The true meaning of the Privy Council

The Privy Council is a very prestigious appellation in Canadian society, with largely undefined regulations as to what does or does not constitute its powers or the limits of its membership, which lasts for life. As such, there are few real hard and fast rules governing who joins or what they need to do. It currently (January 22, 2014) has 365 members.

Originally, the Privy Council was formed in Norman-era England as a group of people with whom the King could trust to meet with in secret to obtain advice. (“Privy” comes from the Latin privatus, meaning to be withdrawn from the public.) The realm’s Magna Cartification eventually obliged the King to exercise nearly all his power only on the advice of the Privy Council. As such, the Sovereign as lawgiver came to be known as the King-in-Council (or, in the colonies, the Governor-in-Council) and the King-in-Council’s acts known as Orders-in-Council, the Commonwealth equivalent of the American Executive Order.

The Queen’s Privy Council for Canada was formed in 1867, with its especially important members (such as the Prime Minister or the Chief Justice) receiving secondary appointments to the Privy Council of the UK (a.k.a. the “Imperial” Privy Council). This explains why, while most Canadian Privy Councillors are styled “The Honourable”, the highest-ranked members are styled “The Right Honourable”, the standard appellation of a British Councillor. (Appointments to the PCUK ended in the mid-1960s; the awarding of the latter title is now a caprice of the QPCC.)

The two governing officials of the Privy Council are the President and the Clerk of the Privy Council, whose importance have went in polar opposite directions: the President of the Privy Council, a Cabinet position, is now no more than a sinecure, currently attached to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs; while the Clerk of the Privy Council took on the jobs of the Cabinet Secretary and deputy minister to the Prime Minister, and consequently he controls the civil service.

The Privy Council has committees, of which the three most important are the Cabinet, the Treasury Board and the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which examines at arm’s length the work of the RCMP and CSIS. The Privy Council itself almost never meets, and the whole thing is too large ever to meet. The minimum attendance to hold a Council Meeting is four members. The last time it met, in 1981, there were 12 Councillors in attendance.

In theory, it approves the accession of the Sovereign and the marriage of the Sovereign and his or her heir. It met in 1947 to approve the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and in 1981 for the marriage of Prince Charles. It also met to be in the presence of the Queen on the Royal Visits of 1957 and 1959.

So who is a member? Some positions come with automatic membership: the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and every single Cabinet minister. The Governor-General, the Speaker of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Commons are made members once they leave office, as are most, but not all, former Clerks of the Privy Council, and some, but not all, chief government whips in the House of Commons. Because the Security of Information Act of 1985 specifically limits certain top-secret documents to be seen only by Privy Councillors, members of the five-person Security Intelligence Review Committee are appointed to the Council, as are most leaders of opposition parties, if they need to be let in on important national security issues. Jean Chrétien appointed all his Secretaries of State (who are below Cabinet rank) to the Privy Council; Paul Martin appointed all his parliamentary secretaries.

A surprising number of people are appointed simply as an honour. Veteran MPs are a frequent target: Stephen Harper alone gave the honour to John Reynolds, Jim Abbott, Leonard Gustafson, Rick Casson, Laurie Hawn, Ron Cannan, Mike Lake, Preston Manning and Deepak Obhrai. Premiers are sometimes appointed en masse on major milestones, like in 1967 or 1982. The Duke of Edinburgh was made a member in 1957. In 1992, a one-time appointment of a bunch of famous Canadians was made, including Charles Bronfman, Conrad Black, John C. Polanyi, Alex Colville and Maurice Richard.

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