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Photograph of a group of politicians near the Parliament Buildings, circa 1888
Group of small photographs of deputy heads of departments, 1892
The day-to-day work of the federal government is conducted by departments. Also known as ministries, departments are administrative bodies that are dedicated to specific federal programs, services or policy areas. Each department is overseen by a Cabinet minister and operated by public servants. Together their role is to carry out the legislated mandate of the department, while the minister's additional concern is to promote the department's particular interests in Cabinet.
Whereas central agencies such as the Privy Council Office and the Treasury Board Secretariat have "horizontal" duties that range across all sectors of government, the term "line department" often is used to describe the line of responsibility that extends from the minister to the citizens who are served by a particular department. Other branches of government perform functions similar to departments, including ministries of state, administrative tribunals, regulatory agencies, marketing organizations, commissions, crown corporations and "stand-alone" organizations such as Library and Archives Canada.
From 1867 to 1873, the Canadian government operated with less than ten ministries, together with a few portfolios such as postmaster general, superintendent-general of Indian Affairs and secretary of state for the provinces. In 2005, the Government of Canada administers about two dozen departments and related organizations. Contemporary departments include such high-profile units as National Defence and the Department of Finance, as well as specialized units such as Social Development Canada and Industry Canada.