technology (IT) represents a vital link between Parliamentarians and a
range of services and information. IT supports Members directly, by
providing them with increasingly sophisticated computer-based tools, as
well as indirectly, as virtually every service in the House is
increasingly dependent on information technology. In fact, IT has become
a utility, as important to the functioning of the House as heating,
plumbing and electrical systems — enabling Parliamentarians to carry out
their work in all four lines of business.
Over the past five years, the
House of Commons has made major investments in IT, with over 5% of the
total budget of the House devoted to improving and upgrading some key
elements. The Precinct-wide, integrated planning for IT adopted over the
last two years is essential for the ongoing upgrading of constantly
evolving technologies, while minimizing the physical and visual
intrusion to the heritage fabric of the Precinct.
The renovation and development
of the Parliamentary Precinct provides a vital opportunity to maximize
the significant investment made in information technology to date,
building the foundation required by the Precinct for the next 100 years.
To ensure that Members have access to IT services, infrastructure must
be provided and maintained Precinct-wide. Renovation of the Justice
Building will see the implementation of the IT standards already
approved — providing a model for all other buildings in the Precinct.
Equally important is the requirement to upgrade and expand specific
systems that support other essential services including security and
The roots of Information
Technology go much further back than the relatively recent appearance of
computers within the Precinct. A number of IT "firsts" originated within
the Parliamentary Precinct.
- In 1867 … Electric
(battery-powered) call bells were installed in the original Centre
Block with separate systems to serve the Senate and House of Commons
— systems eventually extended to the East and West Blocks.83
- In 1877 … Prime
Minister Alexander Mackenzie made the first commercial telephone
call in Canada from room 310 West Block to the Governor General’s
residence — one year after the telephone’s invention.
- In 1927 … The first
ever Nation-wide radio broadcast originated on Parliament Hill, in
honour of the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation and dedication of the
Peace Tower and Carillon.84
- In 1928 … The first
Trans-Atlantic telephone call was made from the Centre Block to
Cardiff, Wales. The Hon. James Malcolm, Minister of Trade and
Commerce presented a speech to the British Empire Exhibition 3,500
- In 1957 … The
opening of Parliament by the Queen was not only the first time a
reigning monarch in Canada had opened Parliament, it was also the
first time that the entire opening ceremonies were broadcast, and
the first time the Queen had used live television to address any of
her subjects in any country of the Commonwealth.
- In 1959 …
Simultaneous translation (interpretation) was introduced to the
floor of the House of Commons and the press gallery — six years
later, the service was provided in the public gallery.85
- In 1977 … Regular
TV and radio broadcasts from the House of Commons Chamber began.
Recent IT history
The modern concept of
Information Technology within the House of Commons began to take shape
in the late 1970s. The special House committee on TV and Radio
Broadcasting of the House and its Committees had already addressed
technical issues regarding the electronic capture and distribution of
House and Committee proceedings to the Canadian public and now focused
their attention on distributing this information to Members located
within the Precinct.86
At the same time, electronic
data processing support groups began to form in several areas within the
House. As isolated, unlinked pockets of support, these groups were
primarily devoted to the production of printed documents (for the
Legislative Services Directorate) and information retrieval (for the Law
Branch). Most of the computational work was carried out off-site on
computers owned and maintained by other government and non-government
entities. By the early 1980s, the House of Commons’ Computer Systems
Branch had adopted "stand alone word processors," which were perceived
to be "the best immediate alternative to meet Members’ needs."
These early trials with
information technology led to the establishment of the first IT
infrastructure for the House of Commons, and ultimately, for the
Parliamentary Precinct. Called OASIS (Office Automation Services and
Information System), this network was intended to fill the dual roles of
distributing radio and television programming — both commercial and
institutional — and, to a more limited extent, to support the
distribution of computer data throughout the Precinct. The Senate and
Library of Parliament were soon connected to the network for access to
radio and television channels. Each institution, however, used separate
data channels for at least another decade. It was not until 1996 that
all three institutions shared the network for data distribution
By the early 1990s, the full
impact of the technology shifts of the last two decades had made a major
impact on the use of physical space within the Precinct. Document
creation for Members, previously achieved through large secretarial
pools, became the domain of Members’ personal staff.89
Document storage presented a constant challenge — there was an ongoing
search for technology to relieve the strain.90
In fact, the whole IT function was coming under heavy criticism, with
two consecutive Auditor General reports calling for the development of
long-term IT plans, as well as for integration of communications
equipment across the Precinct.91
Current and Future Situation
Today’s IT services are vastly
different from those criticized in the early 1990s. A major
restructuring of IT services in 1993/94 resulted in some fundamental
shifts in direction — changes that permitted the development of
Precinct-wide services with significantly improved capacity in several
areas. The key changes included:
- A major, continuous
investment in IT infrastructure and services — in fact, since
1993/94, annual investment has been in the order of 5%-7% of the
total budget of the House.
- Consolidation of IT
support groups under a single directorate that better facilitated
the coordination of development efforts and sharing of knowledge.
- Migration toward a
standardized IT environment to ensure consistency, compatibility,
connectability and security of the myriad computers and software
applications required to support Members in their four lines of
- Creation of Information
Technology Blueprints (1995 and 1998), and the setting out of
longer-term plans for system and service development.
- Agreements between the
Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons for the House to
provide network services for all three Parliamentary institutions.
- Development of an IT
"charter" — an agreement between the Senate, House of Commons,
Library of Parliament and Public Works and Government Services
Canada (PWGSC) aimed at building a Precinct-wide IT network
environment — as an integral part of the long-term renovation of the
Precinct to ensure that infrastructure is designed to protect the
heritage character of both the buildings and site.
There was strong agreement
across all institutions that the House of Commons Information Services
Directorate would serve as the coordinating body for these major
One result of this major
investment is that Parliamentarians are now equipped as small "business
centres," with tools to access and transfer information and data with
speed not imagined a decade ago. At the same time, developments provided
political parties with the strong trust they needed to use the
technology to support their identities as caucuses. Their support is
reflected in the continuous allocation of funds to build and develop the
infrastructure and equipment.
Efforts have also been
recognized independently — the 1997 Audit of Informatics lauded both the
"strategic investment"as well as its results.
At the crossroads
In terms of Information
Technology, the House is truly at a crossroads. With 200 newly elected
Members in 1993, and 100 in 1997, the clients of House IT services are
increasingly computer literate. Their expectations are higher and
different than those of past Members. Interest and discussion about
taking advantage of a wide range of internal and external electronic
services — including such services as video over the Internet,
electronic voting and video conferencing — are widespread and will only
continue to grow. In turn, these services will put increasing pressure
on the infrastructure. As the backbone of IT, this infrastructure will
need continuous development to provide the needed flexibility to
accommodate changing technologies.
Up to now, IT efforts have been
devoted to developing a solid network foundation and equipping Members
with the tools to access and process data and information. As well, a
range of new services now available to Members has changed the way they
do their work. Remote access from constituency offices, I-net services,
and electronic access to the resources of the Library of Parliament and
the Senate, aid Members as they perform their Parliamentary duties.
Some parallel systems —
including elements of security, television services, and the electronic
notification system that calls Members to vote — are based on
20-year-old technology and must be brought up to current standards and
converged with other systems to meet future demands.
The required route is clear —
maintain the infrastructure and build on the enormous investment to
date, by developing systems that will continuously improve service to
Members and meet their evolving needs. Integration must also be achieved
in a way that minimizes impact on the heritage fabric of the Precinct.
Flexibility must be the hallmark of all future IT developments.
In order to ensure that Members, in all lines of business, in all
buildings in the Precinct have access to the same high-quality services,
the following requirements should be addressed:
- Design and equip the
Justice Building (to house Members’ offices) with the data networks
and parallel systems that meet IT standards already established for
the Precinct, but not yet implemented fully in any building. The
Justice Building, when completed, will serve as an IT prototype for
all buildings in the Precinct.93
- Ensure that the same level
of infrastructure flexibility and access to services — the standards
achieved in the Justice Building — are provided in every building
and work environment of Members in the Precinct, including provision
of up-to-date presentation and multi-media services.
- Migrate parallel IT
support systems for security, television, telephone and electronic
notification systems to the new infrastructure.
- Establish and locate
appropriate IT pathways, interfaces, tools and services (including
media support for such events as budget night) to support the full
range of special events held in the Precinct, and to respond to the
special needs of Members and visitors (including visual and hearing
National Archives PA191923
W.L. McKenzie King at the
National Archives PA188947
First Trans-Atlantic telephone
House of Commons Collections
Microphones suspended from the
Chamber ceiling, late 1970s.
National Archives PA110832
An early broadcast of a committee
in the Railway committee room in the Centre Block.
Clearly, the investment in IT has paid off — in fact, it was a
key strategic business decision by the House’s Board of Internal
Economy — cutting across party lines to build a solid foundation for the
benefit of Members for decades to come.