Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Civil Service in Canada


[This article was written in 1948; for the full citation, see the end of the text.]


Civil Service, the term used to denote the non-political officials of government, whether in the Dominion or the provinces. Prior to the advent of responsible government, there was no civil service in Canada, in the modern sense of the term. The officers of government were all appointed by the Crown, or by its provincial representative, and held office "during the pleasure of the Crown", which meant in practise that they held office "during good behaviour". The introduction of full responsible government in 1849, however, involved the drawing of a distinction between the political and non-political officers of government; and it brought about also the inauguration of something resembling the American "spoils" system, whereby appointments to the non-political offices of government were used for purposes of political patronage by the party in power. This system was continued on the formation of the Dominion, in 1867, under the Canada Civil Service Act, 1868; and until 1882 the evils of party patronage continued unabated. The Civil Service Act, 1882, instituted a Board of Civil Service Examiners, who examined all candidates for admission to the civil service; and these examinations prevented at least the appointment of illiterates, if they did little more. But the first real attempt to eliminate patronage was not made until 1908, when the Civil Service Amendment Act of that year set up a Civil Service Commission, which was to make appointments to the civil service chiefly on the basis of competitive examinations. Only the "inside service" - the departmental officials - were brought under the commission at first; and patronage continued to operate in the "outside service". But the Act marked a great improvement; and if it had been loyally administered would have brought about in the Canadian civil service conditions similar to those prevailing in the British civil service. Unfortunately, the period of the Great War, with its disruption of the normal processes of government, disorganized the work of the Civil Service Commission; and in 1917 the chairman resigned. On the formation of a union government in 1917, however, a genuine effort was made to bring about reform. The "outside service" was brought under the Civil Service Commission; and the Commission was given, in conjunction with the deputy heads of departments, greater control over appointments and promotions in the "inside service". Political influence was, however, still strong enough in 1918 and subsequent years to bring about the exemption of a large number of offices from control by the Commission; and by 1919 political patronage had returned in no small measure.


An account of the history and work of the Canadian civil service will be found in R. M. Dawson, The civil service of Canada (London, 1929).


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College