Justice For All
January 1, 1900
Canada has gone through a lot of changes since May 22, 1868 - and the Department of Justice has seen them all. That was the date that the Department made its debut as the legal branch of the federal government. It hasn't just been watching from the sidelines either - it's been rolling up its collective sleeves and playing its part.
We tend to remember Sir John A. Macdonald as Canada's first Prime Minister, but he was also its first Justice Minister. He contributed a great deal to the creation of Canada's current system of justice.
At first, the Department consisted of a Deputy Head, one other barrister-at-law and five clerks and messengers. You do the math - that adds up to a total of seven men (yes, men; this was before women were welcomed into the legal fraternity). The seven Department employees were located in a few offices on the second floor of what is now called "the East Block" on Parliament Hill. The central heating did not work at all, which made the long winter months very unpleasant.
The first Deputy was Hewitt Bernard, who just happened to be Sir John A.'s brother-in-law. Hewitt Bernard lived with Sir John A., Sir John A.'s wife Agnes, and her mother on Daly Street, before the Macdonalds moved to Earnscliff, which is now the British High Commissioner's Residence.
Department employees could forget about a leisurely reading of the Saturday paper in bed. They worked from 9 to 4, six days a week. No coffee breaks and no allowance for extra work!
There was a lot of work. When it came to building Canada, the Department of Justice played a part in almost everything. In the first year after Confederation, the Department drafted some 40 pieces of legislation. These included criminal law statutes, railway and shipping laws, banking and commercial legislation and militia acts.
The Department also advised the government on the settlement of unresolved issues arising out of confederation, and on the development of many of the public works projects that stitched the country together, such as federal buildings, canals and, of course, the railway that united the country.
One of the Department's key achievements before 1900 was the creation of the Criminal Code, which was enacted in 1892. The Code consolidated and centralized all the law dealing with criminal offences in Canada, and placed them into one, definitive statute. Before the Criminal Code was created, criminal law in Canada was based on a hodgepodge of laws and on decisions and common law precedents created by the courts, going back hundreds of years in England.
By 1900, the Department has really grown. There are 18 employees, including 4 barristers-at-law and one female clerk, one Emma Maria Armstrong. The Deputy Minister in 1900 is Edmund Newcombe, who earns the dazzling salary of $4,000 per year. Other employees are paid an annual salary of between $450 and $2,600. The Minister of Justice is the government's official legal adviser. The Attorney General is the chief law officer of the Crown, in charge of providing all legal services to federal departments and agencies.
In 1999, the Department of Justice employs about 2800 people, including more than 1,000 lawyers.