Maclean's Explains

Your guide to today's pomp and ceremony

So how does Canada get a new federal cabinet? Here's what to know about exactly what will happen when Justin Trudeau takes the oaths

Canada's Governor General David Johnston delivers the Speech from the Throne in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 16, 2013 - (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Canada’s Governor General David Johnston delivers the Speech from the Throne in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 16, 2013. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

The second there’s a change in government, gears start turning in the minds of winning partisans, public servants, and political reporters who just can’t help themselves. The question on everyone’s mind: Okay, so a new guy won and he gets to run the show. But who gets to be in cabinet? Countless column inches guess at who will form the Prime Minister’s inner circle. Most people are wrong. There’s always a surprise. Invariably, the circus moves on.

But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk basics.

What is a cabinet, anyway?

The Prime Minister doesn’t officially hold that title until the Governor General makes it official. Once the new PM is installed, he’s the first member of cabinet. Job #1 is recommending a group of people that the Governor General appoints as the ministry—the executive arm of government. These folks are mostly members of Parliament, though they’re sometimes senators or, in rare instances, members of the public who soon run for office.

Ministers collectively oversee every department or agency under federal auspices. It’s a powerful gang, drawn very carefully from Canada’s regions and built to represent a diverse group of voices within the governing caucus. Balance is essential, lest the PM alienate anyone who should be at the table. Incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau has committed himself to even more stringent balance: never before has a cabinet counted as many women as men, but that’s the incoming Liberal PM’s plan.

(It’s worth noting that the ministry and the cabinet, sometimes conflated, aren’t always perfect reflections of one another: while the ministry often includes or secretaries or ministers of state—colloquially known as “junior ministers”—they don’t count as cabinet ministers.)

When does Canada meet its new ministry?

Because the Governor General does all the appointing, everyone who gets to join the ministry makes their way to Rideau Hall. Sometimes, prime ministers have simply walked the short jaunt across Sussex Drive to the GG’s house. (Trudeau’s walk will be somewhat unique: he’s living as a guest of Governor General David Johnston, in a two-storey house known as Rideau Cottage. He won’t even leave the property for his first prime ministerial installation.)

Typically, eagle-eyed photographers set up outside of Rideau Hall’s gates as the sun rises on ministry appointment day. They keep an eye out for chauffeur-driven cars, inside of which very important people might be visible through tinted glass (though not this time: the new crew is arriving on a bus). Anyone who makes the trip on Nov. 4 is likely headed for a new job—and a bigger salary—in the 29th ministry.

Soon-to-be-former Prime Minister Stephen Harper outwitted the press when he last shuffled his cabinet in 2013. That day, Harper’s team tweeted the new ministry before reporters or photographers found out themselves. It was a perfect example of a shrewd Conservative government that bypassed the national press at its leisure—whenever it wanted its own version of events to float unfiltered through social media.

The Governor General is opening Rideau Hall’s grounds to the public on the morning of the Liberal cabinet’s installation. The subtle hint is that the next government won’t hold its cards nearly as close to its chest. But that’s all, well, speculation.

How does cabinet get officially appointed?

Everyone who earns a spot in the show gets themselves to the Governor General’s house, where the Clerk of the Privy Council swears them in. Right now, the clerk is the Harper appointee Janice Charette. New ministers swear—or affirm, if they’d like to omit any mention of God—at least one oath, and often a couple more.

The Prime Minister is first up.

If a new minister (or PM) isn’t already a member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, two oaths take care of that. (The Privy Council is an ever-growing list of former cabinet ministers and prominent Canadians who can be called on to advise the Queen, though in practice the entire group rarely meets—and only current ministers offer that advice.)

The Oath of Allegiance comes first. It goes like this:

I, [name], do swear (or declare) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors.

So help me God.

Next comes the Oath of the Members of the Privy Council:

I, [name], do solemnly and sincerely swear (or declare) that I shall be a true and faithful servant to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, as a member of Her Majesty’s Privy Council for Canada. I will in all things to be treated, debated and resolved in Privy Council, faithfully, honestly and truly declare my mind and my opinion. I shall keep secret all matters committed and revealed to me in this capacity, or that shall be secretly treated of in Council. Generally, in all things I shall do as a faithful and true servant ought to do for Her Majesty.

The third oath, which is specific to the ministry assigned each new minister (and even existing members of the Privy Council must swear or affirm), goes like this:

I, [name], do solemnly and sincerely promise and swear (or declare) that I will truly and faithfully, and to the best of my skill and knowledge, execute the powers and trusts reposed in me as [position].

So help me God.

After Trudeau takes the oaths, he signs an Oath Book, as will Johnston and Charette. Trudeau will then sign the Instrument of Advice, which nominates his ministry. Johnston will sign that and affirm those recommendations. Each minister takes the required oaths, adds their signature to the Oath Book and, when every new minister is sworn in, they all watch as Trudeau, Johnston and Charette once again sign their names to the book.

Johnston and Trudeau will gather together with the new ministry for a traditional photo, but not before the minister of industry (who acts as Canada’s registrar-general) is presented with the Great Seal of Canada. It’s an important part of the ceremony:

The Great Seal of Canada is one of the oldest and most venerated instruments of our government. Since the earliest days of our nation, Canada’s most important documents have been made official through its imprint. The Great Seal signifies the power and authority of the Crown flowing from the sovereign to our parliamentary government.

Et voilà. The executive arm of government has its new ministers. Next up? Running a government.

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