The Privy Council for Canada, which was established at Confederation under the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly the British North America Act, 30-31, Vic., c.3, United Kingdom), is really the successor to the Executive Council of the United Provinces of Canada. Membership in the Privy Council is synonymous with Cabinet membership because members are heads or Ministers of a department of government who form the administration of the day. Although one becomes a Privy Councillor for life, the Governor General acts on the advice not of the whole Council but of the Cabinet. The most important documents produced by the Governor General in Council are Orders in Council.
The first Clerk of the Privy Council after Confederation had basically the same office functions as that which existed in the Province of Canada. The Clerk assisted the President of the Privy Council by coordinating recommendations of Ministers, including decisions that became Orders in Council and, until the Department of External Affairs was created in 1909, handled despatches of the Colonial Office. In 1901, the Clerk of the Privy Council also assumed responsibility for the administration of oaths to government office holders (PC 226, 28 January 1901).
Since 1867, the responsibilities of Privy Council have changed considerably. Gradually, sub-committees were created with specific responsibilities. For example, Treasury Board was established in 1867 as a permanent sub-committee of Cabinet to deal with financial expenditure decisions (PC 3, 2 July 1867), but in 1966, it became a separate department. Another committee, the Railway sub-committee, was created in 1869 (PC 838, 12 January 1869), but in 1903 it was replaced by the Board of Railway Commissioners.
The President of the Privy Council as the Minister responsible for the Privy Council Office filled in for the Governor General as chairman where necessary. The position was most often filled by the Prime Minister and in 1962, the Prime Minister was finally designated as the Minister responsible.
Prior to 1914, the Privy Council Office used ad hoc committees to consider short term problems, but during the First World War greater use was made of standing committees. Later in the war, the War Committee coordinated war work of government departments (PC 3005, 23 October 1917) and the Reconstruction and Development Committee (PC 3006, 23 October 1917) undertook the fostering of Canadian initiatives towards the war effort. After the Great War, the use of ad hoc committees increased and there were few sub-committees appointed.
There were only four permanent employees in the Privy Council Office by the end of the First World War and the only records of Cabinet kept on a systematic basis were the Orders in Council.
A sub-committee of the Privy Council, called the Cabinet Defence Committee, was established in 1936 (PC 2097, 20 August 1936). Although it only met twice prior to the Second World War, it continued in existence until 1962. During the Second World War, ten new committees were established to provide for the conduct of the war and to coordinate various activities of government. The most important one was the Cabinet War Committee.
Prior to 1940, the only senior official serving the Prime Minister was the Clerk of the Privy Council. In 1940, Arnold Heeney was the first person to serve both as Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet. It was Heeney who established procedures and for the first time recorded the minutes and conclusions of a cabinet body - the Cabinet War Committee. Heeney wanted procedures adopted for Cabinet Conclusions or decisions of the full Cabinet and in 1944 written agenda, minutes and support papers (Cabinet documents) of the Cabinet were recorded. In 1942, the Statutory Orders and Regulations Division was set up (PC 7992, 4 September 1942). Also, a registry for maintaining orders and minutes of council, Treasury Board Minutes and other government orders was established.
After the Second World War, the responsibilities of the Privy Council Office were extended. Advice was offered to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on policy and a clerical secretariat for various committees was provided. Also, the Privy Council became responsible for the following: the Mutual Aid Board, established in 1943 (7 George VI, c.17, 1943); the Federal District Commission from 1945 to 1957 when it came under the Prime Minister's Office (PC 5943, 7 September 1945); and the Committee on Scientific and Industrial Research which looked after the Atomic Energy Control Board (PC 1127, 27 March 1947). The Cabinet secretariat became a permanent committee within the Privy Council Office and became the custodian of Cabinet papers. In 1948, the Legislative Committee was made permanent.
The President of the Privy Council was responsible for an ad hoc committee on the St. Lawrence Seaway (PC 622, 25 April 1957) and the Emergency Measures Organization, a civil defence body, established in 1957 to carry out government services in the event of nuclear war.
Under Prime Minister Diefenbaker, three assistant secretaries each with responsibilities to keep the Cabinet informed on issues were appointed. Diefenbaker made less use of Cabinet Committees, however, and the post of President of the Privy Council was vacant from 1957 to 1962.
A reorganization took place in 1964 and most ad hoc committees were replaced by nine standing Cabinet committees each with their own secretariat. In 1968, Prime Minister Trudeau converted the Privy Council Office into a more businesslike operation by reducing the number of Cabinet committees and providing for more regular meetings. He delegated certain powers from the full Cabinet to committees themselves. All Ministers, whether committee members or not, received committee documents and were granted permission to have an item dealt with by committee discussed in the full Cabinet. Under a reorganization of 1968, four coordinating committees and five specialized committees were established and three main divisions were created and the Privy Council Office received program policy proposals in the form of submissions to Cabinet. When a decision was made, it was recorded and when it was approved by Cabinet, it was forwarded to the responsible department.
Before 1980, federal dealings with the provinces were usually conducted by government departments. But in the 1960s, Prime Minister Pearson placed the responsibility of coordination of federal-provincial relations with the Cabinet Secretariat.
In 1968, Prime Minister Trudeau established a special division of the Privy Council, responsible for developing policy and maintaining liaison with departments and coordinating federal-provincial conferences. In 1975, the Federal Provincial Relations division of the Privy Council Office was established as a separate office (PC 93, 16 January 1975). By 1984, federal-provincial relations were fully integrated into the Privy Council Office.
Because of increased responsibilities, as well as providing advice to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, the staff of the Privy Council increased from 142 to 352 between 1971 and 1975.
In 1979, under Prime Minister Clark, an "Inner Cabinet" was set up with final decision making authority and the role of the full Cabinet was limited to discussion and coordination. Clark also set up the Policy Expenditure Management System which previewed expenditure priorities and reallocated resources within departments.
In 1980, under Prime Minister Trudeau, the Priorities and Planning Committee, which included the chair of all Cabinet committees, and therefore dealt with a wide range of issues, assumed the responsibility for the Inner Cabinet and had authority to take final decisions in the same way as the Cabinet itself.