Governing Responsibly: A Guide For Ministers and Ministers of State

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Governing Responsibly: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State, published in December 2003, has been re-issued with technical updates including those to reflect recent changes to the ethics regime, notably the establishment of the independent Ethics Commissioner and amendments to the Conflict of Interest and Post-employment Code for Public Office Holders.

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Table of Contents

A Message to Ministers and Ministers of State


I - Ministerial Responsibility and Accountability

II - Portfolio Responsibilities and Support

III - Ministerial Relations with Parliament

IV - Consultation and Coordination

V - Standards of Conduct

VI - Administrative Matters

Annex A - Federal Government Institutions: The Executive

 Annex B - Cabinet Decision Making

a) The Policy and Fiscal Frameworks 
b) The Process

Annex C - Appointments

Annex D - Cabinet, Institutional and Personal Records

Annex E - Dealings with Quasi-judicial Tribunals

Annex F - The Ministry and Crown Corporations Guidelines

  Prime Minister of Canada

A Message to Ministers and Ministers of State

Canadians are expecting more from their government and representatives. We must lead in adapting our political institutions to enhance confidence in our system of government, rather than to diminish it. To this end, we must recognize and strengthen the critical role of the parliamentary process. The core principles of our government will be transparency, accountability, financial responsibility and ethical conduct. Canadians must also have confidence that their government is acting in an open, honest and transparent manner.

As Ministers, you will need to work hard to earn the support and respect of both Canadians and your colleagues in Parliament through active engagement and the highest standards of ethical conduct.

Governing Responsibly: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State explains the principles of ministerial responsibility and actions that are intended to guide you in undertaking your official duties. The conduct of Ministers is to be guided by the following principles:

  • Ministers must act with integrity. They must uphold the highest ethical standards so that public confidence and trust in the honesty, objectivity and impartiality of government are upheld. Ministers, in particular, have an obligation to perform their official duties and arrange their private affairs in a manner that bears the closest public scrutiny. This obligation is not fully discharged merely by acting within the law.
  • Ministers are responsible for preserving public confidence in the integrity of management and operations within their departments. They must carry out the powers, duties and functions of their portfolios in accordance with the constraints provided by statute and convention.
  • Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the use of powers vested in them by statute. This requires their presence in Parliament to answer questions about the use of those powers. They must accept the responsibilities that flow from those powers. It is of paramount importance for Ministers to give honest, accurate and truthful information to Parliament. They must take steps to correct any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.
  • Ministers are bound by their oath as Privy Councillors. This oath requires them to uphold the rules and confidentiality of Cabinet decision making and to share equally in the collective responsibility for their actions.
  • Ministers must respect the non-partisan nature of the Public Service of Canada. They can rely on it to provide the support they need to fulfil their ministerial functions and mandate without regard to political partisanship.

This Guide will aid you in your role as leaders in promoting a culture of integrity, achievement and respect for our democratic institutions. Our commitment to the people of Canada demands no less.

Paul Martin signature

Paul Martin
Prime Minister of Canada


This Guide sets out the duties and responsibilities of the Prime Minister and of Ministers, including Ministers of State. It outlines key principles of responsible government in Canada, and the government’s approach to democratic reform. This essential information will help members of the Ministry individually and collectively support the Prime Minister in managing the business of the Government of Canada. The Guide also covers the duties and responsibilities of Parliamentary Secretaries.

Ministers who want further information or advice about the subject matters of this document may consult the Clerk of the Privy Council or their deputy minister. This document has been prepared by the Machinery of Government Secretariat in the Privy Council Office, which is responsible for supporting the Clerk of the Privy Council and deputy ministers by advising them on matters contained in this Guide.

I - Ministerial Responsibility and Accountability

Ministers of the Crown are chosen by the Prime Minister, who may ask for their resignation at any time. The Ministry includes Ministers and Ministers of State who together help carry out the mandate of the government. Government policy is established by the Cabinet, which is made up of both Ministers and Ministers of State.

Ministers of the Crown are responsible and accountable to the Prime Minister and Parliament in two fundamental ways:

  • Individually, for their performance in carrying out the responsibilities of the portfolio assigned to them by the Prime Minister.
  • Collectively, in support of the Cabinet team and its decisions.

Ministers’ individual and collective responsibility is an essential principle guiding the rule of Cabinet government in Canada, and is at the core of the standards for ministerial behaviour. 1

I.1. Individual Ministerial Responsibility

Parliament confers power on a Minister through parliamentary statutes that set out the duties and functions for which the Minister is individually responsible. In addition to these enabling statutes, there are “unwritten” conventions or precedents governing the ways in which Ministers fulfil their responsibilities and account for their actions in exercising their statutory authority.

In addition to statutory powers conferred on them by Parliament, Ministers and Ministers of State may also have other responsibilities assigned to them by the Prime Minister. Ministers of State may also be authorized to exercise certain responsibilities and duties by the Minister they are appointed to assist.

I.2. Collective Ministerial Responsibility

All members of the Ministry, including Ministers of State, are collectively responsible for carrying out the government’s policies as established by the Cabinet. They are therefore expected to work in close consultation with their ministerial colleagues. This principle is the foundation of a key “unwritten” constitutional convention known as Cabinet solidarity. Coordinated and consistent communication with Parliament and the public is another essential requirement of Cabinet government.

Policies presented to Parliament and to the public must be the agreed policies of the Cabinet. Ministers cannot dissociate themselves from or repudiate the decisions of their Cabinet colleagues unless they resign from the Cabinet.

Cabinet solidarity is further reinforced by the Privy Councillor’s oath requiring Ministers to declare their opinion as decisions are being made, and to strictly uphold the confidentiality of Cabinet decision making. In assisting their Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries are also bound to maintain any Cabinet confidences of which they become aware, and must support the solidarity of the Cabinet in the case of policy related to their own portfolio. The involvement of Parliamentary Secretaries in the Cabinet decision making process is not intended to erode in any way the principle of Cabinet confidentiality which is an essential feature of collective responsibility.

Ministers also make decisions collectively for practical reasons. In working towards achieving government objectives, ministerial responsibilities may overlap or have implications for other Ministers. The increasing complexity of issues means that, if the government’s objectives are to be achieved, policies and programs must be reviewed in relation with each other. Ministers also have responsibilities for representing the different perspectives and interests of their regions, and these inevitably cut across the departmental division of government activities.

Ministers also share two limited assets: parliamentary time and financial resources of the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Only a relatively small number of major initiatives can be handled at one time. Thus, the government’s overall policy agenda necessarily impinges on the portfolio goals of individual Ministers. Ministers therefore need to work closely together to ensure their goals are considered in the broader objectives of the government’s agenda.

I.3. Ministerial Accountability and Answerability

In providing good government for the people of Canada, Ministers are responsible and accountable to Parliament for the use of those powers vested in them by statute. Ministers must be present in Parliament to respond to questions on the use of those powers, as well as to accept responsibility and account for that use. Whether a Minister has used the powers appropriately is a matter of political judgment by Parliament. The Prime Minister has the prerogative to evaluate the consequences and to reaffirm support for that Minister or to ask for his or her resignation.

Ministers are also required to answer to Parliament by providing information to Parliament on the use of powers by bodies that report to Parliament through them. In providing the information, Ministers must take into account all implications, including the lawful protection of privacy and the Minister’s statutory authority over the organization. The Public Service supports Ministers by providing information that assists them in answering to Parliament.

II - Portfolio Responsibilities and Support

In appointing a Minister to a portfolio, the Prime Minister may assign a broad range of responsibilities, from their immediate departmental powers, duties and functions to other special assignments or roles. In exercising the powers conferred by Parliament and in implementing Cabinet decisions, Ministers are supported by a deputy minister and departmental officials. They are also provided with resources for exempt staff, 2 whom they personally appoint to assist them in constituency and political work.

Given his role as head of government, the Prime Minister has a responsibility for the effective operation of the whole of government and often has to answer in the House for the operation of all departments and agencies. This may mean that, in carrying out this overarching responsibility, the Prime Minister will be involved in matters within the responsibility of individual Ministers.

This Chapter provides information on the framework and management of ministerial portfolios and on the Public Service resources that provide support to Ministers.

II.1. Powers, Duties and Functions

Departmental powers, duties and functions are vested in Ministers through statute. Many of these powers are normally delegated to deputy ministers and departmental officials, who act on their behalf. Ministers are individually responsible to Parliament and the Prime Minister for their own actions and those of their department, including the actions of all officials under their management and direction, whether or not the Ministers had prior knowledge. In practice, when errors or wrongdoings are committed by officials under their direction, Ministers are responsible for promptly taking the necessary remedial steps and for providing assurances to Parliament that appropriate corrective action has been taken to prevent reoccurrence.

Ministers’ responsibilities may include a variety of non-departmental bodies such as Crown corporations or tribunals. In accordance with the enabling legislation, Ministers exercise varying degrees of control and responsibility for the agencies that are part of their portfolio.

The Prime Minister may assign additional responsibilities to a Minister, either through an Order in Council 3 or as a result of a designation by the Prime Minister (for example, political regional responsibilities). Consequently, ministerial responsibilities can encompass a range of diverse activities, some based on statute, others on specific direction provided by the Prime Minister.

II.2. Integrated Portfolio Management

Quality programs and services in keeping with the government’s objectives depend strongly upon Ministers’ ability to manage their respective portfolios in an integrated way. Portfolios are organized to bring together bodies that share common purposes. Ministers must ensure that all actors and organizations within the portfolio work together in a coherent fashion, while respecting any necessary degrees of independence. The Minister is always responsible for all aspects of his or her portfolio, even in situations where the Minister is assisted by Ministers of State.

One or more other Ministers may also be appointed within a Minister’s portfolio, either filling a position to which Parliament has assigned powers or functions in legislation, or as a Minister of State whose mandate is determined by the Prime Minister. Any arrangements made with respect to portfolio management must fully respect any statutory responsibilities and accountabilities vested in Ministers. One or more Parliamentary Secretaries may also be appointed to assist the Minister or Ministers in the portfolio. These Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries must all work together to ensure coordinated and integrated functioning of the portfolio.

The portfolio, the actors in it and its organizations should function as a team. Portfolios are varied, and the organizational bodies can include:

  • a department that has a role in shaping future policies and laws, and, in some cases, delivering services;
  • service agencies that provide services within the government’s policy and legislative framework and on the basis of a Business Plan;
  • administrative tribunals that make decisions and hear appeals at arm’s length from the government and on an independent basis; and
  • Crown corporations that provide specific services on a commercial basis.

Each organization is different. They all have different mandates, a variety of organizational structures, and a different relationship to the Minister which reflects their purpose. However, they all provide services to Canadians and report to Ministers, or through Ministers to Parliament.

Building on existing statutory roles under a Minister’s authority and his or her leadership role as assigned by the Prime Minister, the goal of integrated portfolio management is to ensure all actors and organizations work together in the most effective fashion. The Minister must captain the portfolio in order to achieve good governance, coherent coordination of policy, legislation and programs, excellence in delivery of programs and services, and meaningful accountability to the public, through Parliament, for the activities of the full portfolio.

The deputy minister, as the Minister’s principal source of public service support and policy advice, will be expected to advise the Minister on all matters under the Minister’s responsibility and authority. He or she will have a key role in promoting appropriate policy coordination, and building coherence in the activities and reporting of the portfolio bodies. Deputies can provide advice to Ministers on the appropriate means to ensure integration in the undertakings of their portfolio, while respecting any accountability requirements and mandates set out by legislation. Depending on the portfolio, the deputy may also be assigned certain specific responsibilities by the Minister. In those cases, it is important that the Minister provide clear guidance to all agency heads on his or her expectation of the portfolio integration role of the deputy.

Agency and Crown corporation heads – while maintaining the necessary arm’s length relationship and managerial autonomy required for their bodies – should seek out opportunities to contribute to the overall functioning of the portfolio. Ministers need to make sure that the perspectives of these bodies are brought to bear in the policy development process within the portfolio.

II.3. Ministers of State

A Minister of State can be appointed to assist a Minister or to undertake responsibilities assigned by the Prime Minister. While a Minister of State does not have a portfolio independent of the Minister he or she assists, the Minister of State is a Cabinet colleague and peer, not a subordinate, of that Minister. Ministers of State are members of the Cabinet, participate in collective decision making and must uphold the confidentiality of Cabinet decision making.

When Ministers of State are appointed to assist a Minister, the Prime Minister sets out their specific mandate in a letter. The portfolio Minister will outline more detailed roles or requirements within the portfolio, bearing in mind that in most instances, it is the Minister who ultimately is legally responsible and accountable for the entire portfolio, as well as for responding to any broad direction on priorities conveyed by the Prime Minister. Since Ministers of State generally do not themselves formally preside over a department, the deputy minister of the portfolio Minister’s department is usually responsible for ensuring that they are provided with senior departmental support.

II.4. Parliamentary Secretaries

Parliamentary Secretaries are chosenby the Prime Minister, and are assigned to assist Ministers. They are key resources in a Minister’s portfolio, and full participants in the government’s work. Parliamentary Secretaries receive a mandate letter from the Prime Minister, and their responsibilities are carried out within the policy and program frameworks set out by their Minister. They may also be called upon to support other Ministers in the portfolio.

Parliamentary Secretaries are expected generally to support a Minister with respect to House and public duties as well as department-related duties, as discussed below:

House and Public Duties

  • Parliamentary Secretaries are a fundamental link between Ministers and Parliament. They help Ministers maintain contacts with Senators and Members of Parliament in order to promote effective parliamentary decision making and to assist in the development of the legislative agenda. They play a necessary liaison role within the Caucus and throughout the House of Commons and its committees. In committees, they help in sharing departmental information, and can work with committee chairs to plan appearances of Ministers and departmental officials to ensure productive dialogue. They are expected to facilitate departmental appearances by representing the Minister’s views and addressing political issues which may arise. On private members’ business, Parliamentary Secretaries are a link between the Caucus and the Minister, and can also facilitate interaction with departments in the development of private members’ business which the government chooses to support. Parliamentary Secretaries may also be called upon to answer policy questions during Question Period in the Minister’s absence, although acting Ministers may respond to particularly sensitive questions. Given that they work under the direction of a Minister, Parliamentary Secretaries do not introduce their own private member’s bills or motions.

Department-related Duties

  • Parliamentary Secretaries may have specific policy-related priorities to pursue, as set out in a mandate letter from the Prime Minister, and are expected to be engaged as key players in making strategic contributions to policy development. A Minister may delegate to a Parliamentary Secretary specific duties for policy development initiatives. Overall responsibility and accountability remains with the Minister, who also remains responsible for direction of public servants and departmental resources, and authority to initiate departmental actions. Parliamentary Secretaries must also assist in ensuring liaison between parliamentary committees and the Public Service.

Cabinet Policy Development

  • Reflecting their important role in the development of policy and consultations supporting it, Parliamentary Secretaries may attend meetings of the Cabinet on the Prime Minister’s invitation, or a Cabinet committee meeting on the invitation of the chair. Parliamentary Secretaries can also enhance the decision making process through Caucus consultations and in discussions with the Minister.

Beginning in December 2003, Parliamentary Secretaries are members of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada. Consequently, they are bound to maintain Cabinet confidences and must support the solidarity of the Cabinet in the case of policy related to their own portfolio. This is intended to support the principle of Cabinet confidentiality which is an essential feature of collective responsibility. However, they are appointed to assist a specific Minister, and are consequently not expected to speak for the Ministry as a whole.

Parliamentary Secretaries are subject to the Conflict of Interest and Post-employment Code for Public Office Holders. Further information on the Code can be obtained from the Ethics Commissioner or the Privy Council Office. Effective the first day of the 38th Parliament, they are also subject to the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons in their capacity as members of the House of Commons. Further information on the House Code can be obtained from the Ethics Commissioner.

II.5. Deputy Ministers

Deputy ministers are professional, non-partisan public servants. They are chosen and assigned by the Prime Minister on the advice of the Clerk of the Privy Council and are appointed by the Governor in Council 4 . Their role is to provide their Minister with the broadest possible expert advice and support needed for the Minister’s portfolio responsibilities, and to undertake the day-to-day management of the department on behalf of their Minister. However, deputy ministers do not exercise direct authority over non-departmental bodies within the portfolio. Deputy ministers are required to manage a complex set of multiple accountabilities which arise out of various powers, authorities and responsibilities attached to the position.

Deputy ministers are responsible and accountable for a wide range of duties including policy advice, program delivery, internal departmental management, and interdepartmental coordination. In performing these duties, deputy ministers have a fundamental responsibility to support both the individual and collective responsibilities of their Minister. They are accountable on a day-to-day basis to their Minister, and a cooperative relationship between the two is critical. The advice that deputy ministers provide should be objective and must respect the law. If conflict occurs between the Minister’s instructions and the law, the law prevails.

The Prime Minister is responsible for the unity and direction of the Ministry and the government’s policies. As a result of their role in the collective management of the government, deputy ministers are also accountable to the Prime Minister for responding to the policies of the Ministry as a whole and to the requirements of the Treasury Board and the Public Service Commission. This includes ensuring that appropriate interdepartmental consultation occurs on any matter that may touch upon broader ministerial responsibilities. In this capacity, deputy ministers are required to keep the Clerk of the Privy Council informed of any matter they consider significant enough to affect their responsibilities or those of their Minister. If the issue is of sufficient concern, the Clerk of the Privy Council will inform the Prime Minister.

Deputy ministers also carry a general obligation of accountability to the Treasury Board for the overall management capacity and performance of the department. In order to assist in managing this accountability, and to ensure performance is subject to regular review, deputy ministers are required to implement the Treasury Board Secretariat’s Management Accountability Framework. The Comptroller General of Canada also sets reporting requirements on departmental spending, and deputy ministers and departmental comptrollers must ensure that all requirements for expenditure planning, control and oversight are met, including in the development of policy proposals.

Further details on the accountability and duties of deputy ministers are included in Guidance for Deputy Ministers, a companion to this Guide.

II.6. Departmental Officials

The department reports to the Minister through the deputy minister in a clear chain of command. Deputy ministers are chosen by the Prime Minister, whereas assistant deputy ministers, other executives and departmental officials are appointed according to conditions set out by the Public Service Commission. The accountability of departmental officials is to the Minister through the deputy minister, but it is the Minister who is accountable to Parliament.

Federal officials must work within the laws of Canada, and are expected to maintain the tradition of the political neutrality of the Public Service. This ensures their continuing ability to provide professional, candid and frank advice. In no circumstances should departmental officials be asked to participate in partisan political activities. The Treasury Board’s 2003 Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service notes that Ministers are responsible for preserving public confidence in the integrity of management and operations within their departments, and for maintaining the tradition of political neutrality of the Public Service and its continuing ability to provide professional, candid and frank advice.

II.7. Non-departmental Bodies

Most Ministers are responsible for several non-departmental bodies such as Crown or departmental corporations, agencies, commissions, tribunals or boards. A Minister’s degree of control and responsibility for a non-departmental body is defined in the Act that establishes that body. While a Minister’s relationship with a non-departmental body is at arm’s length, the Minister must still provide the organization with general guidance on the government’s objectives and expectations. Ministers need to know both the details of their responsibilities, as well as the limits of their powers, for those bodies. Deputy ministers can provide advice to Ministers on these issues, particularly in the context of integrated portfolio management.

The nature of the relationship between a Minister and an administrative tribunal with independent decision making or quasi-judicial functions is a particularly sensitive issue. Ministers must not intervene in specific decisions of those bodies. Specific guidance governing Ministers’ dealings with quasi-judicial tribunals is included in Annex E, as are guidelines on Crown corporations in Annex F.

Heads of non-departmental bodies are appointed by the Governor in Council, on the recommendation of the responsible Minister, after consultation with the Prime Minister. Their responsibilities and duties, and those of the designated Minister, vary with each governing statute. Many are responsible not to Ministers, but through Ministers, to Parliament. While their degree of independence from the portfolio Minister may vary, all have a responsibility to answer to Parliament. Heads of non-departmental bodies and their officials appear before parliamentary committees and do so in accordance with the principles of ministerial responsibility and the political neutrality of public servants. Many non-departmental bodies are required to report annually to Parliament, through their designated Minister, on their performance and planning.

II.8. Acting Ministers

The Prime Minister establishes a standing roster of acting and alternate Ministers who assume additional duties when their colleagues are unable to perform their duties. The roster is formalized by an Order in Council. The Prime Minister can act for any Minister, but normally does so only when the designated acting Minister or the alternate Minister is not available.

Ministers acting on behalf of their colleagues may exercise the full powers of the Minister, but are advised not to make major decisions in the Minister’s temporary absence. In urgent cases, they traditionally consult the Minister, the Prime Minister or other Cabinet colleagues as appropriate.

III - Ministerial Relations with Parliament

Clear Ministerial accountability to Parliament is fundamental to responsible government 5 , and to ensuring that Canadians have confidence that their government is acting in an open, honest and transparent manner. A Parliament that makes real decisions requires Parliamentarians who have and can use information and tools to promote the interests of the regions they live in, and to hold the government to account for its decisions. The Prime Minister expects Ministers to place a high priority on ensuring that Parliament and its committees are informed of departmental policy priorities, spending plans, and management challenges. Ministers are expected to seek the views of Parliamentarians and parliamentary committees on future plans and priorities, and to dedicate time to consulting and engaging their colleagues in Parliament in order to earn their support. These elements are key to bringing the public will and the purpose of a government into productive alignment.

Parliament confers the powers of the state on Ministers on the condition that they, and through them the officials under their management and direction, be accountable to Parliament for their actions. Parliamentary review of spending is a key element of this accountability. The framework for ministerial responsibility lies in the statutes establishing the departments and organizations within a Minister’s portfolio.

III.1. Ministerial House Duties

The daily proceedings in the House of Commons are key to the government’s effectiveness. Consequently, the Prime Minister expects Ministers to place a very high priority on their House duties. These duties include the following activities:

  • Daily attendance at Question Period. Any proposed absences must be cleared with the Prime Minister’s Office before other commitments are made. When a Minister is absent, a designated Minister or Parliamentary Secretary answers for him or her.
  • Attendance. Attendance at other specified times is required according to a mandatory schedule of House duties prepared by the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons. Ministers are personally responsible for arranging replacements if they have to be absent and for notifying the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and the Chief Government Whip of the arrangements.
  • Piloting legislation. The Prime Minister expects Ministers to pilot their own legislation through the House and to appear before parliamentary committees of both Houses as required. The government will be pursuing its legislative agenda by using a Three-line system to classify the importance of votes for government MPs. A Three-line vote will be used for votes of confidence and a limited number of matters of fundamental importance to the government. For a Two-line free vote, the government will take a position, and recommend a preferred outcome to the government caucus. Cabinet Ministers will be bound to support the government’s position on a Two-line vote, as will Parliamentary Secretaries of Ministers affected by it, but Private Members will be free to vote as they wish. On One-line free votes, all government MPs, including Ministers, will be free to vote as they see fit. The Prime Minister also expects Ministers to refer bills subject to Two-line and One-line votes to committee before Second Reading whenever the circumstances allow it.
  • Private Members’ business. Under the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, all Private Members' Business items are votable. The government determines its position on all Private Members’ items. If an item specifically opposes government policy, Ministers who are responsible for the policy should ensure that Members of Parliament, including caucus members, are informed about the government's position, and should seek the support of caucus members for the government's position.
  • Committee relations. The government will look to parliamentary committees to play an active role in policy and legislative issues, and Ministers should place a high priority on developing good relationships with parliamentary committee chairs and members, and supporting the essential work of the committee.
  • Other House duties. The Leader of the Government in the House of Commons assigns and coordinates other House duties to Ministers, such as attendance at votes and leading the government’s response to Opposition Day motions.
The Constitution Act, 1867 sets out the principles underlying the sovereignty of Parliament in the raising and spending of public money. Revenue can only be raised and moneys spent or borrowed by the government with the authority of Parliament. Regular, ongoing parliamentary spending reviews are part of ensuring that taxpayer dollars are aligned with the priorities set by Canadians, and that the government’s management of the public purse is credible and avoids waste. Ministers must be prepared to respond to questions on spending for which they are responsible, and to regular parliamentary review of departmental expenditures.

Ministers’ duties and relations with Parliament are very demanding and require significant support, particularly for Question Period and committee work. They require careful daily and long-term coordination with the Prime Minister and the government’s Leaders in the Senate and the House. Ministers normally assign a senior member of their exempt staff to support their relations with Parliament. This person ensures ongoing liaison with the Whip’s Office and the Office of the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons regarding House business, and acts as a key contact to obtain information from departmental staff for Question Period. Ministers who are assigned a Parliamentary Secretary are expected to make full use of this valuable resource to support them in the House of Commons and before parliamentary committees.

In the context of their accountability to the House of Commons, Ministers are required to answer parliamentary questions within their areas of statutory authority as clearly and fully as possible. It is of paramount importance for Ministers to give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, and to correct any error at the earliest opportunity. Parliamentary questions cannot be directed to a former Minister concerning policies or transactions in a portfolio he or she no longer holds. However, current Ministers must account to the House for taking any corrective action required to address problems that may have occurred prior to their appointment.

Parliamentary accountability recognizes that only the person to whom responsibility and authority are assigned can take action. Ministers cannot be accountable for matters over which they have no authority. The statutes governing many non-departmental bodies such as regulatory commissions or tribunals may assign only limited ministerial responsibility for internal management and operations. In these cases, Ministers’ accountability is limited. Where Ministers do not have direct responsibility for addressing issues raised by Parliament, they must nevertheless ensure that the non-departmental body concerned does address those issues.

III.2. Ministerial Senate Duties

The Leader of the Government in the Senate is responsible for managing the government’s agenda in the Senate, and Ministers are expected to work with the Leader of the Government in the Senate on legislation and Private Members’ bills for which they are responsible. In carrying out these duties, the Leader of the Government in the Senate is supported by political staff and the Privy Council Office. Ministers are responsible for ensuring that their legislation is piloted through the Senate and that questions related to their portfolio are answered in the Senate.

III.3. Parliamentary Committees and the Role of Departmental Officials

Appearances before House and Senate committees by Ministers and their officials are an essential part of informing Parliament, enabling Parliamentarians to represent the views of their constituents in the development of policy and legislation, and to hold the government to account for its management and policies. Ministers should promote an ongoing dialogue with parliamentary committees on their department’s policy priorities, legislative and spending issues, and management challenges. Ministers, supported by the public service, should appear regularly before their respective parliamentary committee to seek the committee’s input into policy and spending priorities, and to discuss departmental performance and results. Ministers are expected to provide, consistent with Treasury Board guidelines, informative and balanced reports to Parliament, most importantly the Estimates, the Report on Plans and Priorities, and Departmental Performance Reports. Ministers and their officials must cooperate with the committees in their work and seek the views of Parliamentarians and committees on future plans and priorities.

The principles of ministerial accountability and responsibility guide Ministers and their officials appearing before parliamentary committees. Ministers are responsible for providing answers to Parliament on questions regarding the government’s policies, programs and activities, and for providing as much information as possible about the use of powers assigned to them or delegated by them to others.

Ministers are also responsible for deciding which questions they should answer personally and which questions may be answered by officials speaking on their behalf. Officials can assist Ministers by factually answering questions at parliamentary committees, but they are to explain rather than defend or debate policies. When appearing before a parliamentary committee, officials maintain the traditional impartiality of the Public Service. The authoritative political presence of either the Minister or his or her political representative is required if politically controversial matters are likely to arise. As members of parliamentary committees, Parliamentary Secretaries are essential resources and play a key role by representing their Ministers before committees. Ministers should ask their Parliamentary Secretaries to address partisan issues raised during departmental appearances, and to act as a liaison between the committee and the Minister and the department.

Ministers should ensure that appearances by their officials before parliamentary committees are fully consistent with the ministerial responsibility assigned by Parliament in statute. Public servants are ultimately accountable to Ministers and not directly to Parliament 6  . Consequently, departmental officials do not appear before committees without clear guidance from their Minister.

In appearing on behalf of their Minister before committees, departmental officials are often able to provide more detailed information on departmental plans and performance than Ministers can. The deputy minister and other officials must be prepared to describe in detail the plans, activities and performance of the department in areas such as financial management, program and service delivery, and human resources management.

Officials also have a duty and specific legal responsibility to hold in confidence information that may have come into their possession in the course of their duties. Therefore, when appearing before parliamentary committees, they are bound by these legal obligations, as well as an obligation to the Minister and to the government, not to disclose information that is confidential for reasons of national security or privacy, or because it consists of advice to Ministers. In practice, officials should endeavour to work with Members of Parliament, in cooperation with Ministers and their offices, to find ways to respond to legitimate requests for information from Members of Parliament, within the limitations placed on them. In the context of a committee hearing, information that is not in the public domain can only be made available on the specific authorization of the Minister, and within the context of statutory obligations.

Through their own initiative or in response to a request from a parliamentary caucus, Ministers can also inform Parliament by directing departmental officials to provide factual briefings to parliamentary caucuses. Briefings organized for one caucus are made available to other caucuses and, accordingly, House leaders or Leaders of each party are kept informed of such briefings. It is never appropriate for the deputy minister or departmental officials to act in a partisan manner. Any questions of a political nature or expressions of disagreement with government policy should be referred to the Minister.

IV - Consultation and Coordination

This Chapter provides information on the roles of central agencies to support the Prime Minister and the work of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister expects Ministers and their departments to work closely with all central agencies to coordinate issues and to establish an overall program supported by the Cabinet.

IV.1. Central Agencies

a) Privy Council Office

The Privy Council Office provides the Prime Minister with public service support and directly assists the Prime Minister in performing all of his or her duties and responsibilities as head of government. It is also the Cabinet secretariat. Through ongoing consultation with departments and agencies, the Privy Council Office provides the Prime Minister with comprehensive information and analysis on contemplated policies and priorities. Specifically, it provides information on organization of the government and its relations with Parliament and the Crown, appointment of holders of senior offices, overall spending program of the government, functioning of the Cabinet decision making system, development of major policies, management of intergovernmental relations and other specific issues.

The Privy Council Office also provides the necessary support to the Deputy Prime Minister and to the other Ministers in the Prime Minister’s portfolio.

The Privy Council Office is headed by the Clerk of the Privy Council, whose role in the Government of Canada is combined with that of Secretary to the Cabinet. The Clerk is a non-partisan public servant selected by the Prime Minister. The Clerk of the Privy Council acts as the Prime Minister’s deputy minister and is also the custodian of the records of the current and previous Ministries. In addition, this person is also Head of the Public Service, as designated by statute. In that capacity, he or she is responsible for the quality of expert, professional and non-partisan advice and service provided by the Public Service to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. He or she reports annually to the Prime Minister on the state of the Public Service.

b) Department of Finance

The Department of Finance is responsible for the government’s macro-economic policy, including tax policy and tax expenditures, as well as the overall fiscal framework, and for analysing the economic and fiscal impact of proposals by any Minister. The Department of Finance supports its Minister and maintains a broad socio-economic analytical capacity.

c) Treasury Board Secretariat

The Treasury Board Secretariat supports the President of the Treasury Board. As the administrative agency of the Treasury Board, the Secretariat supports the Board, which is a committee of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, and assumes its legal responsibilities under the Financial Administration Act and other statutes. It has a central oversight role to play in government-wide management practices and ensuring value for money. The Comptroller General ensures improved financial management government-wide.

The Treasury Board Secretariat submits recommendations and provides advice to the Treasury Board on all matters relating to general administrative policy and organization in the Public Service of Canada, financial and asset management policies and procedures, review of annual and long term expenditure plans and programs and determination of related priorities.

d) Other Departments

In addition to the central agencies described above, there are two other departments that exercise certain central agency functions. The Department of Justice makes available legal services and advice to all Ministers and their departments. The Department of Foreign Affairs provides government-wide coordination of activities and issues that involve foreign policy.

IV.2. The Prime Minister’s Office

The Prime Minister’s Office consists of the Prime Minister’s political staff. The Office serves the Prime Minister and is fully accountable to him or her.

The Prime Minister’s Office supports the Prime Minister in exercising his or her duties as head of government, leader of a political party and Member of Parliament. The political staff in the Prime Minister’s Office provide advice on policy development and appointments, discuss House of Commons proceedings with him or her, and facilitate the Prime Minister’s relations with Ministers, the caucus and the party as a whole. In addition, the Prime Minister’s Office schedules the Prime Minister’s time, organizes his or her public statements and relations with the media, and handles his or her correspondence.

In general, the Prime Minister’s Office plays an important role in enabling the Prime Minister to guide the political strategy of the government and is the central point of communication and coordination with Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries and Members of Parliament. It also works closely with the Privy Council Office. Together, these two organizations provide advice and support from different perspectives on the issues of daily concern to the Prime Minister.

IV.3. Federal-Provincial-Territorial Relations and Regional Coordination

The Prime Minister is responsible for the overall management of federal-provincial-territorial relations, since they touch on virtually all areas of the federal government’s activities. The Prime Minister is assisted by the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in coordinating intergovernmental relations. The Privy Council Office is the public service department that advises and assists the Prime Minister and the Minister in carrying out their responsibilities related to intergovernmental affairs.

In general, the Prime Minister expects each Minister to be responsible for the federal-provincial-territorial aspects of policies and programs within his or her own portfolio, and to ensure coordination with other intergovernmental initiatives.

The Prime Minister may also designate regional Ministers for each province or major area, who play an important role in coordinating regional or provincial issues with the federal government’s activities. However, the administration of departmental programs in every region remains the individual responsibility of departmental Ministers.

IV.4. Appointments

The Prime Minister has committed to reform of the appointment process, and Parliament will play a greater role in it.

Governor in Council appointments are made to a wide range of positions, from deputy ministers and heads of agencies to chief executive officers and directors of Crown corporations. Many of these positions are very demanding, requiring extensive work and difficult decisions. It is essential for appointees to be well qualified, and senior government appointments must be chosen through a process that ensures broad and open consideration of proposed candidates.

By legislation or requirement under Standing Orders of the House of Commons, some appointments – including those of Agents of Parliament – are subject to parliamentary review and resolution prior to being made final. Currently, other Governor in Council appointments (except judicial positions) are tabled in the House of Commons after each appointment is made in order to give the appropriate standing committee the opportunity to call the appointee and examine his or her qualifications.

Appointments to certain key positions, including heads of Crown corporations and agencies, will now be subject to prior parliamentary review. The government will consult with the appropriate House committees on how best to proceed on prior review of these appointments, and will specifically consult the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on how best to implement prior review of appointments of Supreme Court of Canada Judges. These committees will also have the opportunity to consider which other appointments could be subject to their review.

IV.5. Communications and Public Announcements

Communicating with the public is an important responsibility of the government. Communications must be timely and clear. All government communications must therefore be coordinated to ensure they are consistent with overall government objectives and decisions.

The communications implications of an announcement are among the issues considered by the Cabinet when it decides on a policy. The content and timing of each public statement of a policy or the announcement of some government action (including appointments, grants or agreements) is coordinated by the responsible Minister, acting with the Minister’s office and department, the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office.

The Prime Minister expects Ministers to consult as well with regional Ministers and affected caucus members on impending announcements and to work with their own deputy ministers.

V - Standards of Conduct

The Prime Minister holds Ministers to the highest standards of conduct for all their actions, including those that are not directly related to their official functions. Ministers are therefore expected to adhere to the following standards in all circumstances, whether they are acting as a Minister, a member of the House of Commons, a senator or a private citizen. This Chapter outlines key areas where established government standards of conduct apply to Ministers.

V.1. Ministerial Conduct

Ministers must act with honesty and must uphold the highest ethical standards so that public confidence and trust in the integrity, objectivity and impartiality of government are maintained and enhanced. Ministers, in particular, have an obligation to perform their official duties and arrange their private affairs in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny. This obligation is not fully discharged merely by acting within the law.

V.2. Conflict of Interest

Ministers and persons working on their behalf are subject to the requirements of the Conflict of Interest and Post-employment Code for Public Office Holders 7  and, effective the first day of the 38th Parliament, Ministers are also subject to the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons in their capacity as members of the House of Commons. The Ethics Commissioner is responsible for administering both Codes, investigating allegations against Ministers and other senior officials involving conflicts of interest, applying compliance measures and briefing Ministers on their responsibilities under the Codes. The obligations of the Conflict of Interest and Post-employment Code for Public Office Holders apply to Ministers and Ministers of State, their exempt staff and Parliamentary Secretaries as well as Governor in Council appointees, and some provisions apply to their families. The Code does not apply to other Senators or Members of Parliament.

Ministers are held accountable by the Prime Minister for their adherence to the provisions of the Conflict of Interest and Post-employment Code for Public Office Holders. In general, the Code addresses basic principles of conduct. In addition, the Code:

- requires Ministers to provide a confidential report to the Ethics Commissioner on their assets and liabilities, their former and current activities and those of their spouse and dependent children;

- outlines rules regarding which assets may or may not continue to be directly managed, and gives direction on how to divest of assets;

- sets limitations on outside activities, acceptance of gifts, invitations to special events and hospitality, and post-employment activities; and

- sets out a recusal mechanism to assist ministers in avoiding conflicts of interest in the performance of their official duties and functions.

Ministers’ adherence to the provisions of the Conflict of Interest and Post-employment Code for Public Office Holders is essential to enhancing confidence in our system of government.

Ministers are also held accountable by the House of Commons (or in the case of Ministers who are Senators, by the Senate), for their adherence to the provisions of the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons (or any similar rules established by the Senate) in their capacity as Members of Parliament.

V.3. Relations with the Judiciary and Other Government Agencies

As Members of Parliament, Ministers have responsibilities to their constituents. However, there are limitations on their ability to act on behalf of constituents or others, including themselves, when dealing with certain government agencies.

The Prime Minister expects Ministers and their staff not to intervene, or appear to intervene, on behalf of anyone, including constituents, with the judiciary concerning any matter before the courts. The Minister of Justice can provide detailed information on relations with the judiciary.

Ministers and their staff are also expected not to intervene, or appear to intervene, on behalf of anyone, including constituents, with federal quasi-judicial tribunals on any matter before them that requires a decision in their quasi-judicial capacity, unless otherwise authorized by law 8  . Ministers are therefore responsible for ensuring that they and their staff understand and respect the need for non-interference and an arm’s length relationship with these organizations.

While Ministers need to be in contact with the agencies within their own portfolios on a broad range of matters, governing statutes give some bodies such as Crown corporations a degree of independence from ministerial direction. A Minister’s degree of control and responsibility for these organizations is defined in the Act that establishes them. Ministers need to know both the details of their responsibilities and the limits of their powers for these organizations. They must also understand and respect their arm’s length relationship with them. 9

In matters regarding another Minister’s portfolio, a Cabinet convention precludes a Minister from speaking about or otherwise becoming involved in a colleague’s portfolio without first gaining the colleague’s approval. This does not preclude the Minister from speaking directly to the Minister responsible. Nor does it prevent the Minister’s staff from raising the concerns of constituents either with the staff of the Minister or through channels in the departments or agencies that are specifically intended for dealing with matters of constituents.

There are situations when the office of a Minister can expect requests for assistance from other members of the Ministry on behalf of their constituents. When such an intervention with an agency is not appropriate because the request concerns a quasi-judicial matter, the office should indicate that an intervention is not possible by any Minister and suggest that the constituent deal directly with the agency.

However, Ministers and their staff may seek information that is available to the public. Guidance can be obtained from the Ethics Commissioner, who provides detailed briefings on this subject to Ministers, their Chiefs of Staff and other members of their staff, including those dealing with constituency issues.

V.4. Invitations

Ministers often receive invitations to participate in or endorse events, community initiatives or publications, to meet with people or to travel to various countries. Ministers must be aware that some invitations may come from individuals or groups who have links to terrorism, crime, or violent or unsavoury foreign regimes.

Ministers are expected to exercise discretion at all times. They are responsible for ensuring the bona fides of those with whom they have dealings. When there is any doubt about accepting an invitation, inquiries should be directed to the Director of Security Operations in the Privy Council Office. The Director will make inquiries, offer general advice to the Minister and arrange briefings as necessary.

VI - Administrative Matters

Ministers have direct administrative responsibilities flowing from their ministerial duties. This Chapter provides information on administrative matters concerning Ministers and their offices. Detailed requirements are also set out in Treasury Board Secretariat’s Guidelines for Ministers’ Offices.

VI.1. Ministers’ Offices and Exempt Staff

Ministers are personally responsible for the conduct and operation of their office. They hire their own office staff, who are known as “political” or “exempt” staff. The staff are outside the official Public Service and are exempt from Public Service Commission staffing and other controls. They are nevertheless subject to a broad range of terms and conditions set by the Treasury Board for the government as a whole.

The purpose of establishing a Minister’s office is to provide Ministers with advisers and assistants who are not departmental public servants, who share their political commitment, and who can complement the professional, expert and non-partisan advice and support of the Public Service. Consequently, they contribute a particular expertise or point of view that the Public Service cannot provide. The exempt staff do not have the authority to give direction to public servants, but they can ask for information or transmit the Minister’s instructions, normally through the deputy minister. Good working relations between the Minister’s office and the department are essential in assisting the Minister and deputy minister in managing departmental work.

A Minister’s office may also include a limited number of Public Service departmental assistants. Departmental staff are public servants in the employ of their departments who are assigned to the Minister’s office and who are expected to carry out their duties in a non-partisan manner. Their role is to liaise with the department as well as to provide administrative support and general assistance to the Minister on departmental or other government matters.

As Members of Parliament, Ministers receive other support provided by the House of Commons or the Senate. Such support is provided and used only in accordance with established House of Commons and Senate rules.

VI.2. Security

The Prime Minister holds Ministers personally accountable for the security of their staff and offices, as well as of “Confidences of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada” (commonly referred to as Cabinet confidences) and other sensitive information in their custody. The Privy Council Office briefs Ministers on applicable security requirements.

Confidences of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada are defined in section 69 of the Access to Information Act and section 70 of the Privacy Act. They include Cabinet documents and other information related to Cabinet decision making.

Deputy ministers are accountable to their Ministers for the security of departmental personnel, information, facilities and other assets. All individuals who work in or for Ministers’ offices (e.g., employees, contractors, students and persons on loan, assignment or secondment) irrespective of their work location, require Level 2 -Secret security clearances, as a minimum, prior to appointment. They must also comply with other security requirements for the safeguarding of government information and assets. Clearances and security briefings are arranged by the deputy minister.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) provide material to Ministers on security precautions they can take to ensure their safety. A 24-hour, 7-day emergency contact number is provided to Ministers by the RCMP. In the case of specific threat, the RCMP can offer additional assistance (e.g., could include driver, vehicle and bodyguard).

Ministers are required to notify their deputy minister immediately of any potential compromise of Cabinet confidences or other security incident. Deputy ministers or the Clerk of the Privy Council can provide Ministers with further information on security matters.

VI.3. Cabinet, Institutional and Personal Records

Records kept in the offices of Ministers must be broken down into four categories: Cabinet documents, institutional records, ministerial records, and personal and political records 10  . Records in these categories are filed separately, for reasons of operating efficiency and confidentiality and to facilitate compliance with statutory requirements. Each category of documents may be subject to different provisions and treatment under some of the relevant laws, such as the Access to Information Act, the Privacy Act, the Security of Information Act, the Canada Evidence Act and the National Archives Act.

Ministers are expected to ensure that the provisions for handling the four categories of records are met. For the most part, however, Ministers delegate this responsibility, relying on their staff to manage and control the documents. Deputy ministers and Library and Archives Canada can provide advice on the procedures.

VI.4. Public Access to Information and Privacy

The Access to Information Act provides a right of public access to information in records under the control of government institutions, subject only to certain necessary exceptions limited and specified in law. Ministers, their deputy ministers and heads of agencies are ultimately responsible for the application of the Act in their respective institutions and within the overall ministerial portfolio. Under the Act, decisions can be reviewed by the Information Commissioner and, ultimately, by the Federal Court.

Ministers are expected to operate entirely in accordance with thelaw when dealing with requests from the public for information. Ministers are responsible for ensuring that necessary actions are taken with respect to departments meeting deadlines and consulting other departments.

The Privacy Act imposes conditions that protect personal information held by government institutions. Under the Act, decisions can be reviewed by the Privacy Commissioner and, ultimately, by the Federal Court. In accordance with the legislation, Ministers may delegate these matters to their deputy minister or other senior officials, but may wish to be advised of particularly important files.

The Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act do not apply to Confidences of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada. However, a decision of the Federal Court of Appeal has made accessible, subject to exemptions in the Acts, background explanations, analysis of problems or policy options contained in Cabinet documents once a Cabinet decision has been made public, or, if the decision has not been made public, four years after the decision was made. Government policy requires that government institutions consult with the Privy Council Office in all instances where information which may qualify as a Cabinet Confidence has been identified in response to a request under the Act.

When producing papers in Parliament, Ministers are expected to ensure that requests for information (for example, in response to a Notice of Motion) are met. Matters related to the production of papers in Parliament are coordinated with the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons.

VI.5. Financial and Resource Management

Ministers’ expenditures are subject to statutory and Treasury Board policies governing the use of public moneys. These conditions are set out in Treasury Board Secretariat’s Guidelines for Ministers’ Offices, and cover matters such as:

  • security clearance requirements;
  • exempt staff and hiring by contract;
  • salary rates and employee benefits;
  • departmental staff assigned to Ministers’ offices;
  • contracting policies and procedures;
  • budgets, expenditure authorization, and accounting for expenditures charged to Ministers’ budgets;
  • office accommodation and supplies; and
  • travel and use of government aircraft and ministerial vehicles.

Ministerial responsibilities include ensuring that all expenditures in Ministers’ offices are properly and prudently managed and are related to the conduct of official business. Deputy ministers and the Treasury Board Secretariat can provide further information.

Expenditures by Ministers, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries are subject to scrutiny by Parliament. Ministers, Ministers of State, Ministers' exempt staff and Parliamentary Secretaries are required to disclose publicly, by posting on their departmental Web-sites, all hospitality and travel expenses incurred during program-related business. Reports will cover the financial quarter, and will be posted on departmental Web-sites within 30 calendar days following the last day of the quarter. Ministers should be aware that high standards are expected of them. This policy will also apply to Parliamentary Secretaries and deputy ministers.

VI.6. Ministerial Travel Coordination

All proposed ministerial travel is coordinated with the Prime Minister’s Office well in advance and before making commitments. Ministers are also expected to consult the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons or the Chief Government Whip and to ensure the availability of acting Ministers. When making use of government aircraft, Ministers should make every effort to ensure joint travel in the interests of efficient use of government resources. However, for security purposes, no more than eight Ministers of the Crown may travel on the same aircraft at the same time.

Generally speaking, Ministers should limit travel abroad, especially while Parliament is in session. They should inform their deputy minister and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police of their travel plans in order to be advised of any particular security concerns and suggested protection measures. The actual arrangements for official foreign travel are coordinated by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Ministers planning private travel abroad also need to inform the Minister of Foreign Affairs well in advance, since security or policy considerations may be involved. All goods acquired by Ministers abroad are subject to normal customs requirements and examination, and must be declared on arrival.

Ministers must not accept travel on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft for any purpose except in exceptional circumstances, and only with the prior approval of the Ethics Commissioner and public disclosure of the use of such aircraft. Any hospitality accepted must strictly adhere to the requirements of the Conflict of Interest and Post-employment Code for Public Office Holders.

VI.7. Foreign Honours

Long-standing government policy requires Ministers not to seek the offer of, nor to accept, a foreign order or decoration, either personally or on behalf of a colleague.

1 Details may be found in Responsibility in the Constitution,  Privy Council Office, 1993.

2 See Chapter VI, section 1 regarding exempt staff.

3 See Annex B, section 5 regarding Orders in Council.

4 See Annex A, section 3 for a definition of Governor in Council.

5 See Chapter 1 and Annex A for more information about responsible government.

6 See Notes on the Responsibilities of Public Servants in Relation to Parliamentary Committees, available from the Privy Council Office.\

7 Available from the Ethics Commissioner, deputy ministers or the Privy Council Office.

8 See Annex E for additional information on dealings with quasi-judicial tribunals.

9 See Annex F for additional guidance on Crown corporations.

10 Annex D provides a detailed description of the four categories of documents.