At the top of the Canadian political food chain sits the federal cabinet; 24 Members of Parliament selected by the Prime-Minister to manage this vast and diverse nation. These MP’s invited into Cabinet are called Ministers, and each one heads a Ministry that is broken down into federal departments. The number of Cabinet Ministers changes from Prime-Minister to Prime-Minister, but a few are mainstays (such as the position of Prime-Minister).
Under the constitution, the Governor-General, acting as the Crown’s representative in Canada, selects the members to serve in Cabinet. This formality, however, comes with a twist: the Governor-General can only select those MP’s chosen by the Prime-Minister! Once the Governor-General has approved of the Prime-Minister’s selections, Parliament as a whole then must ratify each candidate. When there is a majority government in Parliament this is no problem, but in the few times when Canada has been led by a minority government, MP’s from all political parties are often included in the Cabinet.
Canada’s first Cabinet was formed in 1867 by Prime-Minister Sir John A. MacDonald. It consisted of 18 Ministers from both the Conservative and Liberal parties, including the Minister of Finance, Minister of Agriculture and the Attorney-General, posts that still exist today.
Canada’s largest cabinet was under Conservative Prime-Minister Brian Mulroney. He had 40 Ministers in his Cabinet, with such titles as “Minister for Literacy” and “Minister of Soil Quality Research”. During the belt-tightening governments of Prime-Minister Jean Chretien in the 1990’s, the number of Cabinet positions was reduced to 23, but has since inched back up again to 39 positions under current Prime-Minister Stephen Harper.
Canada’s smallest-ever Cabinet had only 14 Ministers in it, under Liberal Prime-Minister Wilfrid Laurier.
Many Cabinet positions have been come and gone, while others have had their names altered or their responsibilities shifted. A few of the positions have stuck around since the very first government in 1867. Cabinet Ministers hold their government bureaucracies accountable to the electorate, in principle, although in the modern world the bloated size of government departments makes it impossible for a single Member of Parliament to manage everything. Also, while Ministers come and go, lose elections and are reshuffled to new positions, senior bureaucrats stick around and as a result tend to hold their political bosses in contempt.
Nevertheless, under the law the Cabinet Ministers are the managers of Canada’s government. Listed below are the various Ministries operating below and the dates they were first established:
- Prime Minister of Canada: 1867
- Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development: 1867
- Minister of National Defence: 1923
- Attorney-General of Canada: 1867
- Minister of Health: 1996
- Minister of Public Works: 1996
- Minister of Foreign Affairs: 1993
- President of the Treasury Board: 1966
- Minister of Finance: 1867
- Leader of the Government in the House of Commons: 1944
- Minister of Employment and Social Development: 2013
- Minister of Agriculture: 1867
- Minister of International Development: 1996
- Minister of Industry: 1995
- President of the Queen’s Privy Council: 1867
- Minister of the Environment: 1971
- Minister of Transport: 1936
- Minister of Fisheries and Oceans: 1979
- Minister of Veteran’s Affairs: 1944
- Minister of Public Safety: 2003
- Minister of International Trade: 1983
- Minister of Natural Resources: 1995
- Minister of Revenue: 1927
- Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages: 1996
- Minister of Citizenship and Immigration: 1994
- Minister of Labour: 1909
- Chief Government Whip: 1963
- Minister of State: 2006
There are various “Ministers of State” for assorted boutique departments with minimal funding, such as the “Minister of State for Sport” and the “Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification”, but these ministries come and go and don’t play that big of a part in the governance of Canada, and they all fall under the Ministry of State.
One of the most important functions of the federal Cabinet is to come up with, once per year, the federal budget for the next year. Cabinet Ministers will plan and budget and meet and compromise for months before bringing the official document to Parliament for a vote. In the event that the budget is voted down in Parliament, the government loses the confidence of Parliament and the Governor-General calls a new election. The result of this immense pressure to stay in government makes Cabinet see the creation of a solid budget as it’s number one priority.
Canada’s federal Cabinet will continue to change as new challenges face the country in the years to come. Some positions, such as the Minister of Finance, are mainstays that will never go away, while others, such as the Minister of State for Small Business, probably won’t be around for too long. Whether the government is Liberal or Conservative, majority or minority, the Cabinet is there with their hand on the nation’s steering wheel.