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Defending a Contested Ideal

Luc Juillet
Ken Rasmussen

Chapter 2. Creating a Merit System: 1918-1944

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We have studied with some care the Constitution and the duties of the Civil Service Commission in Britain. Both bodies exist for the fulfillment of the same purpose—to make impossible the admission of unfit persons to the Civil Service, as the result of private influence. As will presently be seen, however, the duties of the Civil Service Commissioners in Britain are much less extensive than those embodied in the Civil Service Act of Canada. We have been strongly impressed by the greater freedom of the British commissioners to concentrate upon the principal purpose for which they were appointed, the selection of staff, (emphasis added)
Royal Commission on Technical and Professional Services,
1930, p. 18

  • 1 Revised Statues of Canada (1918), Chapter 12, Section 32, amended by 10 George V (1919), c.10.

1The context of the First World War and pressures associated with Canada’s Union Government made conditions ideal for the passage of a new Civil Service Act. In 1918, a new act was enacted, and with amendments in 1919, it virtually eliminated patronage from the entire public service, not just the Ottawa-based or Inside Service.1 The demands of reformers had been met and the rope of patronage that they felt was strangling the public service was finally severed. From this time forward, the ties that bound the public service to political parties were cut and the convention of neutral competence enjoyed some standing in law. This was an important first step in a process leading to a more interventionist state in Canada, which required a depoliticized public service capable of some self-direction. Yet at the same moment it seemed to be recognized that the public service could regulate itself only at the expense of external political control. The need for a neutrally competent public service and the need for political oversight of the public service would come into conflict over the next several decades.

  • 2 John Swettenham and David Kealy (1970), Serving the State: A History of the Professional Institute (...)

2The Civil Service Act of 1918 officially ended patronage appointment and as a result the Crown prerogative was reduced and there was now a formal separation of personnel administration from general management. While all these changes to the power structure within the institutions of government were substantial, it was the separation of personnel administration from general management that would have the biggest impact. This separation not only marked the end of an unambiguous executive authority over personnel management but also substantially increased the power of the Civil Service Commission, which guarded, protected and promoted its new authority. Hiving off personnel authority was a necessary step in bringing about merit-based recruitment and promotion. It, in turn, ensured that new public service values related to integrity, honesty, probity and impartiality could now flow from a process of merit appointment, allowing public servants to be dedicated but impartial servants of ministers. Public servants were now expected to be servants of the state.2

  • 3 Paul du Gay (1994), “Making Up Managers: Bureaucracy, Enterprise and the Liberal Art of Separation (...)

3Creating a separate sphere for staffing authority in the CSC was a crucial reform for all concerned if genuine merit appointment was to be achieved. Anything less would have been susceptible, or would have appeared to be susceptible, to political influence. An independent commission was established because there was a consensus to do so; it was demanded by all parties. This separation of the administrative from the political became an important and durable feature of Canada’s public service and resulted in a substantial shift of power in Ottawa. An independent commission resulted in a deliberate system of administrative pluralism that became a significant source of equality and greater freedom for Canadian citizens, and worked to ensure that the effective operation of government was achieved without too much authority accumulating in the hands of the executive branch. Separating the political from the bureaucratic also reinforced accountability, hierarchy and political control, while creating a separate neutral sphere in terms of the ethical conduct and behavioural norms expected from public servants.3

4From the day it was given its expanded mandate through the Civil Service Act (1918) and took on its modern form, the CSC began to wrestle with the complexities and tensions associated with developing this separate sphere of personnel management. Much effort focused on creating a merit system for recruitment and promotion. Until 1908, the idea guiding reformers had always been that the most efficient and effective public workforce was to be identified through competitive examinations open to all Canadians. Those who achieved the highest results would have the first claim on jobs in the public service. Yet, by 1918, it was clear that appointment to the public service would never be based solely on examination results and that other assessments of a candidate’s worth and suitability for a public service career would be part of the operational definition of merit.

5This chapter will explore three themes that characterized the CSC’s struggle to create a merit system that would find broad support among Canadians between the two world wars. During this very difficult twenty-five-year period, the CSC tried to ensure that appointment was based on fairness and equity in terms of access, that the public service was operationally efficient and that public servants were not subject to politicization in terms of appointment or influence. To achieve these goals, the merit system had to be fair; however, exceptions to a strict version of merit would quickly come to be accepted by the CSC and the broader community. First, the case of women and veterans illustrates how difficult it was for the CSC to live up to the ideal of merit in the face of social and political pressures. Second, merit and a career system were seen to be linked in the minds of many early reformers, but after 1918 it became obvious that strict adherence to merit appointment and promotion would limit the potential pool of candidates for senior positions to those recruited at the lowest ranks. The elements of what made up a career service would need to be redefined to include efficiency criteria that could only be achieved by recruiting professionals and ‘superior’ individuals into the senior ranks of the public service. This was particularly important as the size of government and the scope of activities of the public service increased. Third, the responsibility and authority of the CSC was frequently questioned by MPs concerned about an organization with significant executive authority not subject to the traditional doctrine of ministerial responsibility and thus beyond parliamentary scrutiny. The dangers of the autonomy accorded to the CSC, and consequently, the public service, would be put on the agenda by MPs but would not be seriously heeded by the government, which continued to use new autonomous bodies with increasing regularity. Concerns of growing bureaucratic despotism were overcome through a variety of formal and informal control mechanisms centred on the Cabinet and particularly the Treasury Board.


6Despite looming challenges, by 1918 the CSC was in its modern form and would have no major reforms made to its structure or its authority until 1967. While the Civil Service Act passed in 1918 was not particularly new or original, it was nevertheless important because it extended the power of the CSC to the entire public service and gave it a number of new responsibilities regarding the organization and classification of the entire public service. The key activity of the CSC was the administration of competitive exams from which the CSC would compile an eligibility list that became the basis of appointment to all positions. Appointments were to be probationary for six months, during which time the deputy head could either accept or reject the appointment or extend it for another six months. Under this mandate, the CSC was receiving over 100,000 applications a year by 1921 and was conducting as many as 21,000 examinations in every region of Canada with the help of hundreds of examiners. The CSC had grown from a handful of people in 1908 to a large unit of more than 135 employees by 1920.

7This organizational growth and activity was due to the new range of responsibilities assigned to the CSC under the 1918 Civil Service Act. Specifically, the CSC now had full authority to hold examination for transfers and promotions in the public service, investigate and report on the operation of the Civil Service Act and any violations, report on the organization of departments, make recommendations for the efficient administration of the service, make an annual report to Parliament, and compile an annual civil service list. The most important of these new responsibilities were organizing the Inside Service and the Outside Service, classifying all positions, defining the duties of each position, and determining suitable salaries. By 1920, the CSC was at the centre of personnel management in Canada.

8However, with this new authority came new challenges. In particular, the CSC began to search for ways to establish a merit system to balance competitive examination with other important values. Interestingly, the Civil Service Act of 1918 did not explicitly define merit or the merit principle. It offered a description of the merit system that focused on recruiting those fit for the duties they would perform and ensuring that public servants would be prohibited from any involvement with political parties. With regard to the recruitment of qualified candidates, the Civil Service Act noted that

  • 4 10 George V, Chapter 10, Section 38.

the examinations held by the Commission to establish lists of persons eligible for appointment may be written or oral or in the form of a demonstration of skill or any combination of these and shall be of a character fairly to test and determine the relative fitness and ability of candidates actually to perform the duties of the class to which they seek to be appointed.4

  • 5 10 George V, Chapter 10, Section 32.
  • 6 Chris Williams (1985), “The Concept of Bureaucratic Neutrality,” Australian Journal of Public Admi (...)

9With regard to the prohibition against partisan activity, the act noted that no public servant “shall engage in partisan work in connection with any such election, or contribute, receive or in any way deal with any money or any party funds.”5It should be noted that nowhere in the act was neutrality defined in terms of anonymity, secrecy or providing loyal service; it was defined, rather, in terms of party political activity, in the sense that party affiliation should not influence the public service.6 While these principles were straightforward, there were many exceptions to the rules and indeed the act listed a host of exemptions, including exemptions for language, locality, gender and age.

10Two examples of the original balancing act performed by the CSC stand out. Women were actively discriminated against while veterans were given special privileges that ranked them ahead of more meritorious non-veterans on eligibility lists. Women and veterans represented two different claims on public service employment and had two different trajectories, but both groups would underscore the malleable meaning of merit and a willingness on the part of the CSC to respond to external social and political pressures. The CSC openly denied the obvious merit of women, acknowledging that its policies were based on sexual prejudice, while giving added privilege to veterans, many of whom had problems in securing public employment without the veterans’ preference.

  • 7 Sessional Papers, No. 31 9–10, Edward VII A, 1910, 17
  • 8 Ibid, 18.

11The issue of hiring women into the public service concerned the CSC from its inception in 1908 and it accepted that it would need to discriminate against women and restrict their role and eligibility for promotions so that it could make public service attractive to male candidates. In fact, the 1908 amendments to the Civil Service Act allowed the commission, on the recommendation of deputy heads, to specify the sex of candidates if it was felt that jobs clearly required a male candidate. The CSC noted that certain work involving carrying large files and books up and down ladders was not suitable for women, nor were those positions requiring travel alone from Ottawa, because “for obvious reasons, male clerks are required in positions involving such duties.”7 In its very first report to Parliament, the CSC observed that women were much more eager to work for government, in all of its divisions, for the salaries that the government was willing to pay. However, appointments, especially in the higher first and second divisions, were in fact limited almost entirely to men. The CSC observed in its report that “were these positions open to women, there would be no difficulty in securing candidates well qualified on the grounds of ability alone to fill the position.”8

  • 9 Ibid, 17.

12 The CSC was quite honest about the problem and starkly noted, “It is freely admitted that there are women who have quite as good executive ability as men, and who might, on the mere grounds of personal qualification, fill the higher positions of the service.”9 Yet, the problem was that if these positions at the bottom of the hierarchy were open to women, this training ground for the male clerks would be lost, making the ideal of an internally recruited career public service harder to sustain. Women were restricted both in the sorts of clerical work they were permitted to do and in the sorts of promotions they were eligible for, so that junior male clerks would have the opportunity to move up the hierarchy.

  • 10 Graham Lowe (1980), “Women, Work and the Office: The Feminization of Clerical Occupations in Canad (...)
  • 11 Ibid, 364.
  • 12 Kathleen Archibald (1972), Sex and the Public Service, Ottawa, Queen’s Printer.

13While active discrimination against women would continue for decades in a variety of forms, women entered the civil service in large numbers during the First World War and, with the coming of position classification in 1919, they would begin to move in with even greater frequency. However, the movement of women into the civil service was part of the much larger social trend leading to the feminization of clerical work that ultimately revealed that the use of legislation and formal hiring policies was not meant to expand women’s opportunities but rather severely restrict such opportunities.10 In fact, the CSC did not see women as suitable for middle or senior positions and expressed concern that “the preponderance of women in the lower echelons of the service would eliminate these positions as a training ground for male officials.”11 The feminization of the lower ranks made the myth of a career in public service even harder to maintain because it created incentives for outside recruitment of men into the middle and senior ranks of the public service. While women were hired due to the labour shortages caused by the First World War, and then the Second World War, they were only permitted to occupy the lowest echelons of the hierarchy and after both wars women were expected to vacate their positions in favour of returning veterans. By 1921, the CSC implemented a rule that barred women from permanent positions within the public service.12 Women also faced a notorious marriage bar, meaning that when a woman married, she was expected to resign her position. This particular regulation lasted past the Second World War.

  • 13 Donald Creighton (1971), Canada’s First Century, 1867–1967, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 135.
  • 14 Theda Skocpol (1992), Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in t (...)

14While women felt the negative effects of this disregard for the merit principle, veterans reaped the benefits of an expanding and malleable definition of merit. Specifically, the government engaged in a policy of conscription during the First World War that was unpopular in many regions of the country and was reluctantly implemented towards the end of the war. Conscription inaugurated a period in which the country began to develop the notion of reciprocal obligations between the state and citizens. Prior to the war, the state “made few demands and imposed few obligations; but, in compensation, it performed few services and gave little assistance. There were no mothers’ or children’s allowances, and no pensions for the blind or the aged.”13 However, during the war, the state asked, and eventually legislated, that its citizens die for services. The more that was demanded of citizens, the more citizens could legitimately expect from the state. Thus, notions of veterans’ benefits and widows’ benefits created the beginnings of the modern welfare state.14

15Topping the list of immediate obligations to veterans was the issue of pensions and employment in the public service. Prior to the First World War, veterans of conflicts involving Canadian soldiers, specifically the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 and the Boer War of 1899-1902, received grants of land and more generous rates of pay and allowances when they were employed by the Canadian government as a form of compensation. However, during the First World War, a more formal system of pensions was deemed necessary to attract soldiers, especially given the hostility of Canadians towards conscription. Indeed, the minister of militia and defence at the beginning of the First World War, Sir Sam Hughes, decided that it was necessary to take care of the veterans of previous conflicts to ensure that those who were now being encouraged to sign up would be assured of compensation in the event that they were maimed or killed.

  • 15 Canada, House of Commons (1938), “Special Committee on the Operations of the Civil Service Act,” M (...)
  • 16 Ibid.

16Consequently, public service employment was seen not as the privilege of individuals involved in partisan politics but rather as the right of those who had served the state in battle and especially of those who had been injured in battle. As early as 1916, the various governments in Canada agreed to the following rule: “that all Dominion and Provincial Government and Municipal positions as they fall vacant be filled by partially disabled men if they are capable of doing the work required.”15 This was the beginning of the modern notion of employment equity, which altered the notion of merit as established through competitive examination and made characteristics such as gender, race, language and disability hiring considerations. Until the eve of the Second World War, the Amputations Association of the Great War felt that such actions on the part of Canadian governments “give expression to the wish of the people of Canada who felt at that time and still feel that the public services of this country would be enriched and rightly so by men who had rendered faithful service to the State in the time of war.”16

  • 17 Revised States of Canada (1927), Chapter 22.
  • 18 Gregory B. Lewis and Mark A. Emmert (1984), “Who Pays for Veterans’ Preference?”, Administration a (...)
  • 19 Gordon H. Josie (1945), “Administration of the Veterans’ Preference in the Canadian Civil Service, (...)

17Eventually, the Civil Service Act included preferences for three classes of individuals. These were pensioned veterans who were incapacitated because of the war and could not pursue their former employment, veterans who had been on active service and finally, widows of fallen soldiers. Disabled veterans were granted the first preference.17 Preferences resulted in a higher placement on the eligibility lists from which public servants were hired when there was an opening. Veterans still had to write the general examinations for the class of employment they were seeking, but if a veteran received a minimum pass mark, this placed him above those who received better marks but were not veterans. Of course, this meant that the best qualified candidates were not appointed. Instead, only the best qualified veterans were hired, a practice that had the potential to negatively affect other groups.18 Veterans were granted an absolute preference, as opposed to the American system, in which veterans were given bonus points on civil service examinations: 10 for disabled veterans and 5 for all other veterans.19

  • 20 Ibid, 604.

18This willingness to engage in a broadening of the definition of merit reflected the needs of the nation, the demands of political constituencies and the preferences of political elites at the time. Nevertheless, it became clear that various exemptions to the principle of open competition would begin to collide. For example, an amendment to the Civil Service Act created the “locality preference” requiring that local positions, defined as any position outside Ottawa, be filled by an individual who had resided in that locality for at least one year. This provision took precedence over the veterans’ preferences, but the rationale for giving priority to residency was not clear.20 A language requirement was added in 1938 prohibiting the appointment of individuals unless they had knowledge of the language of the majority of the members of the public that they dealt with. Since departments were delegated the responsibility of specifying the nature of language requirements, in Quebec, for example, this meant that francophone non-veterans were higher on eligibility lists for most public service posts than Anglophone veterans. There were also a variety of age restrictions related to examinations and older applicants were discouraged, and in some cases, restricted from applying. While thirty-five was the age limit, it was generally accepted that the service was always looking for younger male employees. Merit was originally determined by competitive examinations, but this simple procedure quickly ran into problems and was subject to a large list of exemptions, some contained in the Civil Service Act of 1918 itself, related to languages, temporary appointments, layoffs, locations of employees, age restrictions and nationality. Women and veterans represent two groups of potential employees that exposed the contested nature of merit. Even with all its independence and freedom from the institutions of government, the CSC remained mindful of the needs of Cabinet and Parliament and the overall mood of the nation in crafting its policies and procedures as well as its definition of merit.


19The CSC would never actually adopt a merit-based staffing philosophy based solely on success in national examinations. Early in its history, it also demonstrated due regard for other characteristics that would contribute to building an effective and responsive public service. Balancing the building blocks of merit was never easy. However, while merit needed to be broadened to accommodate new characteristics, the merit system, in the form of position classification, quickly became a source of controversy Here, we witness the first echoes of the now familiar theme that rather than protecting public servants from inappropriate pressure from politicians, the CSC was creating a structure that was better at protecting mediocre public servants and limiting the ability of the public service to recruit the best and the brightest. The CSC was coming to be viewed not as an agent of increased efficiency but rather as one that reduced the effectiveness of the public service as an instrument of democracy. The problem for critics was that the CSC’s system of position classification did not really allow for considerations such as “fitness” or “character” when selecting public servants. Thus, the public service that was being built was not that of the superior generalist; rather, it was becoming the preserve of the narrow specialist recruited to a particular job and not to public service as a career or vocation. Replacing patronage with merit was designed to rid the civil service of the plague of inefficiency for the last time, but the system that was used, based on the principles of scientific management, raised a number of serious concerns lacking easy resolution.

  • 21 Canada, Civil Service Commission (1919), The Classification of the Civil Service of Canada, Arthur (...)
  • 22 V. Seymour Wilson (1982), “The Influence of Organization Theory in Canadian Public Administration, (...)
  • 23 Hodgetts et al. (1972), The Biography of an institution, 93–100.

20The problem that would never be satisfactorily resolved involved the desire to build a merit-based job classification system as well as a classic career civil service in which recruitment into the lower ranks would eventually be the source of civil service leadership. The problems with combining these two goals appeared quickly. In 1919-1920, the commission hired the noted American management consulting firm of Arthur Young and Company to investigate and classify every position in the civil service.21 The result of their efforts was a 678-page volume with more than 1,700 separate classifications.22 This system of classification would exist for decades and its impact still lingers in the public service. It also brought about a great deal of conflict with deputy ministers and probably represented the greatest threat to the very existence of the CSC during its early years.23

  • 24 V. Seymour Wilson (1973), “The Relationship between Scientific Management and Personnel Policy in (...)

21At the time, position classification was based on the theoretical principles of scientific management, which fit nicely with hierarchical ideals supported by the CSC as it worked to establish a viable merit system. As position classification was closely allied with scientific management, it contained much of its zeal and its faith in progress, reason and the ability of rational comprehensive planning to solve all personnel management problems in the public service. Within the classification movement itself, there was an emphasis on work as an “abstract phenomenon, analytically separated from the worker. To the practitioner of civil service classification this meant that what was to be classified was always the job, never the person.”24 This was its great promise but, to many critics, its great weakness as well.

  • 25 Report of the Special Committee of the Operation of the Civil Service Act, Minutes and Proceedings(...)

22Position classification would provide a foundation that would permit the equitable treatment of public employees through the accurate definition, orderly arrangement, and fair examination of all public service positions. Initially, this seemed like a blessing in that it substituted patronage with the more rational criteria of utility, achievement and performance. It was expected to advance the “principle of equal pay and fair pay for equal work.”25 Employees across the country would be hired and paid according to the work that they performed and the system would become fair, equitable and transparent.

  • 26 Gerald Caiden (1991), “What Really Is Public Maladministration?” Public Administration Review, vol (...)

23Unfortunately, the enthusiasm and extravagant expectations for reform were not matched by the classification scheme that actually emerged and that inflicted long-term damage on the former ideal of what a merit-based career public service should in fact look like. It became apparent that this system created a rigid hierarchy that became the antithesis of the ideals of a merit-based public service committed to competence, character and a lifelong vocation of public service.26 The classification scheme proved to be so damaging to the idea of an efficient, motivated public service that a Special Committee of the House of Commons was established to examine a private member’s bill that advocated removing certain positions from the purview of the CSC entirely and placing them once again in the hands of ministers and deputy ministers.

24The issue was to what extent the CSC should impose this rigid position classification system on the entire public service. This Special Committee accepted the necessity of eliminating patronage from the service, but conversely

  • 27 Journals (1921), Appendix No. 3, 369.

when the application of this principle seriously affects the prompt and efficient administration of public business the interest of the State and not the interest of the Civil Service is paramount.27

  • 28 Revised Statutes of Canada (1918), An Act to Amend the Civil Service Act, Chapter 22, 1921.

25The merit system could not be allowed to become an impediment to the ideal of a merit-based public service designed to create an effective instrument of government. Thus, the position classification system could not trump all other values in building an effective public service based on criteria such as locality or language, or even less tangible criteria such as fitness for a public service career and character. The biggest fear was that the regulations and salary structure contained in the classification scheme would discourage qualified professionals and experts from a public service career. Most professionals would be attracted to the private sector, where they did not have to write exams, where their salaries were higher, and where their status was greater. The merit system had to build a structure that would attract and promote individuals with the skills and character needed to ensure that they spent their career in public service. Because of these arguments, a bill amending the Civil Service Act was passed, allowing both manual labour and professional categories to be removed from the control of the CSC and placed in the hands of deputies.28

26Noteworthy is this amendment’s underlying philosophy: keep the upper reaches of the public service free from excessive control by the CSC. If efficiency and effectiveness were the primary concerns, so the argument went, an excessive concern for fairness, equality and other aspects of the merit system should not interfere with the efficient implementation of the public will. Clearly, this was a new skirmish for the CSC in the more or less ongoing battle between the needs of fairness and the needs of efficiency. The CSC ended up defending both positions in an attempt to broaden its definition of merit.

  • 29 For the Report of Committee of Deputy Ministers, see Journals (1923), Appendix No. 5, 1038–1042, 1 (...)
  • 30 Ibid, 1040.
  • 31 Ibid, 1041.

27Deputy heads, despite their overall acceptance of the CSC, were concerned about the new merit system because it threatened their ability to manage their departments. They were especially concerned about losing their power to appoint professional, technical and other senior personnel. Even Adam Shortt, former chair of the CSC, in his new role as head of the Historical Records Branch, complained about the practice, in which experts and professionals would no longer be selected by deputies but rather through a time-consuming national search. Yet, the CSC would not budge from its defence of this new system, always insisting that it was fair and just. The deputy community, not unreasonably, felt that promotions should be regulated departmentally rather than through the CSC, which was beginning to conduct, according to the deputies, useless and ineffective promotion examinations. Eventually, deputies argued for a complete repeal of the classification system, which they felt was “a positive hindrance to effective administration.”29 Ultimately, they hoped to return to a system “divided into a number of classes on lines similar to those established by the Civil Service Act of 1908 or 1918.”30 The aim was to divide the service into two or perhaps three classes, with one elite class that would be closed off to promotion from the others, with a few exceptions. Besides creating an administrative elite, deputies also desired the complete control of transfers, leave of absences, cost-of-living bonuses and other personnel authority that had been accumulated under the CSC. Additionally, and characteristically, they completely opposed any form of tripartitism in the negotiations of salaries within the public service.31 What was constant in these complaints was the deputies’ desire to ensure that their own ability to manage was not diminished.

28It may not be surprising that deputy ministers would be comfortable with abandoning the idea of a unified career service based on job classification. More unusual was the eventual acceptance of this view by the CSC itself. Charles H. Bland had been with the commission since its inception in 1908, initially as a senior clerk, and he eventually became its highly regarded chairman in 1935. He had been an unceasing champion of examinations, probationary periods and a host of other reforms which he hoped would greatly improve the operations of the public service. Yet, as he came to see it, the greatest problem in the public service was the myth that it was a career system.

  • 32 For the Report of the Special Select Committee on the Civil Service and the Civil Service Act, see(...)

[If] the entire service... is to be recruited only from the lowest grades and the higher positions are to be continuously and completely filled by promotion, I think you are going to have a weakening in your structure, perhaps not for a few years, but in ten or fifteen years you will have a decided weakening.32

29A key for a truly merit-based public service was the ability to recruit highly skilled individuals who would be better able to deal with the complex policy issues facing governments.

  • 33 Ibid, 866.
  • 34 Ibid, 867.

30Bland was not a critic of merit, but rather he questioned the rigid merit system that was making it difficult to recruit experts and professionals. Of course, promotion to the highest positions always needed to be open to those in the system. However, Bland warned, “If we are going to keep up the standard of the service, particularly for executive positions, we must not only promote from the lower grades, but bring in a modicum each year of material for executive and administrative positions.”33 Bland’s idea was that “promotion will be carried on just as before, but instead of everybody coming in at the bottom some will come in a few steps further up.”34 This idea of a merit-based administrative elite was simply an acknowledgement of reality and came to be endorsed by most Canadian intellectuals of the day.

  • 35 W. L. Grant (1934), “The Civil Service of Canada,” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 3:2, 437.

31The emerging consensus, as articulated by W. L. Grant, president of the Civil Service Reform League of Canada, was that a rigid merit system might be justifiable at the bottom of the civil service more than at the top because the bottom was where the worst abuses of patronage had occurred.35 The merit system was not necessary at the top of the hierarchy because merit was assured by the technical and intellectually demanding skills of the job. However, a merit system that would guarantee neutrality and non-partisanship was essential to ensure that the bottom of the hierarchy did not again become abused by political parties and politicians.

32Throughout this period, there was growing popularity for some exclusions to the coverage of the CSC and a willingness to accept fragmentation in the operation of the merit system. This in itself is an important indicator of the changes that were taking place in the political and administrative culture of Canada during the interwar period. There were growing demands for positive action from government requiring quick responses by dedicated experts working in the public interest. One way of making sure this quick action was taken in the best interest of the nation was to ensure that a disinterested, but highly regarded, elite was at the helm of the public service. Some even argued that this form of elite rule was both inevitable and highly desirable in a liberal democracy; it was the only way a liberal democracy could be saved from its own mediocrity. An efficient bureaucracy would therefore require the sacrifice of some of the democratic procedures and safeguards that were coming to surround appointment to the public service in Canada. In place of these democratic procedures would stand a responsible public service elite conscious of the national interest.

  • 36 Geneviève Lépine (2007), The Web of Rules, A Study of the Relationship Between Regulations of Publ (...)

33However, despite some willingness on the part of Chairman Bland to consider modifying merit recruitment at the senior levels, the CSC would remain committed to ensuring that the merit system prevailed throughout the civil service from top to bottom, excluding of course deputy ministers. The consequences of this hard line would be felt in subsequent years, with managers engaging in phony promotions, grade escalations and temporary appointments to circumvent the established rules. Thus, the CSC, rather than building a professional, career-based public service instead entered the business of building a control structure that would come to frustrate public service managers for decades. Its emphasis was on control and reporting, not on professional autonomy and decentralized authority. Rather than being a personnel management agency supporting line managers, the CSC was coming to act as a management agency imposing control that would create conflict and disagreement and lead to an early example of the problems now associated with the so-called web of rules.36

34Specifically, one of the problems attributed to this “web of rules” was the increased growth of non-departmental forms of organization staffed by professionals and experts from outside the purview of the CSC. The establishment of such forms of organization was symptomatic of the growing complexity of policy-making and the contentious environment in which policy was made, but also the desire to be free from the burden of control imposed by the CSC. It also reflected the growing conflict that existed between public service managers and the CSC over issues such as promotions, discipline and transfers when authority resided with the CSC and responsibility for results often resided with the public service manager. This problem relating to the division of responsibility between managers and the commission had been apparent from the time the CSC was created. Yet, an important tenet of public management within a democratic society was the new view that authority for personnel management and policy must remain somewhat aloof from executive authority despite the problems this might create for managers.

  • 37 Canada (1930), Royal Commission on Technical and Professional Services, Report, Ottawa, King’s Pri (...)

35Despite the recognition of the need to keep personnel policy separate from political authority, problems with elite recruitment ultimately resulted in the appointment of the Royal Commission on Technical and Professional Services.37 For Canada to prosper in this new era of positive government, it needed the active, energetic and creative use of the discretion that was accumulating in the hands of the increasingly professional and expert public service. According to the royal commission, the only limitation on state activity was

  • 38 Ibid, 9.

the quality of the Civil Service, which is called upon to investigate many subjects of national importance demanding consideration by the Government, as well as to make governmental policies effective and governmental decisions operative.38

36That these individuals could exercise such authority responsibly was not a concern in that they were part of the “fellowship of science” and capable of self-regulation in the public interest. That is,

  • 39 Ibid, 20.

It must be remembered that the staff of the technical, scientific and professional services have fitted themselves for specialized duties by undergoing a specialized and preliminary training; and that in many cases the nature of their duties is such that no one who is not intimately acquainted with the field of knowledge in which their work lies is competent to form a judgment.39

  • 40 For the Report of the Special Committee on the Working of the Inside Civil Service, see Canada, Ho (...)
  • 41 Andrew Heard (1991), Canadian Constitutional Conventions: The Marriage of Law and Politics, Toront (...)

37In fact, many believed that being aloof from pure executive authority could help protect the public interest and enhance organizational efficiency. Not surprisingly, this view found less support among members of Parliament in Canada, who were beginning to express their alarm at the new power and lack of meaningful accountability of the CSC and the public service. MPs felt that they had lost power to the CSC and throughout the interwar years they became increasingly critical of it. Most parliamentarians recognized that the new Civil Service Act of 1918 was going to cause a “very considerable change” in the balance of power in Ottawa.40 This powerful CSC was seen by some members of the House of Commons as the cause of a giant rift in the traditional doctrines of responsible government, particularly ministerial responsibility. In their view, eliminating patronage through the creation of the CSC meant weakening ministerial responsibility to Parliament. The significance of this change becomes apparent when we consider that for the first fifty years of Canada’s existence the convention of ministerial responsibility and its corollary, ministerial nomination, had been synonymous with a responsible public service and had enjoyed the status of a constitutional convention in the minds of many. By their very nature, constitutional conventions do not change easily, quickly or quietly and the acceptance of public service independence has always been a contested concept.41


38While the CSC continued to struggle with the notion of merit and the position classification system, it also had to justify its own constitutional legitimacy. For many critics, the CSC represented, in its fullest form, the constitutional danger associated with the growth of non-traditional governing instruments. While initially directed at the CSC, the fear was later aimed at the Canadian National Railway, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Wheat Board and other public boards and commissions that started to flourish in the 1920s and especially the 1930s. Ironically, some of these bodies emerged to dodge the controls imposed by the CSC. The fear of these new instruments was noted by one disgruntled MP, who warned that

  • 42 Debates, February 16, 1923, 346.

there has been a tendency in recent years in this Dominion, as in others countries, to urge that national affairs will be best administered by those who are not responsible to the people…. This tendency has increased considerably in recent years, and as a consequence we have had a perfect avalanche of boards, bureaux, and commissions all administering in some degree the affairs of the people, and many of them in no way whatsoever answerable to the nation.42

  • 43 Ibid.
  • 44 Debates, February 16, 1923, 346.

39He went on to note that the attack on democratic government reached its “culmination in 1918, when our Parliament created the most irresponsible body which has ever been known in the history of Canada.”43 He was referring to the CSC, “which has power of almost life and death, at any rate, power of influence or starvation, over thousands of our fellow citizens, and power to expend millions of public money, [but] is not directly or indirectly answerable to parliament.”44 Another MP concluded that the CSC was unconstitutional because it was in

  • 45 Debates, February 13, 1923, 380.

violation of section 53 of the British North American Act, because these rules and regulations, arrears in pay, new positions, are no more nor less than an appropriation of some portion of the public money and all this emanates outside of the House of Commons, which is prohibited by this section.45

40Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, these anxieties were echoed by other MPs, who were grappling with this new institution and its exact place in Canada’s scheme of responsible government. In their view, while the CSC might have some independence from Cabinet, it should not avoid responsibility to Parliament altogether.

  • 46 For the Report of the Special Committee on Bill no. 122, An Act to Amend the Civil Service Act (19 (...)

41Such anxieties were always due to the belief that the convention of ministerial responsibility had been damaged by the creation of the CSC. This view was even held by the deputy minister of justice at the time, E. L. Newcombe. He felt that under the old system of patronage, there “is a responsibility attached to that appointment, which is entirely lacking now because the Government is not responsible, the member is not responsible so far as I can see; nobody is responsible under the present conditions.”46 These views were vigorously supported by many MPs, both government and opposition, who saw the creation of the CSC as an assault not only on their own power but also on the essentials of responsible government (as many had come to define it at that time). Some public servants even shared these constitutional, fears about the CSC.

  • 47 Maurice Pope (ed.) (1960), Public Servant: The Memoirs of Sir Joseph Pope, Toronto, Oxford Univers (...)
  • 48 For the Report of the Special Committee on the Civil Service of Canada see, Journals (1923), Appen (...)

42Notable in this regard was Sir Joseph Pope, under secretary of state and Sir John A. Macdonald’s first biographer, who was perhaps the last exponent in the civil service of the Macdonald-Laurier model of a constitutional civil service.47 Pope expressed his criticism of the CSC and its practices in a number of ways. For example, he was of the opinion that individuals should be rewarded for the effort they made and not because of the position they held in the bureaucracy. “His natural abilities, usefulness, aptitudes, quality of suggestiveness, age, experience, and other personal factors should be taken into account in determining his remuneration.”48 Thus, Pope rejected the new system of position classification and the principle of secure tenure because they were rigid and inhibited the full and loyal performance of tasks due to the protection provided by the regulations. An even more decisive indication of his views is his defence of patronage as a proper component of responsible government:

  • 49 Ibid.

One reads nowadays the most appalling trash in the newspapers about the evils of patronage,’ as though patronage was necessarily an evil to be shunned. I wonder if these sapient journalists ever reflect for a moment who is best fitted to exercise the patronage of Government—the Ministers, for the most part men trained in public affairs, responsible to the Crown and to Parliament for their every action, or an inexperienced, unrepresentative and irresponsible body such as the Civil Service Commission.49

  • 50 Ibid, 618.

43These opinions led Pope to continue to regard the CSC as unconstitutional because it was a creature of Parliament and was not, as in the case of the British civil service, an executive agency created by an Order-in-Council. As a result, the convention of ministerial responsibility was damaged because the ministers’ responsibility for appointments was taken over by Parliament. Pope acknowledged that while the CSC was unconstitutional because it destroyed the convention of ministerial responsibility to Parliament, it was nonetheless legal.50 As future events would underscore, the CSC actually began to embody a series of new conventions related to enforcement of behaviour around neutrality, anonymity, non-partisanship and independence and would become a force in the creation of the new constitutional personality of the public service.

  • 51 Ibid, 624.
  • 52 Debates, June 16,1924, 3252.

44While there may have been some people during the interwar years who, like Pope, still felt that “patronage is the democratic way of appointing to the civil service,”51 most party elites were glad that the CSC had rid them of the nuisance of the large-scale patronage system of the previous era, which had always produced many more dissatisfied patronage seekers than satisfied ones. There were also growing constituencies such as farmers, businesses and even provincial governments who were coming to depend on the services of the federal government and believed that having an efficiently run public service was more important than patronage. Especially delighted was Mackenzie King who, from the early 1920s onwards, pushed for an entirely new understanding of the position of the CSC and other independent bodies. King eagerly defended the use of such bodies on the grounds that they were all approved by Parliament, and “when parliament has enacted a law which prescribes certain conditions and lays down certain obligations, members of parliament, like the public generally, are obliged to respect the law as it stands.”52 If the House of Commons passed the legislation that empowered the CSC, it would have to respect its own decision. Indeed, during the debates that raged in 1907—1908, many parliamentarians were very eager to see this responsibility removed and handed over to an independent agency. They had been early proponents of independence and a new constitutional position for the public service as a neutral adviser to the Crown.

45Subsequent generations of parliamentarians were less supportive. Eventually, however, most MPs came to accept the fact that party elites were not about to do away with the CSC; nor was Cabinet in any hurry to strengthen parliamentary oversight of the civil service. As a result, most MPs accepted the separation of administration from politics as well as the conventions that surrounded that separation, including neutrality, anonymity and non-partisanship. What they were less willing to accept was the notion that the public service should have autonomy from the executive; they were demanding a more efficiently managed public service with more direct executive leadership. In this way, the public service would be politically responsible to Parliament. An effectively managed public service with politically responsible ministers was the best that parliamentarians could hope for given the transformations occurring in the political and administrative institutions of the time.

46These changes led to a reformulation of Canadian doctrines of responsible government in which the conventions of bureaucratic behaviour took on increasing importance. In particular, Professor Robert MacGregor Dawson noted with irony that responsible government was no longer as responsible as it had been in the past.

  • 53 Robert MacGregor Dawson (1929), The Civil Service of Canada, London, Oxford University Press, 110.

Democracy succeeds simply because democratic controls do not exist: The people think they govern through their representatives in Parliament, but in reality they are being ruled by a trained and skilled bureaucracy accountable to no one.53

  • 54 Ibid, 110.
  • 55 Lord Hewart (1929), The New Despotism, London, Ernst Benn Ltd.
  • 56 Dawson, The Civil Service of Canada, 110.

47According to Dawson, there were only two options: “efficient bureaucracy on the one hand, inefficient democracy on the other.”54However, Dawson was not one of those who worried about bureaucratic despotism.55 He went on to note, “Responsible government can be worked in such a way as to use the best and avoid the worst features of both alternatives.”56 Dawson did not dichotomize the two; rather he thought that administration and politics could be combined to compose an efficient whole. To do this, it was necessary to elevate the bureaucracy to a status equal to but different from that of government. There were simply those officers who were political and changed and those who were non-political and permanent. When it came to a decision between efficient bureaucracy and inefficient democracy, Dawson chose the former. The danger was that the merit system might come to be regarded as encouraging “inefficient democracy” at a time when the power of organizations and their managers, and people’s faith in them, were gaining ground.

  • 57 Quoted in Douglas Owram (1986), The Government Generation, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2 (...)

48Similarly, while MPs criticized the CSC, its product, the professional public service, was coming to be seen as something that Canada needed to develop and prosper. This view was common on both the right and the left of the debate in Canada and many began to consider the civil service as superior to Parliament and even to Cabinet because of its ability to govern exclusively in the interest of the nation. Those on the right used the public service as a check on the excesses of popular democracy, while those on the left saw it as an ally in their attempts to move society toward more populist goals. Both groups saw the public service as more than a technical instrument responding to the will of the executive or even Parliament. In the end, most Canadians came to agree with the League for Social Reconstruction, which suggested that with “a well-trained and disinterested bureaucracy drawn from the best minds of the nation the state could safely be given power without threatening civil liberties.”57In fact, this is testimony to the ability of the CSC to create a public service that not only had the support and respect of the nation, but also was seen as a body that could clearly function in the broad national interest in a way in which partisan politicians appeared incapable.


  • 58 Alexander Brady (1932–33), “The State and Economic Life in Canada,” University of Toronto Quarterl (...)

49This chapter has examined the problems that the CSC experienced as it tried to find ways to create a public service that was at once representative, efficient and neutral. Between the two world wars, the CSC was struggling to find ways to balance its competing principles of social and procedural equity, managerial efficiency and independence from the partisan influence of both Cabinet and the House of Commons. It needed to remain sensitive to requirements in terms of geography, language and gender, strive for efficiency and ensure that it respected the principles of neutrality and non-partisanship. Furthermore, there was a steady growth of government activity, and with it came the acceptance that “it [was] necessary to bring more expert and dispassionate guidance to the Canadian democracy.”58 The motivation for establishing the CSC in the first place was a growing belief that the public service had to actively serve broader national interests as opposed to narrow partisan interests.

50The public service was also witnessing a plurality of new institutions and evolving attitudes. This would continue to put pressure on the CSC to move beyond its narrow focus on merit recruitment and begin to take on responsibilities for the efficiency of the public service more generally in terms of building an organization capable of providing policy advice and delivering services. According to many critics, its procedures, aimed at enforcing a rigid adherence to merit, were coming into conflict with the need to organize the public service in a way that would bring about maximum efficiency in its core activities. The CSC was beginning to feel the heat from nascent unions, frustrated deputies and senior administrators, as well as aggressive parliamentarians about the paper burden created by the merit system that it was building.

51The CSC clearly felt that it both could and should further the managerial aims of the executive while at the same time balancing the guardian aims of Parliament. This was indeed the hope of those who created the CSC with duelling functions, but inevitably the CSC would be pulled in one direction more than the other over its long history. The initial motivation for both the 1908 amendments to the Civil Service Act and the new act of 1918 was clearly to make the CSC the guardian of the principles of neutrality, merit and anonymity and to foster professionalism, competence and independence, all in the service of ministers. However, the CSC quickly came to take on important personnel management functions that linked it with the executive branch of government, including pay determination, promotion, organization development, personnel counselling and a host of related activities. Over its history it moved, both by intention as well as by circumstance, to become more of a central human resource agency than a parliamentary or constitutional overseer. The central tension between its duelling responsibilities was one of the reasons that the CSC survived, but it was also why it accumulated so many critics. At the end of the Second World War, some were still demanding a rethinking of its roles, and pressure would begin to grow to have the CSC become an agency with much less executive power, or none at all.


1 Revised Statues of Canada (1918), Chapter 12, Section 32, amended by 10 George V (1919), c.10.

2 John Swettenham and David Kealy (1970), Serving the State: A History of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, 1920–1970, Ottawa.

3 Paul du Gay (1994), “Making Up Managers: Bureaucracy, Enterprise and the Liberal Art of Separation,” The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 45:4, 656–674.

4 10 George V, Chapter 10, Section 38.

5 10 George V, Chapter 10, Section 32.

6 Chris Williams (1985), “The Concept of Bureaucratic Neutrality,” Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 44, 48.

7 Sessional Papers, No. 31 9–10, Edward VII A, 1910, 17

8 Ibid, 18.

9 Ibid, 17.

10 Graham Lowe (1980), “Women, Work and the Office: The Feminization of Clerical Occupations in Canada, 1901–1931,” Canadian Journal of Sociology, vol. 5, 361–381.

11 Ibid, 364.

12 Kathleen Archibald (1972), Sex and the Public Service, Ottawa, Queen’s Printer.

13 Donald Creighton (1971), Canada’s First Century, 1867–1967, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 135.

14 Theda Skocpol (1992), Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

15 Canada, House of Commons (1938), “Special Committee on the Operations of the Civil Service Act,” Minutes and Proceedings, 1230.

16 Ibid.

17 Revised States of Canada (1927), Chapter 22.

18 Gregory B. Lewis and Mark A. Emmert (1984), “Who Pays for Veterans’ Preference?”, Administration and Society, vol. 16:4, 328–345.

19 Gordon H. Josie (1945), “Administration of the Veterans’ Preference in the Canadian Civil Service,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, vol. 11:4, 601–611.

20 Ibid, 604.

21 Canada, Civil Service Commission (1919), The Classification of the Civil Service of Canada, Arthur Young and Company, Ottawa, King s Printer; see also Hodgetts et al. (1972), The Biography of an Institution, Ch. 4.

22 V. Seymour Wilson (1982), “The Influence of Organization Theory in Canadian Public Administration,” Canadian Public Administration, vol. 25:4, 545–564.

23 Hodgetts et al. (1972), The Biography of an institution, 93–100.

24 V. Seymour Wilson (1973), “The Relationship between Scientific Management and Personnel Policy in North American Administrative Systems,” Public Administration, vol. 51:2, 202.

25 Report of the Special Committee of the Operation of the Civil Service Act, Minutes and Proceedings (1938), 58.

26 Gerald Caiden (1991), “What Really Is Public Maladministration?” Public Administration Review, vol. 51:4, 486–493.

27 Journals (1921), Appendix No. 3, 369.

28 Revised Statutes of Canada (1918), An Act to Amend the Civil Service Act, Chapter 22, 1921.

29 For the Report of Committee of Deputy Ministers, see Journals (1923), Appendix No. 5, 1038–1042, 1039.

30 Ibid, 1040.

31 Ibid, 1041.

32 For the Report of the Special Select Committee on the Civil Service and the Civil Service Act, see Journals (1932), Appendix No. 3, 865.

33 Ibid, 866.

34 Ibid, 867.

35 W. L. Grant (1934), “The Civil Service of Canada,” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 3:2, 437.

36 Geneviève Lépine (2007), The Web of Rules, A Study of the Relationship Between Regulations of Public Servants and Past Public Service Reform Initiatives, Ottawa, Public Policy Forum.

37 Canada (1930), Royal Commission on Technical and Professional Services, Report, Ottawa, King’s Printer.

38 Ibid, 9.

39 Ibid, 20.

40 For the Report of the Special Committee on the Working of the Inside Civil Service, see Canada, House of Commons (1919), Journals, Appendix No. 6, 20.

41 Andrew Heard (1991), Canadian Constitutional Conventions: The Marriage of Law and Politics, Toronto, Oxford University Press.

42 Debates, February 16, 1923, 346.

43 Ibid.

44 Debates, February 16, 1923, 346.

45 Debates, February 13, 1923, 380.

46 For the Report of the Special Committee on Bill no. 122, An Act to Amend the Civil Service Act (1918), see Journals (1921), Appendix No. 3.

47 Maurice Pope (ed.) (1960), Public Servant: The Memoirs of Sir Joseph Pope, Toronto, Oxford University Press.

48 For the Report of the Special Committee on the Civil Service of Canada see, Journals (1923), Appendix No. 5, 613.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid, 618.

51 Ibid, 624.

52 Debates, June 16,1924, 3252.

53 Robert MacGregor Dawson (1929), The Civil Service of Canada, London, Oxford University Press, 110.

54 Ibid, 110.

55 Lord Hewart (1929), The New Despotism, London, Ernst Benn Ltd.

56 Dawson, The Civil Service of Canada, 110.

57 Quoted in Douglas Owram (1986), The Government Generation, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 264.

58 Alexander Brady (1932–33), “The State and Economic Life in Canada,” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 2, 440.

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