Better know a Canadian institution: The Auditor-General of Canada

The Auditor-General of Canada is the top official charged with overseeing, examining and reporting on all aspects of government spending, and reports directly to Parliament. The office was created in 1878, removing those duties from the Deputy Minister of Finance, which had held them since 1867. (Only one Deputy Minister, John Langton, served during that time.) The Auditor-General’s original main job was to produce an enormous report every year detailing every salary, purchase and expenditure made by the government, from wharves and horses down to pencils and paintbrushes. The office largely took on its modern role of general oversight and actions against malfeasance in the 1950s when it started issuing reports on “non-productive payments” – expenditures that were totally above-board yet seemingly useless. Nobody was crazy enough to tell the Auditor-General to keep its mouth shut, but some people did raise the objection to the reports telling the government what programs did or did not make sense to spend money on. The guidelines for reports of this nature were codified by the Auditor General Act of 1977: the Auditor-General could comment on the efficiency of implementing government programs, but not on the efficiency of the programs themselves. The Auditor-General’s Office was given additional powers to audit sustainability and environmental soundness by amendments to the Auditor General Act in 1995, and the Federal Accountability Act of 2006 gave it the power to scrutinize any organization that gets a really big chunk of federal funding (currently, $1 million in a five-year span).

The Auditor-General also originally had the authority to issue or refuse to issue any and all government cheques, a power transferred to the Comptroller of the Treasury by the Consolidated Revenue and Audit Act of 1931.

The Auditors-General of Canada have been:

John Lorn McDougall Jr., 1878-1905. McDougall was the MP for Renfrew County South, ON, from 1867 to 1872 and from 1874 to 1878. The gristmill he owned in Renfrew, ON, is now the town museum.

John Fraser ISO, 1905-19. A member of a well-established Scottish clan in Glengarry County, ON, the massive increase in government spending during World War I proved too much for his constitution to handle, and died of pneumonia in 1919.

Edward Davenport Sutherland
ISO, 1919-23. A native of Sydney, NS, Sutherland spent his whole career in the employ of the civil service, earning himself the prestigious Imperial Service Order for public service in the British Empire while still Associate Auditor-General.

Georges Gonthier, 1924-39. A prominent Montreal accountant initially reluctant to take the job, Gonthier was the first Auditor-General to deal with large-scale government welfare expenditures, first with the introduction of old-age pensions in 1927 then with relief projects during the Great Depression. His son, Charles Gonthier, was a justice of the Supreme Court from 1989 to 2003.

Robert Watson Sellar, 1940-59. The first Comptroller of the Treasury before becoming Auditor-General, Watson Sellar oversaw the massive spending of World War II and postwar reconstruction, including the construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the beginnings of the Trans-Canada Highway. He was the first Auditor-General to issue reports on “non-productive payments”.

Andrew Maxwell Henderson, 1960-73. An English-born accountant from Halifax, Henderson served concurrently as a member of the Board of Auditors of the United Nations.

James Johnson Macdonell, 1973-80. A senior partner at Price Waterhouse Associates and a founding director of the Canadian Association of Management Consultants, Macdonell was Auditor-General at the passage of the Auditor General Act of 1977.

Michael H. Rayner, 1980-81 (acting)

Kenneth M. Dye, 1981-91. A chartered accountant with an MBA from Simon Fraser University, Dye oversaw the beginning of the computerization of most of his office’s functions.

Denis Desautels OC, 1991-2001. An accountant from Montreal, Desautels was given the power to audit the government on environmental and sustainability factors in 1995.

Sheila Fraser, 2001-11. One of the most vocal holders of the office, Fraser is now best known for being the Auditor-General during the massive “sponsorship scandal” that ultimately wrecked the government of Paul Martin. Her grandfather was cousins with Auditor-General John Fraser.

John Edward Wiersema, 2011 (acting)

Michael Ferguson, 2011-now. The former Auditor-General of New Brunswick, Ferguson caused controversy in 2012 when he issued a report suggesting the government had fudged an estimate for the purchase of new F-35 fighter jets.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Canadian recipients of the Imperial Service Order | Jeremy Turcotte, Trained Journalist

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