The beginning of the Conclusions: documenting the exercise of power

By Michael Dufresne

The recent addition of records to the Cabinet Conclusions database offers access to the attendance records, agenda and the minutes of Cabinet from 1977 to 1979. The minutes are not verbatim accounts of Cabinet meetings but provide excellent summaries of the discussions and various positions taken by Cabinet members. These newest records straddle both governments of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the short-lived government of Joe Clark. They cap off the long preamble to the repatriation of the constitution and the advent of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They are an important part of the corporate memory of the federal government and reveal a range of subjects, preoccupations, concerns and opportunities confronting the most powerful institutions in our parliamentary system.

A pen-and-brush drawing depicting a man standing in a circus ring holding a whip and reading a book while a lion sitting on a raised platform looks over his shoulder.

Editorial cartoon by John Collins depicts Joe Clark as a lion tamer reading the book “How to Control Gov’t Spending,” published in The Gazette, Montreal, 1979. Copyright held by Library and Archives Canada (MIKAN 2863264)

We might take it for granted that a democratic state provides some measure of transparency for those wishing to know why and how a decision is made. Our democratic sensibilities might be offended to know that, while we could probably trace our democratic heritage to well before the 1940s, it was not until then that Cabinet kept an agenda and minutes of its deliberations. The lack of records documenting Cabinet deliberations can encourage an exaggerated sense of the power of the Prime Minister. “The story went around,” writes historian Michael Bliss in his book, Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney, “that when Bennett was seen mumbling to himself, he was holding a Cabinet meeting.” When there are no official records to document Cabinet’s discussions, who is going to contradict the memory of the Prime Minister?

From 1867 to 1940, a succession of six men served as Clerk of the Privy Council; their duties reflected the comparatively modest role of the state in Canadian society before the Second World War. But with the appointment in 1940 of Arnold Danforth Patrick Heeney, things were clearly changing. Heeney became the seventh Clerk of the Privy Council since Confederation and the country’s first Secretary to the Cabinet.

Upon his arrival in Ottawa, he was surprised by the informal ways in which important business was conducted. “I found it shattering to discover,” Heeney writes in his autobiography, The Things that are Caesar’s, “that the highest committee in the land conducted its business in such a disorderly fashion that it employed no agenda and no minutes were taken. The more I learned about Cabinet practices, the more difficult it was for me to understand how such a regime could function at all.”

Changes to the Privy Council Office (PCO) were inspired by reforms to the United Kingdom’s Privy Council in 1916 by Sir Maurice Hankey. The changes were, in part, an acknowledgment of the growing demands on modern government. Possible changes had been discussed for several years, but nothing had been done. Why then did they occur in 1940? The challenges of governing while prosecuting the Second World War demanded changes to how government organized and documented its deliberations and actions. Order-in-Council PC 1121 of March 25, 1940 heralded the beginning of the modern PCO. It read, in part:

“The great increase in the work of the Cabinet … has rendered it necessary to make provision for the performance of additional duties of a secretarial nature relating principally to the collecting and putting into shape of agenda of Cabinet meetings, providing of information and material necessary for the deliberations of the Cabinet and the drawing up of records of the results, for communication to the departments concerned … ”

Order-in-Council PC 1940-1121 ushered in a significant change in the universe of government information, but it was not until 1944 that the formal Cabinet Conclusions were created and preserved. In the absence of these official records, researchers have to look to Prime Ministers’ personal papers to perhaps discover some form of documentation of Cabinet meetings.

The Cabinet Conclusions have practical value for the administration of the state and democratic significance for the insight and transparency they make possible. More than mere instruments of modern bureaucracy, they offer an inside look at the deliberations, discussions, debates and decision making of the federal government’s most powerful politicians and, to a degree, the high-ranking bureaucrats who serve them. Library and Archives Canada’s acquisition and preservation of these records along with the access it helps facilitate, provide a revealing window into the workings of our democratic state.

The latest additions to the database close out the 1970s, and will inspire new insights into the history of Canada, and about the federal government, particularly those entrusted with its leadership. Researchers can search the Cabinet Conclusions by keyword (one of their own choosing or one from a list of keywords capturing a handful of major issues confronting the government in each year), dates, agenda and records of attendance. The Conclusions offer more than documentary evidence of government deliberations and decision making; they are a means of discovering other Cabinet documents. In other words, the Conclusions can offer you the answers to complete your search, but they can also act as the beginning of your search for more and better answers. In addition, the Conclusions are a means of discovering related Cabinet documents, which may include backgrounders and Cabinet memoranda that informed discussions around the Cabinet table. Those records are not digitized and are not available in the database. However, researchers will find references to those Cabinet documents in the Conclusions—and once the number of a document is known, it can be searched using the year it was created and the finding aid 2-15 to locate it.

See the Cabinet Conclusions database for more detailed instructions on search options.

Related resources

Michael Dufresne is an archivist in the Government Archives Division of the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.