By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail, May 17, 2006
The tour at the provincial legislature was interrupted when some nut began shouting.
He wore a cravat, a top hat, and a three-piece suit. You could tell he was a nut because who in this century wears a cravat before Victoria Day?
He spoke in a loud voice and moved with theatrical flourish.
He introduced himself thusly:
"My name is Amor de Cosmos.
"Amor. Latin. Love.
"De. French. Of.
"Cosmos. Greek. The Universe.
"I truly am a lover of the universe. In three different languages!"
He wasn't just any nut at the legislature. He was the province's second premier, a kook and an eccentric and a model for so many elected officials to follow. He looked pretty good for a fellow who has been dead for almost 109 years.
"Do you like my name?" he asked. "I am, you see, a product of my own creation."
The man then proceeded to offer his history -- born in Nova Scotia as plain Will Smith; off to California to find his fortune in the gold fields, returning richer only in name; follows gold to British Columbia, where he stays to open a newspaper; earns the displeasure of the establishment through his acerbic writings; advocates the colony join Confederation.
Amor de Cosmos is not the only historical figure on hand at the provincial legislature these days. Queen Victoria can be found beneath a parasol on the granite steps, joined by the likes of Francis Rattenbury, who designed the formidable building; Sir James Douglas, the father of British Columbia and known as Old Square-Toes; Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, the Hanging Judge; and Nellie Cashman, the Miner's Angel.
The characters are portrayed by young actors known as the Parliamentary Players. Like politicians on the campaign hustings, they ask of us a willful suspension of disbelief. Unlike the amateur thespians who plead for our votes, these actors want no more than to win our attention and, perhaps, applause at the end of a monologue.
So, amid the marble and gold-leaf splendour of a majestic building, the young actors sweat in their heavy wool suits to bring to life characters beyond living memory.
They have signed up for a 16-week run, which began Monday after two weeks of practice and rehearsal. The actors, who are employees of the legislature, deliver spiels during the free tours offered several times daily for tourists and schoolchildren.
Jennifer Ives, a 20-year-old tour guide, had just begun to describe a mural in the rotunda depicting Old Square-Toes and the Hanging Judge when Amor de Cosmos slipped in behind the group to interrupt.
"Douglas-Baillie, Baillie-Douglas. How incredibly dull," he stated.
The 19 members of the 10:20 a.m. tour group spun on the rotunda's floor to stare at the interloper.
In a slight Maritime lilt, the man spoke of his many accomplishments, as well as his overwhelming modesty. Among his achievements was the launching of the British Colonist, a newspaper, which, after mergers with other publications, still appears on the streets here seven days a week.
Whatever the merits of the current edition, the founding editor bravely challenged the colony's elite, saying: "I took great pride in being a thorn in the side of Douglas's nepotism and Baillie's tyranny. Thank heavens for me."
He also took credit for leading the argument for the colony's entry into the Canadian Confederation.
"But do you see any pictures of me in this esteemed rotunda? You must look far deeper into the bowels of this building to find my portrait. A wee bit smaller than these, too," he said, indicating the large murals surrounding the group.
Scott Hendrickson, a 20-year-old theatre student at the University of Victoria, had never heard of Amor de Cosmos until he saw last year's production. He is excited about interpreting a dramatic character of Shakespearean proportions.
"Amor de Cosmos is an awesome guy fighting for our freedoms," Mr. Hendrickson said. "It's cool we're bringing him to life again."
The young actors were all born around the time William Vander Zalm became premier. His accession was proof the people of British Columbia had become too sophisticated to support an eccentric populist of uncertain stability such as Amor de Cosmos. Mr. Vander Zalm was the model of the modern government technocrat as he provided policy pronouncements from the pleasant setting of his suburban home, a biblical-themed roadside attraction called Fantasy Gardens. (Those who do not remember the sober governance of his term as premier can be said to be suffering from Zalmnesia.)
A century from now, budding actors will have no shortage of characters to portray during tours of the legislative buildings. The Zalm provides a fantastic opportunity, as would Fat L'il Dave Barrett, an orator of great wit who gave himself the mocking nickname.
Some of the supporting roles could be filled by Flyin' Phil Gaglardi, the pedal-to-the-metal highways minister who did not drive too fast so much as fly too low; or Glen (Glennochio) Clark, the pugnacious premier from eastside Vancouver who got decked by a police raid; or Gordon Wilson and Judi Tyabji, whose caucus canoodling led to their being called the Liberal Lovebirds.
Over the coming months, as the novelty of portraying a historic character wears off, members of the Parliamentary Players can find encouragement from the success of one of their predecessors.
Broadcaster Adam Sawatsky, one of the popular hosts at A Channel in Victoria, once spent a summer at the legislature as the architect Rattenbury. From such foundations a career can be built.
Special to The Globe and Mail