A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

Warning This information has been archived because it is outdated and no longer relevant.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats by contacting us.

The Civil Service

We have seen how shipping legislation was introduced and how the government dug the canals and built the aids to navigation and supporting vessels which were needed throughout Canada. We have also seen how a steady improvement came about in all these things, both in quality and quantity. There can be no doubt that the marine facilities of 1900 were a great deal better than those at Confederation, and that this trend continued gently upwards until it rose sharply to reflect the remarkable technical progress of recent years.

We must now consider the people who brought about these developments and the system under which they worked. It would be pleasant to record, in keeping with the climate of technical improvement, that the administrative efficiency of the service kept pace. In fact it lagged behind, and the successful running of governmental marine services, particularly in the early years, was due as much to loyal and conscientious effort on the part of the great majority of employees who kept at work despite a general lack of encouragement, as to the system of administration. A few of these people have already been mentioned but the vast majority remain anonymous. Although the Civil Service of Canada is now comparable with any in the world, it was very different in the years of development, and the Department of Marine and Fisheries suffered long from the then prevalent malaise.

Looking back, it is difficult to realize the vast changes which have taken place in the last hundred years for at first glance the acts of Parliament which regulated Marine and Fisheries have a family resemblance to those of today. To appreciate the workings of the civil service at Confederation, all thought of present day equity in the methods of entry, in salaries, promotion and retirement, must be discarded. As far as administrative history is concerned, Canada was no different from other countries in their formative years. The British civil service for example, on which the Canadian government largely based its own, had not long previously emerged from the devious ways of a bygone age when no one without interest, as the favours of a patron were known, could hope to enter officialdom. In 1853 Britain had introduced competitive examinations for entry into the East India Company and by 1867 traumatic changes had been made. With the rise of the great Victorian middle class and the rejection of eighteenth century ways, the British civil service was then purged of corruption. It was regarded as a model for that of the Dominion.

In the United States, where virtually all employees of government washed in and out with the tide of political power, official placement in 1867 was openly recognized as one of the rightful spoils of victory at the polls. After all, if a citizen had no special right to preferment in office over his fellows, at least he could hardly complain when discharged from enjoyment of a temporary privilege awarded in recognition of partisan political support. In Canada, hovering around the inherited British parliamentary procedure on the one hand, but exposed to the realities of North American political life on the other, an instinctive compromise resulted. The federal civil service was protected by legislative defences against patronage, while retention was ensured by political control at administrative level.

On paper all was fair enough. The Civil Service Act of 1868 laid down the constitution of the service and provided for a Civil Service Board which examined applicants for employment and fixed the subjects of examination. Candidates for a government clerkship had to write a good hand, be able to spell and write grammatically, and be conversant with arithmetic and dictation. In support of the application for employment two recommendations were required, form A which was a certificate of medical fitness, and form B, a character testimonial. As the Civil Service Board, including chairman and secretary, comprised any five of the deputy heads of departments, who were themselves appointed "under the Great Seal", the allocation of positions was entirely at the disposal of the party in power. In practice, unless form B was supported by the signature of a cabinet minister, there was little chance of a candidate being appointed.

Nor was the structure of the service itself likely to result in efficient management. Although merit and capability had little influence in the selection of the civil servants, the natural proportions of mankind ensured the acquisition of some able men. Yet genuine administrative ability based on formal education and training was practically non-existent at management level. Apart from lawyers, there was no corps of professional men available, and few of them had specialized knowledge of departmental matters. There were a very few civil engineers, a number of retired officers of the armed services and some medical men. For the rest, the range between probationary and chief clerk covered all ranks up to what would now be considered as director level. All were required to take oath that they would not other than was prescribed by law for remuneration of office.

". . . . ask, or receive any sum of money, services, recompenses or matter or thing whatsoever, directly or indirectly . . . . in the discharge of any of the duties . . . ."

There were then two divisions in the Civil Service named, respectively, the Departmental Staff and the Outside Service. The former, most of whom were in Ottawa, comprised four staff classifications as deputy heads of departments, officers or chief clerks, clerks, and probationary clerks; a fifth category of employees, that of messenger, was appended to the main staff. Clerkships were further divided into three classes called first, second and third. Salaries ranged from $300 per annum for a probationer, by way of $1,200 for a clerk of the first class, to some $1,600 for a chief clerk who, in modern terms, was comparable to a senior administrative officer. The Outside Service, most of whom were appointed by Order in Council, included the marine agents, light keepers and others necessary for the running of government business in the field.

Officers and men serving in the ships did not come under the Civil Service Act and, in common with those belonging to vessels of other government agencies, they were administered under an Act to make provision for discipline on board of Canadian Government Vessels. The Discipline Act, as its name implies, was designed to control the waywardness of seamen rather than to provide encouragement for their retention in a career service, and no provision was made for superannuation which, in the case of the civil servants, was allowed from 1870 under conditions recognizable as the framework of those in force today. From the point of view of morale the Discipline Act was a bleak enactment providing only a basis of officialdom for what were otherwise merchant ships. It was however better than nothing. In an age when seamen were outside the boundaries of steady employment it complemented whatever shelter was afforded by other acts and provided some thread of familiarity, if not continuity, for those who signed on, ship after ship, year after year, as many did.

In this manner then, at least in theory, the internal administration of the Department of Marine and Fisheries was established. But in was far from easy to transform the old colonial services into a federal system, and many inconsistencies, problems and injustices came to light. In the years succeeding Confederation, Civil Service reform was discussed in Parliament without noticeable result until, in 1877, a Select Committee was formed to inquire into conditions. The driving force of this Committee was George Elliott Casey who, only 27 at the time, had first taken his seat in Parliament as the member for Elgin West, at the unusually early age of 22.

The report of the Casey Committee makes interesting reading and was based, to a large extent, on the oral and written evidence of deputy ministers, including that of Mr. William Smith whose testimony commenced with answers to questions as to his length of service, a period which stretched back for 35 years to the beginning of the United Province of Canada. The Deputy Minister of Marine and Fisheries was an enlightened man who did his best to staff the Department, small as it was, with the best available. In these days when the five o'clock rush hour in Ottawa is mainly caused by civil servants, it comes as something of a shock to find, in answer to a query as to the number of employees in the inside service of the Department:

". . . we have twenty on the staff and five extras. We find it is useful to have the extra clerks, and we do not always fill a vacancy with permanent employees because we find good men among the extras. We sometimes get good work out of them at less pay."

To an age accustomed to the euphemisms of modern public relations, Mr. Smith strikes a note of refreshing candour in his answers to the probing of the member for Elgin West.

"Do I understand you to say that you have a certain amount of selection yourself?"

"It so happens that I have got a number into the office."

"Of your own choice?"

"Yes I have recommended them. When a person applies to me to do anything for him, I make him write a letter of application applying for a situation and I put that on record in the office. If he is a bad writer I never trouble any more about him. I would oppose him as much as I could."

There being no typewriters in 1877, writing was a very important part of office work and the Deputy hated to sign a badly penned letter. The best of the letters of the period were in the classic copper plate script that one imagines, but most of them fell short of that standard. Although reasonably legible, the different styles of individual penmanship were always apparent and it was difficult to absorb the meaning with the kind of glance that will sweep a page of typescript today. Copying was done in the letter press, an imposing piece of cast-iron mechanism of screw down type, something between a mangle and an instrument of torture, which may still be seen lurking in the dusty cupboards of old established legal offices.

The main issue of the inquiry was, of course, the question of patronage. As a first step towards improvement, the deputy minister advocated a stricter use of the examination legally in force even if, as a subsequent process, the successful candidates were further subject to political preferment.

"Is there no way you know of whereby that species of patronage and promotion, by irresponsible selection almost, could not be done away with?" asked young Mr. Casey.

"Not unless my plan was adopted of having a list where all could take their rank and place, the same as in the navy, where they move upwards according to their order and the vacancies," replied the deputy minister.

The Casey Report found that the Civil Service Act was hardly ever applied and that the entrance examinations, when used at all, were either a matter of form or were of a standard far below that needed for entrance to Ontario high schools. As for the outside service, the exercise of political patronage was found to be ". . . almost unchecked, and its results correspondingly bad. There is no Departmental examination of nominees, and no other guarantee of their suitability in any respect than the political recommendation on which they are appointed."

The law was, in fact, a dead letter. Only two of the Marine and Fisheries staff wrote the entrance examination for the Department and none at all for the outside service. A table was presented showing the method of entry of persons employed in the outside service of the Department in December 1876. Apart from the steamboat inspectors, whom Risley and Smith examined technically before nomination, all marine agents, light keepers, harbour police, shipping masters and harbour masters were political nominees. Of the Departmental ships, the Deputy explained that the officers were political appointees, although the crews were chosen by the captains. Even here, he admitted that the nomination of a local member of Parliament would carry weight.

The chances of promotion were subject to similar hazards as for entry, and tenure of service for all was virtually at the discretion of the party in power. Despite the system there were, as we have seen, many loyal and capable servants of Canada in our ranks, and the general standard of conduct was amazingly high. In some cases it was merely amazing; let us now look at one of these.