Foreign Policy and
Intergovernmental Relations in Canada
ANDRÉ LECOURS / GEORGE ANDERSON
Neither Canada’s original constitution, the British North America (BNA)
Act of 1867, nor the Constitution Act of 1982 specifically assigned power
over international relations to the federal government. The federal power
to enter treaties is considered to derive from the federal Crown’s Royal
prerogative. However, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in
London ruled in 1937 that the federal government alone could not enact
the labour conventions required by Canada’s membership in the
International Labour Organization. Canadian foreign relations are therefore
characterized by an uneasy balance between the federal right to enter
into treaties and the provincial right to decide whether to implement
them. Each order of government has used its powers to try to maintain
its influence over foreign relations. Inevitably, they have been forced to
cooperate to a greater or lesser extent.
A major and particular issue of Canada’s foreign relations has been the
Quebec government’s aspirations for a greater international role. Quebec
provincial politicians have been the strongest critics of the federal right to
sign relevant treaties without provincial consent. They have also argued
that the province should have the right to enter into international agree-
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22 André Lecours / George Anserson
ments in its area of constitutional competence as in the Belgian model.
Other provinces have typically not pushed their claims this far.
There is no intergovernmental forum specifically dedicated to foreign
policy in Canada. Rather, intergovernmental relations develop when specific
questions relating to provincial jurisdiction become the focus of international
negotiations. Relevant consultations take place within intergovernmental
forums in specific sectors, and are sometimes supported
by formal intergovernmental agreements,
such as in the area of labour since 2005.
Intergovernmental activity is proportionate to
the importance of relevant international issues. In
the negotiations over the Free Trade Agreement
with the United States during the 1980s, a political
decision was made that provinces would participate
fully in the process, but the provinces and the
federal government differed on what this meant.
The provinces sought input into the definition of
the Canadian position, preferably through membership in the negotiating
team and oversight of the federal negotiator. The federal government
sought close consultation but no ultimate right of refusal for the provinces.
They compromised with the creation of a Continuing Committee on Trade
Negotiations, whose effectiveness was debated. Subsequent international
trade negotiations have included similar arrangements.
A current challenging file is the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.
While provinces participated in the Canadian delegation at Kyoto, they
were divided on the issue and a number were highly critical of the emissions
target Canada accepted. They were angered by Prime Minister
Chrétien’s unilateral announcement in 2002 that Canada would ratify the
Kyoto Protocol and reacted by issuing a joint statement of condemnation.
The Conservative minority government elected in 2006 announced it will
not respect Canada’s obligations under Kyoto. This issue is very divisive
within Canada and will be a major challenge in federal-provincial relations.
Cultural issues often involve tense exchanges between the federal and
Quebec governments. In 1999, France invited federal and Quebec ministers
to discuss the issue of cultural diversity, and the federal minister chose
not to attend. In 2005, the federal Heritage Minister invited her Quebec
counterpart to attend negotiations on the Universal Convention on
Cultural Diversity, but not to speak. Quebec chose not to attend. In 2006,
the federal and Quebec governments agreed Quebec will have a permanent
representative within the Canadian delegation at UNESCO in Paris
and that the federal government will consult the Quebec government
before taking a formal position in the context of the organization’s work.
Canadian provinces are also international actors in their own right.
Quebec has representative offices in 25 countries, managed by a separate
when specific questions
focus of international
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international relations ministry, and has also signed hundreds of agreements
with countries and other sub-national units. However, all these
offices and agreements are subject to framework arrangements put in
place by the federal government and other sovereign partners. Quebec’s
push for an international role was central to very complex and tense “triangular”
relations between Ottawa, Quebec City and Paris over many years.
DeGaulle’s famous “Vive le Québec libre” and France’s highly ambiguous
policy of “non-interference, non-indifference” set the early tone.
Eventually, the federal government accepted a unique arrangement
whereby Quebec has diplomatic status and direct relations with France.
Because of Quebec, Canada and France took years to work out a formula
for the creation of the International Organization of French-speaking
Communities (la francophonie) and eventually agreed to an arrangement
whereby Quebec, and New Brunswick with its large francophone minority,
became “participating” as opposed to “member” governments and by
restricting Quebec’s role to areas of technical and cultural cooperation as
opposed to foreign policy matters. Quebec has been exceptionally active
within this network.
Alberta, which carefully guards its prerogatives over its petroleum
resources, is the other province that gives priority to international relations,
especially the United States. It influenced the terms of the Free
Trade Agreement with the US to effectively constrain federal powers over
energy taxation and exports. It is pushing for full provincial involvement
in international meetings on energy. In March 2005, it established a threeperson
office within the Canadian Embassy in Washington, following a
shift in federal policy which had tried to keep the provinces out of
Washington so as to promote “one voice” in bilateral relations. Quebec has
declined this arrangement because of its reluctance to have staff in the
Canadian embassy; it operates a covert lobby from a “tourist” office in
Thus Canada’s international relations within the federal context face
two central questions. First, what types of consultative and provincial consent
arrangements should the federal government seek in international
agreements affecting provincial jurisdiction? Having the provinces on
board when Canada negotiates and signs international agreements in
areas of provincial jurisdiction facilitates implementation, but formalized
and binding consultative mechanisms would limit federal ability to manage
foreign relations and negotiate effectively.
Second, how should the federal government respond to Quebec’s drive
for a greater international role? While assisting Quebec’s participation
could weaken an argument for independence, too much accommodation
raises federal concerns about the international integrity of Canada and
could complicate the international management of a possible push for
independence by a Quebec government one day.
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