The Runaway Growth of Bureaucracy—A Serious Concern for Canada's Future
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 14 Mar 1974, p. 276-285
Rohmer, Colonel Richard, Speaker
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Item Type
A review of the Canadian government: how it is elected, how it operates, how it is structured, how policies are set, how policy decisions are implemented or executed and by whom. What Colonel Rohmer thinks Canadians believe about how they are governed as opposed to how they are actually governed. A brief history of the development of Canada's government. The growth of what he terms "departmental pyramids" and their effect. Causes and effects of "runaway bureaurcracy" and how it happened. What Canadians might expect from its government. Suggestions for change and solutions.
Date of Original
14 Mar 1974
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Full Text
MARCH 14, 1974.
The Runaway Growth of Bureaucracy--A Serious Concern for Canada's Future
CHAIRMAN The President, Robert L. Armstrong


My Lord Bishop, distinguished head table guests, ladies and gentlemen: "Time is running out fast. If Canadians don't wake up to what is going to happen to the enormous natural wealth on their doorstep, Ultimatum will become a fact."

So reads the admonition printed on the jacket of Ultimatum, the fascinating and illuminating novel written by our guest of honour, Colonel Richard Rohmer.

That time may not be on our side, is a reasonable conclusion which may be drawn from the startling information contained in Ultimatum. It is abundantly clear from reading the press that TIME is not on the author's side.

I hope I may be pardoned for reciting a familiar, oft-quoted excerpt in the Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the theme of which may be interpreted to have some significance in light of present events.

"The moving finger writes and having writ moves on and all thy piety and wit cannot lure it back, nor all thy tears wash out a line of it."

But enough of writes and writs, you came to hear a Canadian of renown.

Colonel Rohmer was born in Hamilton, attending High School in Fort Erie. He received a B.A. at Assumption College of the University of Western Ontario and was admitted to the Bar of Ontario in 1951 and later to the Bar of Northwest Territories in 1970.

He served with great distinction in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Fighter Pilot and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He retired with the rank of Wing Commander. Having commanded both the Reserve Squadrons, 400 City of Toronto, and 422 County of York, he is now Honorary Colonel of 411.

Colonel Rohmer is Chairman of the Royal Commission on Book Publishing (Ontario), Chairman and Originator, MidCanada Development Corridor Concept and Conference, President MidCanada Development Foundation Inc. and MidCanada Community Service and Broadcasting Foundation. He is a Director of a number of other projects, companies and charitable organizations. In 1972 he received the Commissioner's Award for Public Service to the Northwest Territories.

He is counsel to the law firm, Lang, Michener, Cranston, Farquharson & Wright and in addition to Ultimatum is the author of The Green North, and Mid-Canada, The Arctic Imperative.

I am very pleased to introduce Colonel Richard Rohmer, D.F.C., Q.C., who will speak to us on the subject: "The Runaway Growth of Bureaucracy-A Serious Concern For Canada's Future."

Colonel Rohmer.


I don't know about you, but I've always found extremely interesting the way governments in this country are elected, how they operate, how they are structured, how they set their policies, how those policy decisions are implemented or executed and by whom.

How we are governed and by whom, is a matter which directly affects each and every one of us.

In Canada, the individual voter believes he lives in a democratic society and that when the Member of Parliament for his riding is elected (whether that elector has voted for him or not) the expectation is that the member will represent the interests of all the people in his riding. The voter also believes that his member has power and influence, especially if he is a member of the government side.

The people we think have the really big clout are the members of the cabinet. They're the people chosen by the leader of the majority party-the Premier or the Prime Minister-to set policies for the administration of the government either of Canada or of the provinces, as the case may be. It is the cabinet, the political arm of government, which is supposed to be able to hire or fire the staff which serves it.

In Canada we have the rather naive idea that the cabinet, (that handful of men and sometimes women who meet behind closed doors in a secrecy enshrined in oaths), make all the decisions; that they're the ones who come up with brilliant ideas, schemes and policies; and that once they have decided what they are going to do they tell the civil servants in their various ministries to go and do it believing that it will be done.

That may be the way it was at Confederation in 1867 and for a short period thereafter, but the power structure and decision-making processes in government, especially the federal government, have undergone enormous changes in the past 107 years.

At the federal level what has changed very little since Confederation is the number of ministries and the number of politicians at the head of each ministry. Today there is still only one minister in each ministry. He might have a parliamentary assistant but there are no associate ministers, no one of the same or comparable political stature with whom the minister can consult. Equally as important there is still only one political person-the minister-who can be found by a member of the public who wishes to have access to a decision maker in any government department.

When Sir John A. Macdonald formed his first cabinet in 1867, he appointed twelve ministers to head up twelve departments. The number of federal civil servants reported on staff in 1867 was 330, and the population of Canada was 3,463,000.

By 1900 the number of ministries had increased by one to thirteen. The number of civil servants had increased 1,000% to 3,344, while the population increased 64% to 5,301,000.

Now we move ahead 50 years to 1950, when the number of ministries was eighteen; and the growth of the civil service was over forty times against only a three times increase of population-the civil service was up to 127,196 from 3,344 in 1900 while the population went to 14 million from 5 million at the turn of the century.

Let's look at where we are today. The number of ministries is twenty-seven; and the civil service has increased 150% from 1950 while the population has grown only 60%-the civil service is up to 320,003 (with another 13,000 to come this year) from 127,196 and the population went to twenty-two and a half million from fourteen.

I visualize each ministry or department as a pyramid.

If each ministry was a pyramid you would have at the top of it (apart from the itinerate ministers who come and go) a deputy minister and under him, his assistant deputy ministers and from there the pyramid spreads down to a very large base.

In 1900 with 13 ministries and only 3,344 federal civil servants the average number of bureaucrats in each department was 257.

In 1974 with 27 ministries pyramiding away on more than 320 thousand bodies the average number of civil servants per ministry has gone to 11,851.

Even so there is still only one minister, one lone and lonely politician at the pyramid's peak.

The minister of the day in any department has little opportunity to obtain assistance and counsel from his colleagues in the cabinet. They are overloaded with their own problems and in any event they don't want to have interference from or involvement in any other ministry. Perhaps a minister can talk with a trusted fellow cabinet member when they gather at the cabinet table or sit on the odd committee together.

But effectively every minister must operate by himself. He must rely almost exclusively upon the advice of his deputy minister.

The deputy minister usually is an expert in the work of the ministry. He may have seen several ministers come and go. He has at his command in the pyramid under him a growing army of experts and non-experts upon whom he can call. The deputy minister has power, especially staying power.

The system is designed to make the minister (who, as a rule, is a man with no expertise whatsoever in the department to which he is assigned) the captive of the deputy minister and his staff.

Virtually all policy proposals to the minister are formulated, researched and prepared by the civil servants, except when an inventive minister or a creative cabinet decide on a matter of policy in principle and then direct the bureaucracy to research it and bring it back.

The system is also such that the entrenched federal civil servants find totally unacceptable any concepts outside their own mandarin class and outside Ottawa. These are automatically rejected because they do not come from within their own structure. They give the appearance of believing that any citizen beyond the moat around the Ottawa ivory tower is really a second-class person who couldn't possibly have an idea or an opinion.

Ottawa is characterized everywhere in Canada as "remote". It is remote and in my opinion it is the arrogant aloofness of the all-powerful bureaucracy which makes it so.

When you come back to the position of the minister, he is after all only one single human being with the power to assimilate only so much information and to make only so many decisions. He must make those decisions in isolation. And he must assess what the public viewpoint would be simply from his own point of view.

The only other point of view which he has access to on a day-today basis is that of his civil servants. How they read what is best for the public in British Columbia, Alberta, the Maritimes or Manitoba or the Northwest Territories while sitting on their seats in Ottawa has always been a mystery to me, but obviously a matter of power and pleasure to them.

The minister's political input into the decision-making process is usually the last and therefore the least, because all it is is the making of a simple decision-yes, or no, or amend. There is rarely an opportunity for the insertion of the politician's point of view during the processing of any proposal on its way up from the bowels of the pyramid.

Let's look at another result of the massive growth of the departmental pyramids.

If you set all the pyramids side by side, some would be tall and some would be short. Their lines of communication run vertically-that is to say information can flow from the bottom of the pyramid to the top. Sometimes it can even flow from the top to the bottom. It may flow slowly and in an unco-ordinated fashion or it may flow quickly. Nevertheless the flow is vertical, usually in an upward direction to the deputy minister, then to the minister and, if appropriate, through him to the cabinet.

However, the horizontal flow of information between ministries is extremely limited, impeded as it is by jurisdictional jealousies, lack of liaison and co-ordination and failure to comprehend or understand the programmes which other ministries have embarked upon. Therefore it is not uncommon to find serious overlapping of projects or research being carried on by different ministries.

As the self-generating pyramids grow larger the communications gap between them also grows larger.

Of course there are those who would argue that there are now many interdepartmental committees such as the "Advisory Committee on Northern Development" which is made up of senior civil servants from the various ministries having a piece of the action in the Arctic. Such committees at least go part way to overcome the communications gap. But again, they're committees of bureaucrats, not politicians.

Another phenomenon occurs as the pyramid grows larger and larger, carrying the minister heavenward as he is wafted upwards on an ever increasing pile of problems and decisions. The phenomenon is that day by day he becomes more remote from the public, the people whom he serves. The higher and bigger the pyramid, the more impossible it becomes for any member of the public to reach the minister personally, to talk with him on the telephone, or to see him to express a point of view. Even back benchers have an extremely difficult time putting the arm on their own ministers.

What about the man or woman, the taxpayer, the public who want to see the minister? Rarely do they get to see him unless they have some particular "in" or influence with somebody.

No, the Canadian who wants to deal with his government must deal with the bureaucracy because there is no one else to get at and the civil servants know it.

This is power. It is power which is in the hands of the civil servants, not the politicians. The civil servants make the decisions. It is they who deal with the public.

Those of you who have had the experience of dealing with the bureaucracy at Ottawa must have some understanding of the point I am attempting to make.

What about limiting the growth of the civil service? Evidently it is impossible.

In 1969 the Prime Minister gave a pledge to the Canadian public that there would be a freeze on the growth of the civil service.

At that time there were 235,000 on the payroll, not including the C.N.R., Air Canada, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Canadian Wheat Board or the Canadian Armed Forces.

Notwithstanding the pledge of the political arm of the federal government, the civil service will grow this year alone by 13,000 to 333,003-an astronomical increase of 98,003 in the short period of just 5 years since the Prime Minister's promise.

This is run-away growth. It is run-away on two counts.

The first is in terms of growth in numbers. The second is that there is no way the cabinet or the current Prime Minister-that is the political arm of the government-can stop it; at least not under the present structure.

When you see, as we have, the enormous number of civil servants in the pyramid beneath each minister and the incredible power which the beaurocracy has acquired through the mass of its own weight of numbers, the conclusion is irresistable that the political arm of the government of Canada is powerless in Canada to stop the growth of the civil service because the bureaucracy has overpowered the politicians.

With this run-away growth of the federal bureaucracy (which really now could be called the "civil self-service" because it grows by feeding upon itself), our society is both witness and victim of an escalating invasion of government into every facet of our lives. Obviously there is a happy willingness on the part of the bureaucracy to find more and more fields of human endeavour to investigate, regulate, control and manipulate.

The final matter to be discussed is this: what would a prudent and reasonable voter in Canada expect the political arm of the federal government to do if it once again accepted the principle that the growth of the bureaucracy in Canada is run-away and then took action to stop it?

While there are those who will disagree with the proposition that I am either reasonable or prudent, I am at least uninhibited enough to put forward a handful of suggestions. I do this with every confidence that those in power in Ottawa-that includes the political as well as the bureaucratic arms of the federal government-will never hear or see them. For after all, I am one of those second-class citizens on the far side of the moat around Ottawa's ivory tower.

So, in the comfortable belief that I will not be responsible for influencing anyone in a position of power, I turn to my respectful suggestions.

The political arm of the federal government should:

First, forthwith decree a maximum limit to the number of people that can be engaged in the civil service and should roll back the permitted number to the number originally set by the Prime Minister in 1969 plus a per annum increase proportionate to the growth of the population; and to give effect to this cut back the Treasury Board should set a budgetary limitation for the pay and allowances to be permitted to the civil service. This technique has been effectively used by the civil service to reduce the Canadian armed forces both in men and the amount of money available to them. Now it should be used on the bureaucracy itself.

Second, restructure the cabinet system in such a way that associate ministers are created with at least one in every major department-so that each minister has a colleague of ministerial rank with whom to consult and to assist him in his day-today confrontation with the bureaucracy.

Third, give prompt and favourable consideration to altering the cabinet structure into a two-tier system comparable to that used in the United Kingdom.

Fourth, investigate and inquire into the need and desirability of substantially increasing the number of seats in the House of Commons so that the number of members of Parliament more adequately reflect the growth of the population and so that the House of Commons may be given a better opportunity to oversee the control and development of policies and their implementation.

In short, the time is long past due for a thorough-going review of the structure and organization of the federal government, both the political arm and its pyramiding bureaucracy.

We Canadians are among the most fortunate of people. We have a vast, resource-rich country. We have a stable economy and notwithstanding the situation which I have described today, we have maintained a stable political position, both federally and provincially. Our cities are undoubtedly the most comfortable, safe, delightful urban communities on this continent.

In Canada we've got it all going for us, and paradoxically one of the reasons that we have is that by and large the civil service has done an excellent job for Canada.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Brigadier-General Bruce J. Legge, E.D., C.D., Q.C.

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The Runaway Growth of Bureaucracy—A Serious Concern for Canada's Future

A review of the Canadian government: how it is elected, how it operates, how it is structured, how policies are set, how policy decisions are implemented or executed and by whom. What Colonel Rohmer thinks Canadians believe about how they are governed as opposed to how they are actually governed. A brief history of the development of Canada's government. The growth of what he terms "departmental pyramids" and their effect. Causes and effects of "runaway bureaurcracy" and how it happened. What Canadians might expect from its government. Suggestions for change and solutions.