Royal commissions, once described by a member of Parliament as costly travelling minstrel shows, are a form of official inquiry into matters of public concern. They descend from the British monarch's prerogative power to order investigations, said by some to have been exercised first by King William I when he commanded the preparation of the Domesday Book, though the Commission on Enclosures initiated by Henry VIII in 1517 is a more likely prototype of contemporary royal commissions.
Closely related to the royal commissions and often hard to distinguish from them are several other kinds of public inquiry; eg, commissions of inquiry, TASK FORCES and investigations established by departments and other agencies under statutory powers of the Inquiries Act, first passed by Parliament in 1868.
The Royal Commission Process
At the federal level royal commissions, task forces and commissions of inquiry are appointed by ORDER-IN-COUNCIL under Part I of the Inquiries Act, while departmental investigations are launched under Part II, but the distinction makes little difference in the functioning of these bodies since they all enjoy the power conferred by the Act to conduct investigations by subpoenaing witnesses, taking evidence under oath, requisitioning documents and hiring expert staff. Royal commissions have the added lustre of being created under the imprint of the Great Seal of Canada, while departmental investigations may stem from any one of at least 87 federal statutes that confer powers of inquiry with or without reference to the Inquiries Act. Aside from these minor distinctions, royal commissions are no more regal than other kinds of inquiries.
Despite their unexceptionality, however, an air of superiority still clings to royal commissions. The public takes them more seriously than other sorts of investigations, and governments tend to reinforce the myth by preferring to appoint royal commissions to examine the gravest matters of concern - eg, FEDERAL-PROVINCIAL RELATIONS, health services, BILINGUALISM AND BICULTURALISM, CORPORATE CONCENTRATION, financial management and accountability, government organization, TAXATION, new reproductive technologies, electoral reform and party financing, and ABORIGINAL PEOPLES.
Task forces, on the other hand, have generally been regarded as more prosaic work crews composed of knowledgeable practitioners rather than eminent luminaries. Often appointed by government departments, they have been assigned to examine such practical matters as PRIVACY and computers, IMMIGRATION procedures, retirement income policy, labour market development, FISHERIES POLICY and sports. However, while it would be tempting to conclude that task forces, departmental investigations and nonroyal commissions are used to probe particular, well-focused problems while royal commissions are devoted to more sweeping national issues, this simple dividing line cannot always be drawn. Some task forces have dealt with broad and important Canadian issues such as housing and urban development, government information, and the structure and foreign ownership of Canadian industry.
At the same time royal commissions have sometimes been used to tackle specific issues like disasters (both public and personal), ranging from the burning down of the Parliament Buildings and riots in Halifax to judicial and ministerial indiscretions. In fact there is little rhyme or reason to the appellations of investigations because they have frequently been appointed haphazardly and their titles applied rather indiscriminately. The Pepin-Robarts inquiry into national unity called itself a task force when it might well have been a royal commission.
The McDonald INQUIRY INTO CERTAIN ACTIVITIES OF THE ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE had the dimensions of a royal commission. The probe into the loss of the drill rig Ocean Ranger was changed from a commission into a royal commission. In view of this confusion it is not surprising that the Law Reform Commission has recommended that the term "royal commission" be abandoned altogether.
Why Commissions Are Established
Since Confederation there have been close to 450 federal commissions of inquiry with and without the royal title, more than 1500 departmental investigations, and an undetermined number of task forces. As stated earlier, royal commissions tend to be used either to secure advice upon some important and troublesome general problem or to investigate a specific contentious incident, but critics allege that royal commissions are often established to give a besieged government an excuse to do nothing while a protracted investigation cools the public's temper. Hence the frequency of royal commissions varies from decade to decade; a greater number are usually created during times of crisis, growth and adjustment.
The cost of having several such acts of national introspection operating simultaneously is not inconsiderable. Though the number of actual commissioners employed in any given inquiry may not be great, ranging from one to the 13 on the (Donald) Macdonald investigation into development prospects, the inclination in recent years to hire a proliferation of high-paid legal counsel and massive research staffs over long periods of time has been costly and increasingly more expensive. The commissions on electoral reform and reproductive technology spent nearly $21 million and $30 million respectively while the commission on aboriginal peoples, reporting in 1996 after five years work, reached a new high of almost $60 million.
Flushing Out Misfeasance and Malfeasance
On balance, royal commissions and other forms of inquiry probably do more good than harm. At least they are necessary from time to time to flush out misfeasance and malfeasance and to examine matters of major public concern. Some royal commissions have produced significant reports. For example, the Rowell-Sirois report on federal-provincial financial relations, Massey on the arts and Laurendeau-Dunton on bilingualism and biculturalism furnished the documentation for continuing public debate and for some policymaking.
At the same time it is true that governments for their own reasons frequently ignore reports, whatever their merit. This has been the fate of the reports on reproduction, electoral reform and native affairs. In the case of the investigation into the deployment of Canadian forces in Somalia, the government simply terminated the inquiry before it had completed its examination.
Another new impediment has emerged recently in the fact-finding work of such bodies. In the Somalia inquiry and the inquiry into the blood system in Canada, some individuals and institutions have taken legal action to forestall the reports from naming them as culpable parties.
Each province has its own Inquiries Act under which it conducts investigations similar to Ottawa's. Although it is difficult to draw comparisons, because even less academic study has been devoted to provincial bodies than to federal, it appears that the provinces have not tended to use royal commissions as often as Ottawa. Ontario appointed 199 royal commissions and commissions of inquiry between 1867 and 1991. The most popular subject for investigation in the 10 provinces has been education. From 1787 to 1978 there were 367 inquiries into education, of which 127 were royal commissions.
Alternatives to Commissions?
Various alternatives to royal commissions and other forms of inquiry have been discussed recurrently, including the increased use of legislative committees and white papers, which are simply studies and proposals put out tentatively by government departments for public discussion prior to possible action. But legislatures and the House of Commons do not have sufficient time and objectivity to examine many issues; and while the Senate may have the time, the public would probably not accept its views upon a controversial matter as readily as it would receive the opinions of a royal commission headed by a judge or another prominent figure.
See also ABORIGINAL PEOPLES, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; BANKING AND FINANCE, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; BILINGUALISM AND BICULTURALISM, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; BROADCASTING, ROYAL COMMISSION; CANADA'S ECONOMIC PROSPECTS, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; CONSTITUTIONAL PROBLEMS, ROYAL COMMISSION OF INQUIRY ON; DOMINION-PROVINCIAL RELATIONS, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; ENERGY, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE ARTS, LETTERS AND SCIENCES, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; NON-MEDICAL USE OF DRUGS, ROYAL COMMISSION ON THE; PATENTS, COPYRIGHT AND INDUSTRIAL DESIGNS, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; PUBLICATIONS, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; STATUS OF WOMEN IN CANADA, ROYAL COMMISSION ON THE; TAXATION, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; TRANSPORTATION, ROYAL COMMISSION ON; WAR CRIMES; NEW REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGIES, ROYAL COMMISSION ON.