Review: History By The Spoken Word

It was a horrific year, 1917: conscription and coal rationing in Canada, carnage in France, revolution in Russia, unrestricted submarine warfare on the Atlantic. Steamships were torpedoed at the rate of 10 a day. One British liner bound for Halifax, the Rappahannock, vanished without a trace.

This was the moment French foreign minister René Viviani spoke to Parliament. “Every speech is a freeze-frame of history in the making,” writes J. Patrick Boyer in Foreign Voices In The House; “When Réne Viviani spoke in 1917, his vibrant voice had to fill the entire chamber because no amplifying speakers delivered his words to the audience.”

Boyer captures the event, May 12, 1917. Canadian casualties were 13,000 a month. Twenty-seven MPs were in uniform. One had been killed in action, another won the Victoria Cross. The MP for Beauce, Que., Henri Béland, could not attend the Commons that day; he was held in a German prison camp.

Viviani rose to speak. “Your generosity toward France is unfathomable,” he said; “Some members of this House have fallen at the front in this holy cause.”

“Mothers who now listen to me, it is for your children’s freedom,” Viviani said. “It is to prevent the recurrence of any wars and to secure the peace of the world that a whole generation is now giving its blood and making today the supreme sacrifice.”

Foreign Voices In The House is a fascinating contribution to Canadiana, the first compilation of its kind. Not every visiting VIP gets a Parliament Hill speaking engagement. Fidel Castro never made the cut; Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was denied an invitation on his 1985 Canadian tour.

Nor is every speech profound. Author Boyer recounts a 1958 address by West German President Theodor Heuss that reads like remarks to a Medicine Hat Rotary luncheon. Heuss was impressed with Niagara Falls, he said: “I had a quiet feeling of pride when thinking that 60 years ago when those Falls were first harnessed to generate power, it was my native province in Germany that supplied the first turbines.”

Boyer, a former MP and skilled writer, recounts speeches by foreign leaders in the finest theatre in the country, the “high-vaulted cathedral” of the House of Commons: “Collectively, they chart the evolution of a world in relentlessly accelerating transition,” Boyer writes.

There was Indonesia’s President-for-life Sukarno, appearing in a dazzling white suit with Pat Boone shoes in 1956. “I beg you, do not underestimate the force of the nationalist torrent which is today pouring over Asia and Africa,” he said. “It is a mighty torrent.” Ahead lay Vietnam and Cambodia, and Sukarno’s ouster in a 1967 coup.

Here was Eisenhower, addressing Parliament in 1953. “I get such a thrill every time I come to this country,” he said. Later Ike shot an 85 at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club.

And there was Churchill in his famous “some chicken, some neck” speech, the first address ever broadcast live from Parliament Hill via BBC shortwave. The date was December 30, 1941, one of the darkest periods of the war, only days after the disastrous Battle of Hong Kong and sinking of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. “If anybody likes to play rough, we can play rough too!” he said. MPs roared.

Foreign Voices In The House is concise, intriguing and timely in this 150th year of Confederation. “Some speeches fall quickly into the dustbin of history,” writes Boyer. “Others gain lustre in hindsight. Yet none can be judged, truly, apart from its times.”

By Holly Doan

Foreign Voices In The House: A Century of Addresses to Canada’s Parliament by World Leaders, by J. Patrick Boyer; Dundurn Press; 600 pages; ISBN 9781-4597-36856; $35

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