on Twitter, early journalists on the Hill would demand an audience with the Prime Minister at practically any time and not be refused. 


2. Bro culture extended far past the hot room


The press gallery has been a boys club for most of its history. Despite having some female members (who fought hard to be there) the Press Gallery dinner was only opened to women for Canada's centennial in 1967, but this didn't last. In his address, the press gallery president made it clear that this was the first -- and last -- time he'd be welcoming ladies and gentlemen. Today, Hélène and Manon have both had a chance to make their own presidential remarks at the dinner.


In a special contribution to the book, Kim Campbell shared what it was like to be covered by the gallery as a woman. It wasn't pretty. She was told she didn't look or sound like a Prime Minister. At the same time, reporters outside the Ottawa bubble were much more open. This was a mere 23 years ago. 


3. They knew the lethal effects of booze and baseball


By now it's local Ottawa lore that booze flowed like ink in the hot room, even during Ontario's extended prohibition. The "blind pig," or undercover bar, only closed in 1999. The reporters would work late nights, filing stories over the din of senators, ministers and MPs who congregated to drink in the back. The fire marshal only ignored the atrocious overcrowding in the room because of the scotch with his name on it every time he came by. Adding to the lore, former blind-pig stable Dow beer went out of business after 20 people (no press or politicians that we know of) died from high levels of cobalt sulphate in the Quebec brew. 


You can't mention booze without baseball, and the historic camaraderie between press and politicians extends to sports leagues. Today the official games continue, but a 20-year hiatus occurred when MP Lionel Conacher died on the field. He was hit in the head with a ball in the second inning and dropped dead in the sixth. His family mercifully declared the cause of death a heart attack, not wanting to burden the player who threw the ball. 


If Sharp Wits & Busy Pens is anywhere as lively as the journalists behind it, it's a 150 year history not to be missed.