Building (and Shuffling) a Cabinet

Privy Council Chamber

Building (and Shuffling) a Cabinet

UPDATED August 28, 2017 4:58pmET

The cabinet changes announced earlier today at Rideau Hall:

Jane Philpott

Indigenous Services (from Health)

Carolyn Bennett

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (from Indigenous and Northern Affairs)

Kent Hehr

Sport and Persons with Disabilities (from Veterans Affairs)

Carla Qualtrough

Public Services and Procurement (from Sport and Persons with Disabilities)

Seamus O’Regan

Veterans Affairs and Associate Defence Minister

Ginette Petitpas Taylor


Watch highlights from the post-ceremony news conference, as cabinet members discuss the plan to dissolve Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada into two new portfolios:

Watch the full ceremony and news conference:

What is the cabinet?

Technically, the federal cabinet is a committee of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada.

From House of Commons Procedure and Practice:

Originally, the Privy Council was a more or less permanent executive body of nobles chosen by the Sovereign as counsellors. The Council was separate from the legislative body, or Parliament, of which the Sovereign was a constituent part. When the Council became too large for the practical purpose of consultation, the Sovereign selected from among its members his or her most trusted and intimate counsellors. The practice of forming from the larger group of privy councillors a small, specialized committee to advise the Crown has continued to this day.

The extended Privy Council hasn’t met since 1981 – to formally approve the marriage of an heir to the Canadian crown, Prince Charles.

What happens at Rideau Hall?

The prime minister signs an Instrument of Advice recommending a cabinet appointment and presents to the governor general, who must sign the document.

A minister-designate not already a privy councillor is called up in order of preference (date of first election to the House of Commons) to take the Oath of Allegiance, Oath of the Members of the Privy Council, and Oath of Office. They are then presented to the governor general.

The new minister signs the oath book and becomes a Privy Council member, complete with the title of “Honourable.”

(A minister changing portfolios only takes the Oath of Office)

A January 2017 cabinet shuffle moved Chrystia Freeland to Foreign Affairs (and responsibility for Canada-U.S. trade relations), and Patty Hajdu to Employment, Workforce Development and Labour. François-Philippe Champagne entered cabinet as international trade minister, with Ahmed Hussen taking over at Citizenship, Immigration and Refugees. Karina Gould replaced Maryam Monsef as democratic institutions ministers, with the latter taking the Status of Women portfolio.

Watch the ceremony:

And this was the scene on Nov. 4, 2015, as the new Liberal cabinet visited the governor general’s official Ottawa residence for its swearing-in:

Choosing the cabinet

Responsible government means that members of the executive must be accountable to the House of Commons. By custom, ministers are MPs (with the exception of the government leader in Senate). Effectively, the party controlling the Commons controls the cabinet.

The prime minister has to consider geographic, linguistic, ethnic, and gender balance. Each province is ideally represented, although caucus membership and election results can force alternative arrangements.

For instance, Peter Penashue’s 2013 resignation and subsequent by-election defeat left the Conservatives without an MP in Newfoundland and Labrador. Peter MacKay became the minister responsible for the province.

Ministers are responsible to Parliament for their departments. They are also expected to publicly support all government decisions and embrace “cabinet solidarity” or resign their post. Michael Chong left his intergovernmental affairs post in 2006 over a Conservative government motion to recognize the Québécois people as a nation.

MPs once had to resign and run for re-election before officially assuming cabinet duties and increased pay, to avoid any perceived conflict of interest. The practice was discontinued in 1931.

Cabinet Committees

Also important is membership on the various cabinet committees:

  • Agenda, Results and Communications
  • Treasury Board
  • Open Transparent Government and Parliament
  • Growing the Middle Class
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Canada in the World and Public Security
  • Canada-United States Relations
  • Intelligence and Emergency Management
  • Environment, Climate Change and Policy
  • Defence Procurement
  • Litigation Management

-Andrew Thomson

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: The Privy Council Chamber on Parliament Hill in the late 1800s. William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada