Highlights of the history of the Public Service

By James Ross Hurley

About the author: James Ross Hurley was a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa (1967-75), the founding Director of the Parliamentary Internship Programme at the House of Commons (1969) and a constitutional advisor in the Federal-Provincial Relations Office/the Privy Council Office (1975-2001). He is the author of Amending Canada’s Constitution (1996) and “Responsibility, Accountability, and the Role of Deputy Ministers in the Government of Canada” (Gomery Commission Research Studies, 2006).


This year we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Public Service and it is a good time to review some of the highlights of its evolution since Confederation.

Employees of the Post Office in 1905 in from of the Parliament

Employees of the Post Office in 1905

In 1867, the new Government of Canada inherited those civil servants of the former colonies that had united to form the federation and who were working in areas of federal jurisdiction. They were all political appointees: the distribution of patronage was one of the most important functions of government at the time and included appointments to public office and the awarding of contracts. However, the role of government was limited: the largest departments were Agriculture, the Post Office and Customs and Excise. There was no guarantee of tenure for civil servants (although senior officials in Ottawa tended to remain in place following changes in government) and there were no pensions.

For the first 50 years of Confederation, sporadic scandals broke out and there were public calls for a more qualified and efficient civil service and for greater continuity. Six public service inquiries were held between 1868 and 1913, although little significant change occurred: in 1907, Sir Wilfrid Laurier eliminated the patronage lists for government contracts and the Civil Service Amendment Act of 1908 created a Civil Service Commission to oversee competitive examinations (the so-called merit system) for the appointment and advancement of civil servants working in the Ottawa area. Yet this half century was a period of enormous change for Canada: the country’s size expanded enormously with the purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870, money and land grants were used to ensure the construction of a transcontinental railway, the number of provinces grew from four to nine, settlement of the prairies was fostered, the population of the country more than doubled and Canada became a major participant in WW I which led to an enormous increase in the size of the bureaucracy to conduct the war effort. The legacy of the war was increased industrialization and urbanization and a sense of national identity after Vimy Ridge in 1917, but with a high loss of life, many permanently injured veterans and social division following the conscription crisis.

Portrait of Sir Wilfrid Laurier

The Laurier Government created the Civil Service Commission.

Portrait of Prime Minister Borden

The Borden Government passed the Civil Service Act of 1918.

In the three years following Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s defeat by Prime Minister Borden in 1911, some 11,000 civil servants resigned or were removed from office, largely because of political partisanship. The Civil Service Act of 1918 (as amended in 1919) constituted a major change and replaced patronage across Canada with competitive examinations that were largely predicated upon the ability to perform efficiently in English in a non-partisan public service. However, the merit principle was qualified: veterans benefited from preferential treatment and there were constraints on the appointment, advancement and retention of women. In 1924, the Civil Service Superannuation Act established public service pensions that were designed to deter efficient officers from leaving, attract better applicants and promote and protect a career civil service. Over the next 20 years, Canada did indeed develop a competent, professional and highly regarded civil service.

In 1931, confronted with the Depression, Prime Minister Bennett centralized government spending by creating the Consolidated Revenue Fund and establishing the Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury to ensure that the Government only spend money authorized by Parliament and only for purposes authorized by Parliament, with onerous approval requirements. It was a prudent system, but it did not facilitate rapid decision-making. In 1932, the government transferred many of the Civil Service Commission’s staffing responsibilities to the Treasury Board.

Prior to 1940, the Civil Service had no leader and, notwithstanding the principle of ministerial collective responsibility, the Cabinet decision-making process was completely dominated by the Prime Minister: there was no agenda for Cabinet meetings, no secretariat, no official present at Cabinet meetings to record what went on, no minute of decisions taken and no system to communicate the decisions to the departments responsible for implementing them. With the advent of WW II and the anticipated expansion and diversification of government roles and responsibilities, this approach could not be maintained. In 1940, Prime Minister Mackenzie King named Mr. Arnold Heeney as the Clerk of the Privy Council and gave him the added title of Secretary to the Cabinet. Mr. Heeney established a Secretariat to support the War Committee of Cabinet with professional procedures which were subsequently extended to full Cabinet meetings. In the process, the Secretary to the Cabinet provided organizational advice to the Prime Minister and became the de facto Head of the Civil Service, a role that would be confirmed by statute in 1992.

During WW II, the Civil Service quickly expanded and played a key role in the management of a wartime economy, women gained greater access to government employment, and the manufacturing sector mushroomed and became more diversified. The Canadian contribution to the war was significant and helped establish Canada’s position as a middle power. At the end of the war, members of the Department of External Affairs were closely involved in the creation of the United Nations and NATO. Civil servants helped launch the Government’s first post-war initiative to build a social safety net – the old age pension plan – and the Government committed itself to two major infrastructure objectives: the Trans-Canada Highway and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The Financial Administration Act of 1951 gave Treasury Board authority over a broad range of financial and human resource matters, including the awarding of contracts. However, the scope and size of government by that time meant that the ministers on Treasury Board could not personally attend to all matters, so the exercise of much authority was delegated to civil servants who, under the principles of responsible government, were committed to political neutrality, anonymity, confidentiality and accountability to ministers, as well as to ethical behaviour.

Personnel of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps

Personnel of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in basic training in 1944.

By the 1950’s, new values and attitudes began to emerge in Canada. The Civil Service Act, 1961 provided for salary discussions between staff associations and Treasury Board and required Treasury Board and the Civil Service Commission to consult them on other terms and conditions of employment. The Report of the Glassco Royal Commission on Government Organization of 1962 recommended that the Civil Service should operate more like a business, emphasizing efficiency, economy and service and letting managers manage by removing many of the constraints intended to minimize patronage and conflict of interest. At the same time, it said there should be greater emphasis on representativeness and responsiveness: public confidence in the Civil Service will depend in large measure on how it reflects the public it serves. In 1967, the Public Service Act renamed the Civil Service Commission as the Public Service Commission responsible for all elements of staffing and overseeing the merit principle and for operating training and development programs (which were amalgamated to create the Canada School of Public Service in 2004 ); the Public Service Staff Relations Act created a collective bargaining regime; and amendments to the Financial Administration Act confirmed Treasury Board’s role as the employer and personnel manager of the Public Service.

Employees of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1971

The Royal Commission on the Status of Women led to the creation in 1971 of the Minister Responsible for the Status of Women.

During WW II, the number of women in the public service had swelled, but at the end of the war they were expected to vacate positions in favour of returning veterans and to resign when married. Constraints on the employment of women were removed in 1955, but this did not lead to active promotion of their careers, particularly at the management level. The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1970 recommended steps be taken by the federal government to ensure for women equal opportunities with men.

In 1918, a command of French was not included as a competency for appointment and advancement in the Civil Service. The Civil Service Act was amended in 1938 to require officials to speak the language of the majority of people whom they were to serve, but it was largely ignored. By 1946, francophones, who constituted almost 30% of the population, only occupied 13% of public service positions. Growing concerns about the future of the French language and culture in Canada led to the creation of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963. In 1966, bilingualism became an element of merit in the national capital region and in 1969 the Official Languages Act was adopted with major implications for the provision of services to the public and the languages of work in the Public Service. In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms entrenched English and French as the official languages of Canada.

Changing immigration patterns in the latter part of the 20th century led to an increase in the percentage of the population constituting visible minorities. Technological and medical advances supported the important objective of inclusion of persons with disabilities in the workplace. Discussions leading to patriation of the Constitution in 1982 highlighted unresolved issues relating to Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. To achieve the representativeness and responsiveness advocated by the Glassco Report, and in keeping with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982, which forbad discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability, Parliament adopted the Employment Equity Act of 1986 respecting the recruitment and advancement of women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities.

The operations of the Public Service are also subject to the Access to Information Act of 1983, the Privacy Act of 1983 and a Supreme Court ruling of 1991 on the political rights of public servants. However, the Public Service Modernization Act of 2003 introduced new flexibility in the Public Service appointment process: the Public Service Commission remained accountable to Parliament for the integrity of the overall appointment system and for safeguarding political neutrality, but could delegate authority to deputy heads who could sub-delegate it to managers. Furthermore, merit was defined in a way that allowed managers to select candidates not only on essential qualifications for the position, but also on current and future asset qualifications, organizational needs and operational requirements relevant to the position.

Ethical behaviour in the Public Service has been subject over the years to a mix of rules and codes of behaviour or statements of values that also cover post-employment activities, including the original Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service of 2003, revised in 2012. In 2004, the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities, headed by Justice John Gomery, expressed serious concern about ethical behaviour, but in 2006 it concluded that only a very small number of public servants had disrespected core values in relation to the program and that the “vast majority of public servants try, in good faith, to do their jobs properly and effectively...”

The 1960’s had been a period of great prosperity, optimism, rising salaries and expectations, and new activities (including major payments to the provinces and territories to support post-secondary education, medical insurance, social welfare and equalization). It was also a period of deficits and growing inflation, giving rise to the need to index pensions to the cost of living. Ultimately, the Government sought to bring the deficit under control by curbing expenditures. One way of doing so was to reduce the size of the Public Service: it did so in the 1970’s, the 1980’s and the 1990’s and it also introduced a prolonged salary freeze in the 1990’s. These measures led to job losses, reassignments, strains on public servants and resignations. To deal with these issues, the Clerk of the Privy Council established the La Relève program in 1996 which, in collaboration with the Public Service Commission and the Treasury Board Secretariat, sought to develop programs to retain and motivate good people and to attract new talent for the future.

There have been a number of Public Service renewal exercises over the past 50-odd years driven by particular issues and usually leading to a final report and action. Blueprint 2020: Building Tomorrow’s Public Service Together, launched by the Clerk of the Privy Council in 2013, was an initiative of unprecedented scope driven by increasing globalization, the interrelationship of complex issues, accelerating technological change, changing demographics, a growing demand for openness, transparency and accountability, and evolving workforce expectations. To achieve the vision of “A world-class Public Service equipped to serve Canada and Canadians now and into the future”, the national exercise promoted dialogue at all levels within departments and agencies, across organizations, and with external partners. The use of social media elicited an extraordinary input by public servants at all levels and has ensured that it is in many ways a bottom-up exercise.

Logo: Blueprint 2020

Blueprint 2020 was launched in 2013

Renewing the Public Service, through efforts such as Blueprint 2020, is an ongoing process. As the Prime Minister said in his 2016 statement on National Public Service Week, “Our public servants understand that to remain focused on the people we serve, we must work together to make openness and transparency key values of our institutions. They understand the need to renew and modernize so that together we can – effectively and efficiently – meet the needs of Canadians today and into the future.”

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: