Cabinet: Then and Now

Canada’s Cabinet – and the way it operates on a daily basis – has changed significantly over the years.

Pre-Confederation

With the creation of the Province of Canada in 1841, Cabinet meetings alternated between Canada East and Canada West. Meetings of the political executive were held in:

  • Kingston
  • Montréal
  • Québec City
  • Toronto

In 1857, Queen Victoria selected Ottawa (known as Bytown) as the capital for the young ‘province.’ Construction on the Parliament Buildings began in 1860 with the goal of providing a permanent home for the government.

In 1866, the magnificent new buildings were ready and the Cabinet settled down in one place to attend to the business of governing a new and growing country.

Soon after – On July 1, 1867 – the Dominion of Canada was born.

Room 235, East Block

The Cabinet Room (Room 235) in the East Block of the Parliament Buildings was the focal point for federal power in Canada for over a century. Every Prime Minister from Sir John A. Macdonald to Pierre Elliott Trudeau held meetings in this room.

The Cabinet Room (Room 235) in the East Block of the Parliament Buildings
Click on image to enlarge.

The size of Cabinet was in part determined by the size of the room and the table. Canada’s first Ministry had 13 members, including the Prime Minister.

An Informal Approach

For many years, Cabinet operated in a surprisingly informal manner:

  • There was no agenda, no secretariat and no official present at meetings to record discussions
  • The Clerk of the Privy Council left a box in front of the Prime Minister’s chair with orders from government departments submitted for approval
  • At the end of the Cabinet meeting, the Clerk returned to find which items had been approved and rejected
  • There was no system to communicate Cabinet decisions to the departments for implementation
  • With no minutes of decisions taken, the Prime Minister was the arbiter of what was decided

1940 – A New Era

With the outbreak of the Second World War, a new approach was needed. Cabinet’s workload had increased and the issues were growing more complex.

The Clerk of the Privy Council was appointed Secretary to Cabinet.

Arnold Heeney – the first Clerk to undertake this role – established a system of regular recordkeeping. The Privy Council Office took on responsibility for organizing and supporting the work of Cabinet.

Managing Cabinet Records

In 1957 – with the transition from the St. Laurent (Liberal) to Diefenbaker (Conservative) governments – the need arose to decide how to dispose of the growing number of Cabinet records.

The Secretary to the Cabinet was accepted as custodian of all Cabinet papers. The Secretary would decide what to communicate from one government to another. All Cabinet records would be kept confidential for twenty years.

A New Meeting Room

The size of Cabinet grew with the expansion of government activity. In 1987, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed a record 40 ministers to the Cabinet, a larger meeting room was found in the Centre Block.

Current Times

Cabinet continues to be supported by the Clerk of the Privy Council – and by extension, the Privy Council Office as the Cabinet’s secretariat.

Digital technologies have put a new twist on the old tradition of Cabinet confidentiality. Today it’s the Cabinet members who are expected to leave their personal communications devices at the door.

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