The post of Deputy Prime Minister has a relatively short history.
It was created by Pierre Trudeau in a 1977 cabinet shuffle to sweeten the move of his close cabinet ally, the wily Allan J. MacEachen, from the prestigious Foreign Affairs portfolio to the less glamorous (but essential) House Leader role. Prior to MacEachen’s appointment, there was no such thing as “Deputy Prime Minister:” in the Prime Minister’s absence, the most senior Minister in the cabinet would assume the position of “Acting Prime Minister.”
Regardless of the title, the position of Deputy Prime Minister is in no way analogous to the Vice Presidency of the United States, which is a constitutionally recognized post. Being the Deputy Prime Minister affords no automatic succession or, for that matter, meaningful responsibility. For that reason, in successive governments, the position of Deputy Prime Minister has taken on different characters with different types of expectations.
Don Mazenkowski (Mulroney) and John Manley (Chrétien) each served roughly as COO to their prime minister’s CEO.
Herb Gray (Chrétien) acted as trouble-shooter in the position, chairing special committees on politically-sensitive issues.
Sheila Copps’ (Chrétien) tenure as Deputy PM was deemed more symbolic, while Stephen Harper has, perhaps tellingly, never named a Deputy Prime Minister.
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