The guest in the gallery

Dave Bartlett
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Man's avid interest in provincial politics nets him a special invitation

Chester Harris has been following provincial politics for 60 years. This week, before a session of the House of Assembly, the 85-year-old received a unique honour - an invitation from Speaker Roger Fitzgerald to sit in the Speaker's gallery whenever he wants.

As opposed to the public gallery, which overlooks the floor of the House, the Speaker's gallery is at floor level, directly across from the Speaker's chair.

Chester Harris has been following provincial politics for 60 years. This week, before a session of the House of Assembly, the 85-year-old received a unique honour - an invitation from Speaker Roger Fitzgerald to sit in the Speaker's gallery whenever he wants.

As opposed to the public gallery, which overlooks the floor of the House, the Speaker's gallery is at floor level, directly across from the Speaker's chair.

Harris was born in New Chelsea, Trinity Bay, in 1924, and doesn't hide his political stripe.

"People have said to me, 'when did you become a PC?'" said Harris. "I didn't become a PC, I was born a PC."

He's been following the politics of Newfoundland and Labrador since before it was even a province of Canada, and he attended the National Convention between 1946 and 1948.

"Confederation was never supposed to be mentioned (during) the convention," he told The Telegram this week in an interview in Fitzgerald's office.

But that didn't stop Joey Smallwood from trying to get Confederation discussed - twice - he said. Both times he was voted down.

"When I say to you we were railroaded into Confederation, believe it, my son," Harris said.

He's still not sure it was a good idea to join Canada, but said he's more supportive of being Canadian now than he was at the time.

After Confederation, Harris started to attend sessions of the House, first in the Colonial Building, then on the ninth floor of Confederation Building and now at the current legislature.

He thinks he started attending the parliamentary sessions because he felt sorry for the underdog opposition at the time.

"I was going to the Colonial Building when Joey Smallwood had the big crowd. There was only three in the opposition. It was shame at that time to be a PC - you had to keep it quiet," he said, smiling.

He remembers at the time someone asked one of those Conservatives where they held their convention. to which the MHA replied, "in a telephone booth."

Harris attended Memorial University for two years before working as a welfare officer in Inglis and White Bay.

"I had 100 miles of coastline to cover by dog team (and) snowshoe - no roads, no nothing," he said.

After a year of that, Harris became a salesman and spent 15 years going door to door before going to work with Gerald S. Doyle. All told, he spent 31 years in sales before retiring in 1983.

"At that time, they told me I could sell ice to an Eskimo," he said with a laugh.

Through all that time and since his retirement, Harris has tried to make it to the House of Assembly whenever he can.

When asked what keeps him coming back, Harris paused for just a second.

"I don't know, really. I suppose I like history and I love Newfoundland and I love to hear a debate, you see," he said.

He said being in the House is like watching history in the making, and he still drives into St. John's from his home in Paradise a couple of times a week to watch the House in action.

"I used to be here real often one time, but see now I don't have to come here because it's on television and it's more comfortable in the living room," he said. "I look forward to it - I can't wait for it to come on."

When asked to assess Premier Danny Williams' government, Harris beamed with pride.

"I think he is the best prime minister we ever had in our lives," he said, explaining he uses "prime minister" because that includes the leaders of the province before Confederation.

But he also likes what he sees in Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones, calling her one of the best Opposition leaders the province has had.

"When she gets up to ask a question, there's meat on it, there's something substantial," Harris said.

In the past, he said, questions asked on the floor were not about issues but about playing politics.

"So we have a good government today and we've got a good Opposition," Harris said.

The House can be a rowdy place when debates get heated. He remembers when Patrick McNicholas was Speaker in the 1980s and he would let the arguments build before trying to restore order.

"One of the best Speakers we've had, and I've been watching them since 1950, is this gentleman here," Harris said of Fitzgerald, who was sitting in on the interview.

"I've been in the House since 1993, and I guess the most common face and the most common person I saw sitting up in the gallery was this gentleman right here," Fitzgerald replied, gesturing toward Harris.

Fitzgerald said Harris called him first when he became Speaker about three years ago to voice his displeasure about an issue.

When the Speaker opens the House for the day, tradition refers to the process of admitting "strangers." Harris took issue with that word, which gave Fitzgerald food for thought.

"The strangers are our friends, are Newfoundland and Labradorians, fellow workers sometimes," Fitzgerald said.

So now, when the Speaker rings the bell to start the session, he is prepared to "admit visitors."

Fitzgerald noticed Harris in the public gallery in the past week or so and sent him a note asking him to meet him in the Speaker's office.

"I had no idea what his politics are. All I knew was he was a frequent visitor," said Fitzgerald. "I thought, after 60 years attending the House of Assembly, that type of attendance and that type of interest should be recognized. So I said to Mr. Harris, 'As long as I'm the Speaker, you have an extended invitation to sit in the Speaker's gallery.'"

Fitzgerald said he told Harris the view might not be as good, but he'd get to mingle with the politicians a bit.

Just before Tuesday's sitting of the House, Fitzgerald introduced Harris to the MHAs.

When asked how he feels about the invitation, Harris smiles.

"It makes me feel very humble," he said. "When you're down on the floor, you feel (closer to the action)."

Harris plans to follow proceedings at the House as long as he can.

"I'm trying to get to 100," he said. "My father was 93 when he died and my mother was 89."

With that kind of longevity on his side, Harris could be a friendly face in the Speaker's gallery for years to come.

dbartlett@thetelegram.com

Organizations: National Convention, The Telegram, Confederation Building

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, New Chelsea Trinity Bay Inglis White Bay St. John's Paradise

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