Canadian Bureaucracy

More Canadians work for the federal government than any other employer in the country. At last count, the total tally was somewhere in the 250 000 range. Canada’s national bureaucracy is thus quite a large and sprawling enterprise, consisting of an almost endless assortment of departments, agencies, commissions, committees, councils and corporations. (You can view the Government of Canada’s complete list here.)

Canadian bureaucracy is broadly organized into the following categories:

Departments and Deputy Ministers

Canadian bureaucracyAt the top of the pyramid are the cabinet departments, sometimes called “ministries” since they’re run by the prime minister’s cabinet ministers. Each department specializes in some particular realm of federal jurisdiction, such as finance, foreign affairs, criminal law or international trade. There are presently around 30 cabinet-level ministries in the country, though the number tends to ebb and flow a lot, since under Canadian law it’s very easy to make new departments or reorganize the ones that already exist.

As mentioned in the House of Commons chapter, cabinet ministers are all sitting Members of Parliament whom the prime minister has chosen to help him run the country. In theory, they’re the politicians most qualified for the job, but these days, the sort of people the prime minister actually chooses is usually determined largely on the basis of who he personally likes, or who will give his cabinet the right amount of gender, racial or geographic balance. Going in, a lot of cabinet ministers will frankly not know much about the department they’ve been placed in charge of, and as a result, the more active, day-to-day head of a cabinet department frequently winds up being not the minister herself, but rather the deputy minister.

Deputy ministers hold office independently of the ministers, and are professional bureaucrats selected for their insider knowledge and experience. Many will serve under cabinet ministers of both political parties and are expected to be strictly non-partisan and politically neutral as a result. In theory, it’s the deputy minister’s job to get the rest of the bureaucrats below him to carry out the “vision” of the minister and ruling party, which he learns by having lots of long consultations with the minister. When the minister and the deputy get along, there’s nothing they can’t do! But of course, in practice, there’s often a lot of tension between what the minister wants and what the bureaucracy thinks is possible or wise. Though this can generate a lot of back-and-forth, it’s also seen as one of the key checks and balances of Canadian government.

Boards and Agencies

Health pass

In many parts of the country, Canadian restaurants are legally required to visibly tell customers that they have passed all the relevant health codes. Seen here, a "pass" sticker from the Toronto Public Health authority in the window of a local restaurant. Photo: Cameron Maitland

Too big to do everything on their own, most federal departments delegate authority to an array of smaller boards, offices and agencies that operate semi-independently under their larger umbrella of jurisdiction. In most cases, these subsidiaries specialize in one particular sub-field in which the demand for public services is especially high.

Some agencies may focus exclusively on producing one specific government service; for instance, the Canadian Passport Office, which is under the Department of Foreign Affairs, or the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which is under the Department of Health. Other times, agencies exist to independently assess facts and advise the government t0 take specific actions, as is the case with the Canadian Parole Board or the Canadian Industrial Relations Board.

In most cases, these specialized sub-entities operate out of their own headquarters and have their own unique bureaucratic structures, which ministers and deputy ministers have only limited control over. This so-called “arm’s-length” relationship is said to keep the most important sorts of government services independent from excessive political control and executive meddling. In theory, at least.

Crown Corporations

Crown Corporations are formed when the Government of Canada decides to run a business. They are, as the title suggests, government-owned corporations that exist independently from the rest of the federal bureaucracy, but are still ultimately accountable to the government. Among the most notable Crown Corps, we have the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which runs a bunch of TV and radio stations, Canada Post, which delivers the mail, and VIA Rail Canada, a national train service. The government of the day gets to appoint the top executives of Crown Corps, usually the CEO and board of directors, who hold office for fixed terms in order to ensure their independence.

CBC headquarters

Collecting over a billion dollars of state funding per year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is Canada's largest government-run corporation, and easily the most controversial. Seen here: CBC headquarters in Toronto.

The principle behind Crown Corporations is that they provide certain essential services to the public that would probably never be offered by the profit-hungry private sector. For example, it’s hard to imagine a private corporation that would be willing to deliver a single letter to a poor town of 300 people located in the darkest regions of Canada’s upper Arctic, but this is exactly what Canada Post does every day. At the provincial level, Crown Corporations are also commonly used to provide utilities such as electricity, natural gas, buses, ferries, business loans, and most famously, health insurance. These services are not free, of course, but the fees and premiums the public pays are recycled back into the coffers of the Crown Corps, which gives them a base of funding somewhat independent from the rest of the government budget.

In recent years, and especially since the rise in post-1980s-style conservatism, it’s become common to debate the usefulness of many Crown Corporations, and whether or not they should be privatized and turned into private, for-profit businesses. Over the last 20 years, a couple of big Crown Corps have been successfully privatized in this manner, most notably the Air Canada airline and the Petro-Canada oil and gas company. Rarely uncontroversial, the decision to privatize ultimately comes down to what you think is a “public service” versus what you think the private sector could deliver better and cheaper.

The Privy Council and the Prime Minister’s Office

One of the oldest political institutions in Canada, the Privy Council was originally a group of wise men recruited by the colonial governor to help him run the show. During the 19th century, as proper parliamentary institutions were gradually introduced, the council effectively fractured into two parts. In order to give his government greater democratic legitimacy, the governor began appointing more and more elected politicians to the Council, and this faction eventually became the cabinet we know today (with the prime minister eventually replacing the governor himself). Everyone else who got into the Privy Council — the rich landowners, the prime minister’s friends, the lesser nobility, etc — were now just symbolic, much like the folks in the Senate. Today, the Canadian Privy Council is an incredibly large body of men and women consisting of about 30 cabinet ministers and around 400 symbolic members, most of whom are old cabinet ministers who were appointed-for-life by past PMs. As a formal body, it meets almost never and does almost nothing.

Clerk of the Privy Council

Also known as the "Secretary to Cabinet," the Clerk of the Privy Council is the head of the public service of Canada, and is supposed to serve as a sort of "spokesman of the bureaucracy" to Canada’s executive branch. Though the Clerk is appointed by the PM, the Clerk is the guy who swears in the prime minister, showing the symbiotic relationship between the two offices.

The staff of the Privy Council remains important and powerful, however, and the modern Privy Council Office (PCO) is the highest-ranking bureaucratic department in the land. Employing over 500 people, it is the agency charged with advising and supporting the prime minister of Canada, and coordinating the actions of all other cabinet departments under his agenda and leadership. The head of the PCO is known as the Clerk of the Privy Council, and serves as one of the PM’s closest and most trusted advisers.

Like the deputy ministers, the PCO clerk and his staff are supposed to be non-partisan, and their advice and recommendations are supposed to be largely technocratic — or professional — in nature. Since prime ministers don’t always want this kind of advice, however, a parallel organization known as the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has steadily grown as an alternative. Unlike the PCO, the employees of the PMO, headed by the prime minister’s Chief of Staff, advises and coordinates the cabinet and bureaucracy mostly on the basis of ideology, partisanship, political strategy and public image. To say the two networks of advisers do not always get along may be a bit of an understatement, since both have such significantly different objectives. A great topic of discussion among Ottawa-watchers is whether or not the PMO has basically eclipsed the PCO in terms of relevance and power, and whether the era of non-partisan advisers is truly over.

How Canadian Bureaucrats are Appointed

In the old days, there were very few rules governing the way jobs in the Canadian federal bureaucracy were distributed. Politicians would basically just dole out positions to their friends and families, and the civil service was stuffed with partisan hacks, bagmen and lobbyists as a result.

Now, in more enlightened times, there is a thing called the Public Service Commission Board, which does most of the appointing. Nominated by the prime minister and approved by Parliament — a rare process in Canada — the PSC board appoints most of the country’s deputy ministers and most other senior bureaucrats in charge of non-cabinet level government departments and agencies. By law, the PSC is supposed to appoint people “on the basis of merit” and their picks “must be free from political influence.” Folks appointed by the PSC are likewise supposed to refrain from overt political activity once in office, lest their appearance of partisan neutrality be compromised.

In practice, of course, there are still a lot of people appointed to all sorts of sweet government jobs for all sorts of obviously political reasons. The best jobs in the Canadian bureaucracy, which is to say, the presidents, directors, chairmen, board members and other boss-types, remain largely appointed by the government-of-the-day, while it’s the people below them who are members of the non-partisan “professional” class.

Links About Canadian Bureaucracy:

Quick Facts:

  • Canada has a large federal bureaucracy divided into numerous departments, agencies and government-run corporations.
  • Most bureaucrats work for the prime minister's cabinet, whose ministers are responsible for the majority of public services provided by the Canadian government.
  • Canadian bureaucrats are hired through a neutral process that emphasizes skill and non-partisanship.
  • The federal bureaucracy has risen in power as politicians have become less involved in the day-to-day management of government services.