Intergovernmental relations in the Canadian context

The importance of intergovernmental relations1

Managing intergovernmental relations is an important aspect of Canadian federalism. Canada has strong, autonomous orders of government and there are few issues in public policy that do not cross jurisdictional lines, and few areas in which the actions of one government do not affect other governments. Consequently, relations with other governments are a major concern of all the Canadian jurisdictions and Governments have developed mechanisms to coordinate their response to intergovernmental issues.

Intergovernmental relations in Canada focus on the relations among federal and provincial/territorial executives - First Ministers, Ministers, and senior officials. These relationships serve a number of purposes. They provide forums for the exchange of information, for bargaining, negotiation, and consensus-building.

Canada, like most federations, has not formally anchored its intergovernmental structures and processes in its Constitution. Rather, our intergovernmental mechanisms have tended to evolve in response to changing political dynamics.

Responsibility for intergovernmental relations

Given the political and policy importance of intergovernmental relations, overall responsibility is normally assumed at the federal level by the Prime Minister and at the provincial/territorial level by Premiers. At the federal level, the Prime Minister is assisted by a Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs with specific responsibilities in the area and supported by a secretariat within the Privy Council Office. Provinces and territories have a either a department, a secretariat or a coordinating unit within the Executive Office responsible for intergovernmental relations.

Vice President Joe Biden addresses the First Minister's Meeting in Ottawa. December 9, 2016.

PM Trudeau hosts the First Ministers’ Meeting and meets with Premiers and national Indigenous leaders on December 9, 2016

Their primary roles are strategic policy and communications, coordinating the activities with other ministries, keeping up with developments in other jurisdictions, and day-to-day liaison with their counterparts elsewhere. Departments in policy fields where intergovernmental relations are a major concern also have units dedicated to managing the intergovernmental relationship.

Instruments/mechanisms of intergovernmental relations

The instruments/mechanisms of intergovernmental relations are informal. They are not part of the Constitution and thus have no constitutional status, nor do they have any basis in law or statute. They have developed on an ad hoc basis, in response to the requirements of the time. They are forums for the exchange of information, and for negotiation and persuasion.

First ministers' conferences

At the apex of the system, bringing together Canada's most senior political leaders, are federal/provincial/territorial First Ministers Conferences or Meetings (FMMs). They often provide the opportunity for governments to find common purposes and chart general policy directions. They provide a forum for the exchange of information and ideas, and for negotiation and persuasion.

These FMMs can be regular multi-itemed agenda meetings, or issue-specific, such as the Constitutional Conferences in the 1970s and 1980s or teleconferences focused on immediate issues, such as COVID-19.

The frequency of meetings has varied considerably over time, depending on the political agenda, as there is no regular schedule for the holding of FMMs. They are called by the Prime Minister and have no fixed procedures. The Prime Minister chairs, and normally provinces speak in the order of their entry into Confederation. No votes are taken. Parts of conferences may be held in public, but most discussion takes place in camera.

In addition to FMMs, there are many informal contacts between the Prime Ministers and Premiers, often taking place bilaterally.

Ministerial meetings

The Prime Minister and Premiers pose for a family photo following the First Ministers Meeting in Vancouver. March 3, 2016.

The Prime Minister and Premiers pose for a family photo following the First Ministers Meeting in Vancouver, March 3, 2016.

Much of the work in intergovernmental relations takes place in a growing number of councils of Federal, Provincial and Territorial Ministers responsible for developing cooperation in specific policy sectors, from the environment to social policy.

Some have become institutionalized, with regular meetings, often co-chaired by federal and provincial ministers, and with strong bureaucratic support. Several councils have also developed working relationships with interest groups involved in their policy fields.

Ministers regularly meet to discuss sectoral issues relating to Agriculture, Education, Environment, Finance, Health, Internal Trade, Sport, Tourism and Transport, to name a few.

Officials' meetings

In addition to meetings at the political level, other meetings, formal and informal, are held among deputy ministers and/or other senior officials. These may be bi-lateral or multi-lateral.

The Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat (CICS)

The majority, but not all, of the high-level intergovernmental conferences are served by the Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat (CICS). It provides the logistical support for organizing conferences, distributing documents and press releases. It does not have a policy advisory role.

CICS was created in 1973 by the First Ministers. Governments recognized, at that time, a need for a mechanism, for conferences of First Ministers and a growing number of intergovernmental meetings on a continuing basis. It is an agency of the federal and provincial governments and is supported by these two orders of government. Its staff is also selected from both federal and provincial governments.

CICS reports to Parliament through the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Federal/Provincial/Territorial (FPT) agreements

One of the first Federal-Provincial agreements dates back to 1868. It dealt with immigration2 , a constitutional power shared between the Parliament of Canada and the provincial legislatures. Federal-Provincial agreements (and more recently, Federal-Provincial/Territorial3  agreements) have since multiplied.

The increasing role of Governments have required them to enter into agreements in relation to many activities, whether of federal, provincial or shared jurisdiction.

Today, FPT agreements constitute an important element of our federal governance. The following links to some of the many FPT agreements give an idea of the scope of Federal-Provincial/Territorial collaboration in Canada.

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