When it comes to cabinet size, biggest doesn’t always equal better. Truth be told, it appears to have little to do with public policy outcomes, and mostly to do with pure politics.
The Western Standard has compiled the cabinet sizes of all 10 Canadian provinces, the current Trudeau federal government, the previous Harper and Martin governments, and several other comparable countries.
The smallest cabinet in Canada – by several orders of magnitude – is Prince Edward Island. With Just 157,000 residents, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Islanders have fewer cabinet members than the City of Calgary has councillors: just 10. Because PEI’s population makes it such an outlier, we have excluded it from the provincial averages when comparing across Canada. This isn’t a dig at our green-gabled friends, but a compliment.
Small government ≠ small cabinets
First off, lets disabuse ourselves of any notation that “Conservative” governments – ostensibly believing in small government – practice small cabinets. Quite the opposite in fact.
The average provincial cabinet in Canada (less PEI) has 21 members sitting in it, driven by the two largest provinces, Ontario (28) and Quebec (27). This puts “conservative” governments exactly on the average, at 21, or 22 if we include the ill-defined Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ).
Liberals by contrast, have markedly smaller cabinets at 16 member. However this is due in large part to the only two nominally “Liberal” governments in Canada residing in relatively small Nova Scotia and Newfoundland (and Labrador).
Technically, the NDP score the largest average cabinet size at 24. But with just one provincial government, and located in populous BC, this is a difficult indicator to use as any kind of broad trend.
And again, technically the Conservatives have both the largest cabinet in Ontario (28), and the smallest in Prince Edward Island (10).
A more useful comparison than among parties is among regions and comparable populations.
Among the four largest provinces, cabinets average 26 members, putting Alberta and B.C. slightly below Ontario and Quebec. By that comparison, the “conservative” large provinces (including Quebec’s CAQ), score at the top, while the B.C.’s NDP comes in below at 24.
Among the mid-sized provinces (everything smaller than Alberta and larger than PEI), the cabinets average 17 members. In this club, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia all come in above, while Newfoundland is the outlier at just 14.
Conservatives also tend to score large cabinet numbers at the federal level as well, compared across administrations.
Justin Trudeau’s federal cabinet has a massive 36 members. What they all do, is anybody’s guess. But while Conservatives regularly define the Trudeau government as bloated, the last Harper cabinet totalled an eye-watering 39 members. While it was short-lived, Paul Martin’s final cabinet was – by Canadian standards – a trim 26 bodies.
But this is less about party, and more about a strange Canadian tradition. Canada’s cabinets – regardless of party – are traditionally out of all proportion compared internationally.
U.S. President Donald Trump manages his country – with 10 times Canada’s population – with just 21 cabinet members. Put another way, The United States of America functions with a smaller cabinet than Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta.
U.S. Presidents – unlike Canadian prime ministers and premiers- cannot simply conjure up new ministerial portfolios on a whim. New cabinet departments in the U.S. require the express consent of both houses of Congress, and so are much more stable in their number. Additionally, U.S. cabinet members are not drawn from the House of Representatives, and so there is less of a need to pay debts, placate factions, or satisfy troublemakers.
But even when compared with other similar parliamentary systems, Canada’s cabinets are bloated. The U.K. – with a population twice Canada’s – has a cabinet of 22 (or 26 depending on how it is counted). Germany – with two and a half times Canada’s population – has just 16 members of the cabinet. In Germany’s case, their government is made up of a grand coalition of three parties (centrists, moderate socialists, and Bavarian conservatives), which would create the political conditions for a larger cabinet to keep all sides happy. Even with such a larger population, a coalition government, and a parliamentary system, it’s cabinet is less than half that of Canada’s. Put another way, the most powerful nation in Europe makes do with a cabinet the size of Manitoba’s.
Bringing it back
The most remarkable conclusion to be gleaned from comparing Canada’s federal and provincial cabinets is their incredible size when compared with others outside of Canada. This goes back to the very foundations of confederation as Sir John A. MacDonald built his first cabinet.
When criticized for the weak composition of his front bench, he famously quipped, “Give me better wood, and I will make you a better cabinet.”
But MacDonald likely didn’t mean this. His cabinet – and all since – have had political necessity – not competence – as their primary determinant. In the political patchwork that was the early Dominion, MacDonald built his cabinet almost entirely based on ethnic, religious, and geographic considerations. A few spots for Upper Canada loyalist WASPs. A few spots for French Catholics. A little English-Catholic here, and little Irish-Catholic there. And don’t forget the regional kingpins.
Cabinet’s in Canada may look different today, but they are built the same way. Despite having a clear male-majority Liberal Caucus after being elected in 2015, Justin Trudeau appointed half of his cabinet to be women. When asked why, he did not say it was because the women in his caucus were proportionately more competent than his men. He said only, “Because it’s 2015.”
Liberals might read this as meaning that because it’s 2015, women should have equal representation as men. Conservatives mostly read into it that it was because the prime minister is an avowed feminist. More historically attuned critics would see it as the natural evolution of Canada’s hyper-demography focused cabinets.
Progressives regularly argue that Canada’s parliament should be a near-perfect demographic representation of Canada at-larger. That is, 50 per cent women, X per cent of Religion A, Y per cent of Race B. Ect.
While parties of all stripes manipulate nominations to achieve some level of artificial diversity, ultimately voters decide who goes to parliament, at least outside of safe seats. This leaves it to party leaders to fashion the demographically representative focus groups that we call cabinets.
The growing diversity of Canada has required prime ministers and premiers to concoct an ever greater list of ministerial portfolios to meet the demand of demographic mirroring. This often happens by splitting large ministries with clear mandates into much smaller ministries, often with little real power.
The political necessity of demographic mirroring also exists in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and most of the democratic world, but Canadian leaders make it an obsession.
In Alberta’s case, the social policy ministries could easily be folded into a single role. Instead, we have ministers for: Community and Social Services, Seniors and Housing, Children’s Services, Indigenous Relations, Culture, Multiculturalism & Status of Women, Mental Health & Addictions.
Less extreme, but still relevant, is the Minister of Natural Gas, despite already having a Minister of Energy, or the positions of Red Tape Reduction, Jobs, Economy and Innovation, when there is already a Minister of Finance.
The list is even longer at the federal level, but you probably get the point.
In short, cabinets in Ottawa and in the provinces have little to do with party, a bit to do with population, nothing to do with parliamentary system, and everything to do with the political necessity of demographic mirroring.
Derek Fildebrandt is Publisher of the Western Standard and President of Wildrose Media Corp. firstname.lastname@example.org
Retired soldier using haunting past to help homeless vets in Calgary
And now Hopkins is turning his focus to create Guardians for Heroes, a charity whose sole focus is to try and end the scourge of homelessness amongst veterans
Dean Hopkins has seen the absolute worst humanity has to offer.
But now he’s using the haunting memories he has to try and help homeless veterans in Calgary who have fallen through society’s cracks.
Hopkins is the founder of One Direction Calgary, a charitable organization whose focus is to bring groups and charities together. To achieve greater success through collaboration.
And now he’s turning his energy to create Guardians for Heroes, a charity whose sole focus is to try and end the scourge of homelessness amongst veterans, many of them suffering from the mental effects of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
Hopkins knows how these veterans feel, with a three-decade career behind him in the British military, that took him to the world’s hotspots.
The 57-year-old did a whopping 16 tours of duty – everywhere from Iraq to North Ireland to Africa.
But it was a scene 28 years ago in Bosnia that haunts Hopkins and steers his charity work to this day.
Hopkins was in charge of an observation post in Bosnia, in command of peacekeeping troops who had orders to observe and not engage.
Hopkins refuses any elaboration to the story but there’s no doubt it lit the fire currently burning within.
“What I saw in Bosnia was terrible, the worst of humanity. I decided right then I would find a peaceful city in a peaceful country and try and give back to veterans,” he said.
After three decades of accepting the Queen’s shilling, Hopkins decided to retire to Calgary.
“The people here are the best people I’ve found anywhere,” Hopkins said.
In the last 12 months, Hopkins has brought together the Calgary Veterans Food Bank and Hoggin Alberta to start work on a sanctuary, away from the city, for stressed former vets.
The group plans to build 28 cabins on their land to get the veterans back to nature – with fishing, hunting and camping.
“I’m very passionate when I see homeless veterans that have fallen through the cracks of a society that sees them as a liability,” he said.
Hopkins realizes his dream is now at a point, that it will need government grants and other donations to succeed the way he wants. He estimates it will take $14 million to get Guardians for Heroes fully working.
Not only would Guardians for Heroes help veterans, but Hopkins said it would be open to all past and current emergency workers.
He’s urging all veterans groups to contact him and work together for the greater good.
“There are a plethora of veterans groups out there – from biker ones to hunting ones. I want to know all about them and what work they do. I want to talk to them and start collaborating with all the different groups.”
“My strengths are organizing groups and acting as a mediator. To be honest, we will need the premier (Kenney) on this. We need someone in our group that can navigate the corridors of power to the person in charge of the cash register,” Hopkins said.
“People say it can’t be done. But people who know me, know that if I set my mind to it, I will get it done, whether it takes five years, 10 years, 20 years.”
Once established in Alberta, Hopkins hopes to extend across the country with his front-line “Stand Down” centres.
“All military people understand what ‘Stand Down’ means,” Hopkins said, adding he hopes to set up centres where front-line workers can bring in homeless vets who will be met with staff who can start the process of getting their lives turned around.
Hopkins said services for veterans in Canada are about 10 years behind what they are currently offered in Europe.
“What I’m asking now is for people who have a similar vision to call me. I’m just a cog in what could become a very big machine,” Hopkins said.
The One Direction charity can be accessed through their website.
WESTROCK: Big Sugar on their Alberta anthem, and what’s next for the band
The Western Standard spoke with Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar.
I was excited to interview Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar on a live Western Standard broadcast, but with tech issues, I had to stand on the sidelines and watch our Publisher Derek Fildebrandt do it for me. As a Big Sugar fanboy, he didn’t seem to mind though. C’est la vie.
There was much respect though as I viewed and could hear Derek apologizing and giving me props for setting up the interview. In fact, Derek told Gordie that during the application for the job as the Western Standard’s new music columnist, that if I could get an interview with one his favorite Canadian artists Big Sugar, I had the job.
It took me 24 hours to set it up. I got the job.
The beginning of the interview was some chit chat back and forth and Derek made it known that he was a huge Big Sugar fan and that he originally was just going to be my kind of Ed McMahaon or Paul Shaffer, but fate must have been involved and he had Gordie all to himself. “Maybe there’s some subterfuge going on” he joked.
In case you are not aware, Big Sugar was formed in Toronto in 1988 and over the years the band has released 11 studio albums with the most recent being ‘Eternity Now’, which for various reasons took two years to record. The band and Gordie have also received many Juno nominations and many of their albums have hit Gold or Platinum status. In addition to ‘Eternity Now’, the band decided to also rerelease a vinyl version of one of their best selling albums, ‘Hemi-Vision’ this past year.
Gordie was asked about his musical influences and across the board styles.
“Well music is just the language I speak and I hear funk in my heavy metal. I hear rock when I listen to reggae, and that’s what a Big Sugar show is about; there is so much complexity and it makes you move and feel good”
The interview then got a bit scary (for me} as Derek mentioned that I said that Gordie resembled Julian from the Trailer Park Boys.
“Tell Ernest I’m going to kick his ass after school” was the singer-guitarist’s reply.
From there we delved into how the impact of Gary Lowe’s passing a couple years ago after a two year battle with cancer had on the band.
“First of all, it was devastating and there was no getting over it…I mean I know his kids and Gary was unique in what he brought to the studio and our friendship was unique. Moving forward, I didn’t hire guys to sound like him; I hired guys to be themselves and that is why Big Sugar has been successful over the years.”
As I noted above, Fildebrandt is a pretty much a Big Sugar groupie. He literally talked my ear off about Gordie and his favourite Sugar song, ‘All Hell for a Basement’.
I listened to the song and although I liked the vibe and groove, the important thing I noted is that the title was attributed to the famous poet laureate Rudyard Kipling who was born in Bombay in 1865 and traveled the world and wrote and studied. In 1907, his travels landed him in Medicine Hat, Alberta. There he coined the phrase “All hell for a Basement” referring to the region’s vast reserves of natural gas beneath the soil.
Gordie confirmed that fact. “Back in the day in downtown Medicine Hat, they literally would just stick a pipe in the ground and light it and use it for a street light” No joke.
Johnson grew up between Ontario and The Hat.
Although the song is written as kind of an athem for oil and natural gas rich Alberta, Gordie says it was more of a song about displacement as Newfoundlanders in their thousands crossed the country to find work in the oilfields as the cod fishing industry dried up.
“I just thought that was an amazing cultural phoenomena that was happening in Canada and nobody was talking about it.”
Johnston said that he still can’t play the song without tearing up.
“It’s a song about displaced people.”
“I wrote it about a young fellah – a guy in his 20s – who was working in the oilfield, who had moved from Newfoundland with his family…He couldn’t have been further from home. He was trying to make a new life for himself in Fort McMurray, Alberta.”
Johnson tells the story of a time he was in a Newfoundland pub drinking – and not preforming – and a traditional Irish folk group starting playing the song.
Another time he was working with a traditional Irish-folk musician from Newfoundland who told him – in a thick Newfie accent – “Big Sugar did not write that song. That’s a traditional old Newfoundlander song.”
Fildebrandt asked him if he believes he would get more blowback – or even get ‘canceled’ for releasing such an openly pro-oil and gas worker song. Johnson’s answer was shocking.
“We got in trouble back in 2001. You know why that song was never a radio single? Because record companies based in Toronto. You get 12 guys that live in Toronto sitting around a board room table, they say ‘ you can put that out, because they’re not going to play it anywhere else…People want to sing it everywhere we go. No record company execs have ever been as wrong as, shall be nameless.”
“We took the heat for it back in the day.” Johnston said they also took hell for putting a rock version of ‘O’Canada’ on the album.
To give more context of how much of a huge Gordie-fan Derek is, I had originally asked Gordies’ assistant if he could some how play the first couple of bars to ‘All Hell For a Basement’ either during the intro or ending of the interview. I was politely turned down through an email as Gordie was doing some session work and was just going to stop long enough to take the interview. At that point, I garnered a lot of respect for him.
Funny thing is that Derek (knowing this) persisted politely and since he was the host due to my technically-challenged demise, asked Gordie the same question. I laughed as Gordie very respectfully denied him and explained the situation…again.
I could feel the crushing blow and tearing of my new employer’s heart.
Although being in lockdown for the better part of 2020, it has still been a busy year for Gordie and Sugar as ‘Hemi-Vision’ was rereleased with some hidden gems on it that they pulled out of the vault such as a Beatles cover, and also the release of ‘Eternity Now’ by “Big Sugar 3.0”. It’s 3.0 according to Gordie because the band is always evolving, and with new members it was almost like a new band in many ways.
One of the questions that I had prepared and passed along during interview was to ask who Gordie thought was a great upcoming band or underrated artist. In a very honest and politically phrased answer, he said it would be a disservice to really mention anyone because there are so many that he would be regret if he forgot to mention someone.
The longer they chatted, Mr. Johnson did confess that he had a soft spot for the Vancouver music scene, as that is where he met his wife. He also coughed up that there are some really great musicians there and one happens to be his buddy Rich Hope.
“He’s one of those dudes that still rides his skateboard to work and has this big black Les Paul and he just embodies Rock n’ Roll and at my age he is still just shredding on it, and I can’t just limit it to Richie. Jay Sparrow is another one and the list goes on and on.”
So the moral of the story is that if you get Gordie to talk long enough, he’ll eventually slip up and I’m sure Ritchie and Jay appreciate the plug.
Ernest Skinner is the WestRock columnist for the Western Standard
Join Ernest for a live-streamed interview on Friday February 5 at 7 pm MST with Joel Hoekstra of Whitesnake and the Trans Siberian Orchestra.
WATCH: Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar
We interviewed Gordie Johnston of Big Sugar on the origins of his Alberta anthem ‘All Hell for a Basement’ and what’s next for the band.
Western Standard Publisher Derek Fildebrandt interviews Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar
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