The Speaker's Chair within the House of Commons Chamber is an excellent example of how an object may serve both a symbolic and functional purpose. The location, height, and decoration of the Speaker's Chair help to reinforce its position as the focal point of the space. They also combine to emphasize the authority of the Speaker within the House itself. The Speaker's Chair in the House of Commons dates from 1921 and is a permanent fixture within the Chamber. However, this was not always the case.
Historically, Speakers of the House were assigned their own specific chairs and were permitted to keep the chair following the end of their tenure. Between 1867 and 1917, there were a total of 15 chairs, following six different stylistic designs, assigned to Speakers. Apart from the earliest chair, the designs for the remainder were developed by the Chief Architect's Office in the Department of Public Works. The House of Commons now has three of these chairs in its heritage collection.
The first and oldest of these pieces is a relatively simple black walnut chair manufactured by William Drum for the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. According to historical records, the Assembly acquired the chair in 1863 and moved it from Québec to Ottawa in 1866 following the completion of the new Parliament Building. Referred to as a
temporary chair, it was subsequently used by the first Speaker of House of Commons, the Hon. James Cockburn, from 1867 to 1873. While Speaker Cockburn did keep the chair upon his retirement, his descendants donated it to the House of Commons in 1983. The chair is now displayed within the Speaker's office.
The two remaining Speakers' Chairs in the heritage collection are far more substantial in character and are typical of the chairs used by Speakers following 1873. They owe their design and decoration to either a Gothic or Tudor inspiration, more in keeping with the overall spirit of the original Parliament Building.
The chair belonging to the Hon. Joseph-Aldéric Ouimet, Speaker from 1887-1891, was manufactured by the firm of Morel & Gagnon of Ottawa in 1887. The ornate carving in the arch surmounting the back of the chair and its flanking columns are also featured in the background of the Speaker's official portrait of 1889. Similar chair designs were used by two of Speaker Ouimet's successors. The chair was donated to the House by one of the Speaker's descendants in 1992.
The chair used by the Hon. Edgar N. Rhodes is quite unique in that it was built for the Speaker during the period that the House resided in the Victoria Memorial Building from 1917 until 1920. Transferred to the House by the Archives of Nova Scotia in 2005, this piece was the last of the Speaker's Chairs assigned to an individual. Manufactured by Bromsgrove Guild of Montreal in 1917 it was used by Speaker Rhodes until 1921, serving on a temporary basis in the House of Commons Chamber in the newly constructed Centre Block.
The current Speaker's Chair is a replica of the original Speaker's Chair designed by Augustus Pugin around 1848 for the new Parliament at Westminster. The replica chair with its ornate canopy and base was built by Messrs. Harry Hems & Sons of Austrian oak. The canopy also incorporates wood from Westminster Palace dating back to 14th century. A gift from the United Kingdom Branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association, it was presented to the Canadian House of Commons
as a fitting symbol of the great parliamentary tradition which binds together the free Nations of the British Commonwealth. Ironically, the original chair upon which the design was based was destroyed during the London Blitz in 1941.
The new permanent Speaker's Chair was presented before a joint session of Senators and Members of Parliament on May 20, 1921. Since that time, the chair has undergone certain modifications including the replacement of the original tufted black leather upholstery for green velvet in the 1980s. A mechanism was also installed, resulting in the loss of a decorative lower panel, to allow the seat to be raised and lowered. More recent modifications have related to the increased use of technology within the Chamber, such the addition of microphones, speakers and computer screens.
Steeped in tradition and parliamentary practice, the chair also reflects the changing character of Parliament. Both as an object and a concept, the chair remains a strong symbol, a concrete reminder of the authority of the Speaker. As the former Speaker of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom stated to his Canadian colleagues during the presentation ceremony in 1921, the
Speaker's Chair is the symbol not only of Parliamentary Government… but of authority, the authority of the individual selected by his colleagues to preside over them, authority to regulate debate, to maintain order and to ensure the free expression of all opinions…