Ministers’ Marching Orders

11 minute read

On December 13, 2019, the Prime Minister released ministerial mandate letters to guide Cabinet in delivering on promises the governing party made to Canadians during the 2019 federal election campaign.

“The mandate letters contain dozens of proposed reforms to Canada’s public governance institutions which, if successfully implemented, will hopefully serve to strengthen the Government’s effectiveness and resiliency,” says IOG President, Toby Fyfe.

Under the principle of allowing Canadians to hold the Government to account on what it will deliver and how, mandate letters were first made public by the Prime Minister following his appointment in November, 2015.

“These mandate letters are instructions to Cabinet ministers on what policy objectives they are expected to achieve during their tenure,” says Karl Salgo, IOG’s Executive Director, Public Governance. “They also outline some of the pressing challenges that each minister will address but they are not, however, an exhaustive list of all the files on which ministers will be working.”

Political Culture

Mandate letter responsibilities that are related to Canada’s political culture appear relatively frequently. For example, the President of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada is responsible for developing policy on online disinformation in the Canadian context, with the ultimate goal of enabling Canada to lead an international initiative aimed at building consensus and developing guiding principles on how to strengthen citizen resilience to online disinformation. He is also responsible for further improvement of the Leaders’ Debates for the next election.

Meanwhile, the Government House Leader is tasked with a wide array of initiatives that include increasing time allotments for private members’ business, improving technology with the goal of better connecting MPs to their constituents, eliminating the use of whip and party lists, providing more resources to parliamentary committees, reducing vote-whipping, and updating the Parliament of Canada Actto reflect a more non-partisan Senate.

Public Governance (Frameworks and Institutions)

Of the mandate letter commitments issued with respect to public governance institutions, the most notable are the ones for the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, who has been tasked with implementing all of the recommendations put forward by Anne McLellan in her report following the SNC-Lavalin affair, and the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship who is responsible for the full implementation of the new professional governance regime for immigration and citizenship consultants.

“Meanwhile,” says Fyfe, “several other ministers are mandated to implement various frameworks that are intended to fulfill the many promises made by the governing party during the election campaign, including a framework on green economic growth, and a renewed framework for regional economic development, the latter of which might be intended to appease the alienated Western provinces.”

Public Governance (Machinery)

“There are numerous proposed changes to the formal Machinery of Government in the mandate letters,” says IOG Researcher Sam Wells, “most of which appear to be intended towards creating new government entities to assist with the implementation of this Government’s mandate.”

Agencies to be established under the current mandate include:

● The Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government (Foreign Affairs, International Development)

● A centre of expertise to implement major transformation projects across government (Digital Government)

● The Northern Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program to clean up high-risk abandoned mining sites (Northern Affairs)

● The Canada Water Agency to foster collaboration between provinces, territories, Indigenous populations, local authorities, scientists, and “others” to find the best ways to keep water clean (Agriculture and Agri-Food; Environment and Climate Change)

● The Data Commissioner to oversee personal data and competition regulations for large digital companies (Innovation, Science, and Industry; Canadian Heritage)

● A National Institute for Women’s Health Research (Health; Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development)

● An Anti-Racism Secretariat (Diversity and Inclusion and Youth)

Diversity and Inclusion

“The mandate letters make clear that promoting diversity and inclusion within the Government, as well as integrating it into public policy, are priorities for the current Cabinet,” says Gérard Étienne, IOG’s Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion.

“For example, the Minister of Justice is mandated to ensure mandatory training for Canadian judges on sexual assault law, including ‘myths and stereotypes about victims and effects of trauma on victims’ memory,’ as well as on unconscious bias and cultural competency.”

Meanwhile, the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry, is mandated to promote gender equality and inclusion in the sciences, and funding will flow to the research councils to support academic studies on race, diversity and gender; the mandate letter for the Minister of Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development specifies a total of six commitments that are related to gender equality and diversity within the public service and policymaking process; and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, along with the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, will be working to ensure that all officials in Canada’s law enforcement and security agencies have access to unconscious bias and cultural competency training.


“Unsurprisingly, the Ministers of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Indigenous Services, and Northern Affairs have all been assigned a multitude of responsibilities pertaining to self-determination, with emphasis on transitioning away from the Indian Act,” says Ross Holden, IOG’s Vice President, Indigenous Governance and Self-Determination. “But the big story is the commitment to co-development on a wide range of policy and legislative initiatives.” Those initiatives include:

● Working with Inuit, Métis and First Nations on new legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Minister of Justice);

● Engaging on new Indigenous health legislation (Indigenous Services);

● Collaborating with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and other partners on an Inuit Nunangat Policy; and

● Creating a National Treaty Commissioner’s Office to provide a distinctions-based process for the ongoing review, maintenance and enforcement of Canada’s treaty obligations, both of which are Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (CIRNA) leads.

“The Prime Minister has committed to an unprecedented level of collaboration between his Government and Indigenous peoples,” says Holden. “The key to success for the Federal Government will rest in its ability to capture the best practices and lessons learned in recent policy and legislative co-development initiatives, such as the development of the Indigenous Languages Act.”

The Minister of Finance, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and the Minister of Indigenous Services, meanwhile, will be responsible for developing a new fiscal relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Though it is not strictly governance-related, the Minister of Justice is tasked with contributing to the development of a National Action Plan on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which could potentially involve the implementation of some type of reconciliatory framework, and the Minister of Canadian Heritage will be responsible for co-developing, with Indigenous peoples, a framework for repatriating Indigenous cultural property and ancestral remains.

“In other parts of Cabinet, the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs’ mandate letter suggests that further collaboration between Canada’s Indigenous peoples, the provinces, and the Government of Canada is in order, and it can be expected that there will be a First Ministers’ meeting specifically devoted to this topic,” adds Holden.


The Minister of Foreign Affairs, in conjunction with the Minister of International Development, has been tasked with establishing the Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government, which will be an agency responsible for providing “Canadian expertise and assistance to those seeking to build peace, advance justice, promote human rights and democracy, and deliver good governance.”

“This is something that we at the IOG are very happy about as it complements the work we have been doing abroad, particularly most recently in Iraq,” says IOG President, Toby Fyfe. “We are also excited to see that the Minister of International Development will be responsible for modernizing the methodology for delivering international assistance ‘to ensure greater effectiveness, transparency and accountability’.” As with the previous government, gender equality will be central to Canada’s international assistance policy.

Digital Governance

A number of proposed initiatives geared towards modernizing government can also be found in the mandate letters. They include:

● Review measures put in place to protect the electoral system from cyber threats (Privy Council);

● Transition to a more digital government with a particular focus on improving citizen service (Digital Government);

● Improve the delivery of IT within government, which includes a renewal of Shared Services Canada (Digital Government);

● Develop ethics guidelines for the use in government of data and digital tools, including artificial intelligence (Digital Government; Innovation, Science and Industry);

● Build on an inventory of validated and secure applications that can be used by government to share knowledge and expertise to support innovation (Digital Government); and

● Modernize procurement practices, which includes the implementation of the e-Procurement Solution (Public Services and Procurement; Treasury Board).

Science and Innovation

Regarding science and innovation, we look first to the mandate letter of the newly rebranded Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. This portfolio is vast, with 22 explicit commitments – ranging from affordable internet access to defence procurement to travel cost deductions for Northern residents – with only a handful specific to science and innovation.

On innovation, the Government remains committed to building on the work of the Economic Strategy Tables, supporting “innovation ecosystems” and it positions the Superclusters– key areas of business activity where small, medium and large companies collaborate with universities, colleges and not-for-profit organizations to turn ideas into solutions that can be brought to market – as the “anchor” of the Government’s business innovation support.

“This is an interesting word choice since an anchor, if improperly deployed, can be a definite drag on progress,” says Jeff Kinder, IOG’s Executive Director of Science and Innovation, reacting to reported grumblings about the slow rollout of the Superclusters.

The Minister will collaborate with the Minister of Natural Resources to make Canada a global leader in clean technology. Minister Bains’ letter also tasks the National Research Council with “mission-oriented” research to address societal grand challenges but, interestingly, makes no reference to space or the Canadian Space Agency, part of his portfolio.

Curiously, the Prime Minister’s letter to Minister Bains asserts that “The full responsibilities for science are in your portfolio…” – curious because in fact many federal departments conduct science in support of their mandates.

“Perhaps the language is intended to underscore the elimination from Cabinet of a separate Minister of Science,” speculates Kinder.

In terms of the science responsibilities in other ministers’ letters, priorities include pediatric cancer research, women’s health, antimicrobial resistance, environmental pollutants, sustainable crop protection, species at risk, land and ocean conservation, marine science and invasive species, and youth drug use including e-cigarettes.

Turning from policy support of research and innovation to science support of government policy, all ministers are to ensure that their policies and decisions are grounded in scientific evidence.

“In addition to a general commitment to ‘evidence-based decision-making’ common to all letters, there are commitments specifically geared towards the responsible use of science and evidence in the Government’s work,” Kinder says.

For example, the Government renews its commitment to using the long-form census in 2021 and commits the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to “use good science evidence and traditional Indigenous knowledge when making decisions affecting fish stocks and ecosystem management.”

“The Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry, meanwhile, is tasked with continuing to work with the Chief Science Advisor to ensure that scientists may speak freely, and that she remains a key individual in the policymaking process,” says Kinder, adding “both of which will come as welcome news to government scientists.”

Professional Development in the Public Service

“Unfortunately, the mandate letters do not contain a significant number of commitments that are geared towards professional development in the public service,” observes Francois Gagnon, IOG’s Vice President, Learning Lab. “In fact, only a few specific learning-related initiatives are mentioned.”

In addition to those assigned to the Minister of Justice regarding increased training in diversity and inclusion for Canadian judges on sexual assault law (above), there is a similar cognitive bias training requirement for members of Canada’s law enforcement and security agencies, overseen by the Minister of Public Safety. Meanwhile, there are a couple of mandate letters that instruct ministers to ensure that the public servants under their watch receive adequate GBA+ training.

Finally, the Minister of Veterans Affairs is responsible for creating national employment and training support services tailored to help the needs of military and policing families.

“It is not specified that this implies skills for working in the public service,” adds Gagnon, “although there is a chance that the public sector will be an important part of this commitment.”


Increase your understanding of how mandate letters lead to policy creation, which leads to outcomes, by taking IOG day courses on a range of subjects on the mechanics and culture of government.

Recommended day courses from IOG:

● How Government Works

● Strengthening Your Political Savvy

● Briefings on Demand

● Policy 1: Reviewing the Fundamentals

● Policy 2: Policy in a Changing Environment

● Policy 3: Behavioural “Nudge” Economics

● Demystifying the Treasury Board Submission Process

● The Memoranda to Cabinet Development Process

● ISG1: Innovation and Science in Government


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