Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews

Open Letter to a Member of Parliament

My Dear Sir:  I am aware that when you glance down the lines of this document you may feel inclined to cast it into the darkness of your waste paper basket, but I ask you not to be so hasty.  The matter to which I demand your attention affects an influential and trustworthy body of men and as you are pledged to justice by your presence in the House of Commons, I ask you for what you cannot refuse and be at the same time true to your position.
     You will shortly be asked to concur in the second reading of a bill relating to the civil service of Canada brought down by the hon. the secretary of state and as it does not appeal directly to your self interest you might be inclined to pass the question by as unimportant.  By doing so you would permit a grave injustice to be done, an injustice of which you will never see the result, and for which, therefore, you will consider yourself irresponsible.  I am aware of the idea which the popular fancy has made current and which pictures the civil servant as a man well dressed to foppishness, the centre of whose universe is Rideau Hall, who makes a slow progress to his comfortable office at ten in the morning and who reads the papers and yawns until it is time for luncheon, and then repeats this well practiced task in the afternoon until four o’clock releases him to his duty calls and the real business of his life at the five o’clock teas.  But did you ever think that the popular idea was fallacious; just as fallacious as that equally popular one, that all lawyers are liars, all doctors quacks, and all merchants rogues?  Did it ever strike you that you know nothing about the civil service and that you are as far from the truth after you have read the report of the last civil service commission as you were before?  That commission was a farce; it was conceived in a moment of political nervousness.  It never deceived anyone who had an eye clear enough to pierce its real [page 30] under its ostensible purpose.  Any person who saw the ridiculous spectacle of the inspection of the department by the members of the commission, even if he had had the most childlike faith in the wisdom which called the body into life could not have restrained a shout of Homeric laughter.
     There has been a spirit abroad of late which has found utterance in the roarings of the young lions of the press and which is applauded generally by the people, that the service must be crushed, and there are many members of your honorable House who share these views.  I have heard many parallels drawn between other office employments and the civil service to the detriment of the latter, but not one of them is just or founded upon a knowledge of the facts.  A young man in a lawyer’s office is mastering a profession that may one day land him in the House of Commons from which vantage he may make unjust laws for the civil service as you propose to do; a bank clerk is taking the first steps in what may be a brilliant financial career, a career which even if he never leaves the bank is at least preferable to that of a civil servant; a clerk in a wholesale house is obtaining his business training, and every avenue of success is open to him.  But over the portals of these Departmental buildings might well be written the lugubrious words which greeted Dante and Virgil at hell gate, “All hope abandon ye who enter here.”  You smile; but did you ever reflect that the majority of the service is composed of men who can never earn more than one thousand dollars a year and only attain that salary after twelve years’ work and do you know what it is to keep a family in Ottawa on salary slowly increasing from four hundred to one thousand dollars?  I hear you say: “No man should marry on too small a salary.”  But my dear sir we are all men and the dear delights of home are just as enticing to us as they are to the rest of mankind.  I hasten to add that in the service the whole of a man’s salary is not his own; that two per cent. of it he never sees and that unless he is in exceptionally favorable circumstances he is never able to embrace the privileges which this deduction extends to him but dies a poor man and leaves the Government in possession of its unjust and wicked gain.  But I forget, his widow receives two months of his salary, which is in most cases sufficient to pay his funeral expenses.  This iniquitous tax is called superannuation and we are asked to consider it a privilege and to implore a special blessing on the framer of the Insurance Bill which no one can understand, but which has [page 31] the semblance of benevolence upon it.  But why, you ask, should a man abandon hope who enters the service?  I answer that the chances of his making the best use of his faculties are one in one thousand, that there is absolutely no chance for the development which comes to men in other walks of life, that the never ending routine breeds an apathy of mind, a special disease I might say, which makes a man useless for the other employments of life.  You ask for an illustration; you might find it in the cases of the helpless extra clerks in the department of railways and canals who were cut adrift in the middle of winter with singular inhumanity.  This fact should entitle the civil servant to more than ordinary consideration.  The country gives him his pay and what does he give in exchange?  his life—literally, for he gives up everything, every chance for a successful career or an energetic progress for the fancied security of such a position.  Security!  When every Parliament in a frenzy at his ‘privileges’ has the power to juggle with the Civil Service Act!  Any one who has experienced the effect of the present hours upon himself will view with dismay the proposition to lengthen them.  What will it mean?  It will mean that he will have two hours longer in the ill-ventilated and in some cases dangerously over-heated rooms in which he has to work.  I would like to take you into some of the rooms of the new block which are in this state and then ask you to ascend to the top of that building and learn the paternal interest of a Government which provides insufficient air space for its clerks and magnificent chambers for its models of patents.  These extra ten hours a week will mean sickness to some and to all ill health and shortened lives.  They will make a nervous and disoriented service and will lower the standard of the work and increase the staff.  I forbear to say what effect it will have upon the women in the service, many of whom are the widows and orphans of old civil servants who received the benefit of two months’ salary to bury their dead.
     And what will the moral effect be upon men who have been doing loyal and conscientious service for their country, who have worked after hours without ever thinking of extra pay?  It will have but one effect, that of discouraging them in their duty.  Does anyone imagine for a moment that the staff will decrease or remain stationary?  I would ask you ironically, if this be the case, what is to become of that “friend” in your constituency to whom you have promised a “place” and from whom you are even now receiving the gentlest of reminders?  Canada is a growing country and in twenty-five [page 32] years the service will have increased in numbers by thirty per cent.  But it is with the present we have to deal.  And how have the present conditions arisen?  Why are there in every part of the service drones and incompetents?  You are responsible and you alone.  In your anxiety to obtain offices however honorable for your friends you have created this condition and it would not be too sweeping to assert that all the objectionable feature in the life of the service to-day have their root in the influence which you wield and which you are never slow to use.  If there was the slightest desire on your part to give the service justice, its members to a man would meet you half way.  Did not they almost applaud when the franking privilege was abolished?  Do they not view with something like disgust the selfishness which permits you to keep the same privilege which you by comparison notoriously abuse?  Would they not hail as the dawn of a new era any movement which would place them under a responsible commission and grant them immunity from the baleful necessity of using political influence?  But notwithstanding these well known facts and in spite of the recommendation of the last commission there is nothing so absent from the new bill as any clause which would place the service in such a position.
     And with peculiar foresight, while the bill provides for longer hours and therefore increases the probability of sickness, it also restricts the provision for sick leave.  This is even handed justice with a vengeance!
     But I have still to deal with the two farcical elements of the bill which seem to have been thrown in with a sort of grotesque humor in order to vary the monotony of what might otherwise have been too saturnine a document.  I refer to the “conduct book” and the “supervisor.”  And one of these humorous clauses provides, with characteristic prudence, a position for one other gentleman who has proved himself worthy of party confidence.  Looking the matter fairly in the face I can think of only one being who is at all competent to fill that post and in all likelihood he would not accept the position at the salary offered.  I mean the Archangel Michael.  He would do excellently well for the part of supervisor of the service and it will require someone of as angelic and just a nature to stand between the deputy minister and the Government; for that will be the position he must occupy; all his recommendations would tend to show incompetence in either; he would be between the devil and the deep sea.  But if the above named celestial being or anyone else [page 33] equally competent could be prevailed upon to take the “place” how the service would welcome him!  Here at last might be a chance for getting some credit for conscientious work and manly intention.  But I might easily dwell too seriously upon the equipment which such an official must have; you have no doubt already applied for the position and may get it if you have a constituency which is safe to open and if your “friends” rally around you with sufficient clamor.
     As for the other farcical clause, the “conduct book,” it seems to have crept in somehow from a vague remembrance on the part of the framer of the bill that he once had to bring a piece of cardboard home from school upon which his misdeeds were registered, and which sent him to bed with the “surface upon which he sits” glowing and smarting with a just chastisement, and it occurred to him that it might be a good plan to import that principle into the measure he was considering as being of a piece with its puerile character.  This is a clause which no one who is in the habit of doing his duty can fear and therefore the service at large need not trouble about it; but it shows the spirit in which the new measure is famed.
     There is a way and a very simple one to cure all the disorders of the civil service which is held to be in such an alarming state that a medicine so drastic as the new bill must be administered at once.  It is merely to strike at the evils where they exist, to dismiss the loafers, to cancel the antiquated and cumbersome methods of transacting public business, to put some trust in the public servants and if they betray it to let them feel the hand of the law; to make the service as a class, know that its honest efforts are appreciated, and that it exists for more reasons than as a refuge for political intriguers; to pampering to permit the so-called privileges, which are really the only compensations of a life which breeds inability to battle with the world.  This is the common sense method.  But it is also the method which would do away with political influence and it will therefore be carefully strangled.  If it were not thought popular to trifle with civil service rights and privileges justice might be done, but unfortunately as I before said that spirit is in the air and no chance of popularity must be overlooked.  To bait the civil service has come to be a political virtue and so you are asked to insist in bringing into the world a measure conceived in ignorance of the true needs of the service and in prejudice against its best interests. [page 34]  But I ask you to pause and reflect that after all your judgment may not be infallible and that to the consideration of such a complex subject you had better give more than a moment of your time.  I remain yours very sincerely,

Silas Reading. [page 35]


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