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Sitting at this desk in the comfort of his Kingston home, Dr. Adam Shortt appears to be a quiet, scholarly gentleman surrounded by books and worldly ideas about the banking system, taxation and tariff relations between Canada and the United States. Little did the Queen's University professor know at the time that the Canadian civil service would soon rock his peaceful existence.
In 1908 the Parliament of Canada created the Civil Service Commission (CSC) - the current Public Service Commission's forebear - to ensure that appointments to and promotions within the public service would be based on merit and free of political patronage. For the first time in its history, the federal civil service had a permanent, central personnel agency.
When Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier asked Dr. Shortt to head the CSC with co-Commissioner Michel-Guy LaRochelle, he assured him that his new functions would not occupy too much of his time. But for the next decade or so, Shortt would struggle to reduce political patronage and produce a permanent, professional civil service for Canada.
One of his first tasks was to set up an examination process. Up until then, civil service examinations had not been competitive in nature, only qualifying. Their main purpose was to ensure that new recruits were literate. In the absence of competition, the spoils system of patronage appointments meant that civil service jobs were generally not available to all Canadians.
"In some cases officers appointed by patronage to positions they were incapable of filling sublet their work to others at a much lower rate," recalled the CSC in one of its Annual Reports. A patronage committee took care of the appointments and promotions to the best paid positions. Bitterness and discouragement plagued the "competent and faithful servants."
According to the Honourable Andrew Haydon, a contemporary of Shortt who wrote an article about him for the Queen's Quarterly in 1931, Shortt came to Ottawa with the high purpose of shaping the service into a career. "I want to urge upon the people of this country that there is now opening a new profession in Canada. To the professions of law, medicine and the church … is now added a profession - the public service - for which young men will train in all seriousness," Shortt said in 1909.
Not everyone shared his ideals. On the one hand, he was criticized by the civil servants themselves. For many who had been used to the old ways of securing appointments and promotions, adapting to the new competitive environment represented a difficult shift.
On the other hand, Shortt was often bedevilled by politicians of both parties. Although they had argued in Parliament for the abolition of patronage and for appointments by merit, politicians pressed the new Commissioner to understand that, in the case of their particular friends at least, the new merit-based, competitive system couldn't and shouldn't apply.
"Not a day went by, I am sure, without Shortt being stopped in the streets of Ottawa by people wanting him to give them or their friends a job," says Ian Wilson, Canada's Librarian and Archivist who wrote a thesis on Shortt and Arthur Doughty, Dominion Archivist for Canada from 1904 to 1935.
The silver lining in the new system, Shortt thought, was that Canada would be able to attract the best candidates into the public service. "There are no companies in the country which can give competent men a larger field than the government can. Upon their character will depend the future of the country," he commented after being appointed Civil Service Commissioner.
One hundred years later, the picture of Shortt at his desk still graces the walls of the Public Service Commission in Ottawa. For a century now, the Commission has championed the values of merit and non-partisanship, a commitment that Adam Shortt helped set in motion in 1908.
In 2008, the Public Service Commission celebrates 100 years of building a modern public service, dedicated to excellence. To learn more visit www.psc-cfp.gc.ca.