History of the Department of Justice

At the time of Confederation, the province of Canada had two Crown Law Departments, one for Canada West (now Ontario) and one for Canada East (now Quebec). At Confederation, the Crown Law Department, Canada West began to act as the new Department of Justice, reporting to Sir John A. Macdonald, who was Minister of Justice and Attorney General as well as the new Prime Minister. The Crown Law Department, Canada East became the new Department of the Militia, following its former Attorney General, Georges-Étienne Cartier.

The Department of Justice came into being officially in May 1868, when the Department of Justice Act was passed by Parliament. The Act formally recognized the informal structure that was already in place. The Act also laid out the distinct roles of the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General: the Minister was a partisan political advisor to the Crown, while the Attorney General provided legal services.

The new Department of Justice had only seven staff: two barristers-at-law (including the Deputy Minister, Hewitt Bernard), a clerk and shorthand writer (Macdonald's personal secretary), a copy clerk, a clerk articling under Macdonald, and two messengers.

The legal branch of the Department remained relatively small for many years. As late as 1939, the Department employed only seven lawyers. The Department's first woman lawyer, Henrietta Bourque, was hired in 1939, but the Department still remained heavily male-dominated. In the 25 years between 1939 and 1964, only five female lawyers were hired by the Department.

Although the Department of Justice Act had given the Department responsibility for all litigation for or against the government, many government departments hired their own lawyers to provide them with legal advice. In 1962, however, these departmental lawyers were brought together in a common legal service. Although many lawyers still work closely with other government departments in Department Legal Services Units, they are now considered to be employees of the Department of Justice.

Regional Offices were opened in Montreal (1965), Toronto (1966), Vancouver (1967), Winnipeg (1969) and Halifax, as well as in Edmonton, Saskatoon, and the Northwest Territories.