As former chairs of our respective national sections and with a total of eighteen years of service on the International Joint Commission (IJC), we read The First Century of the International Joint Commission with the delight of discovery, and with the pleasant familiarity that comes from encountering old stories in a new light. Long-time IJC insider Murray Clamen, who for years spoke to us of the need for a history of the IJC, and historian Daniel Macfarlane have recruited a decidedly diverse team of highly qualified contributors to provide an unsparingly honest history of this frequently misunderstood binational treaty organization.
We commend Clamen and Macfarlane for taking on the task of assembling the fantastic story of the IJC. Only two books dedicated to the IJC have preceded this 2019 assessment, the most recent of which marked the commission’s seventieth birthday, forty years back. The interim period has provided time to re-evaluate the early decades of the IJC’s history and to observe its continuing evolution. In the face of changing natural and political climates, the authors elucidate the sometimes “messy” relationships among the impacted provinces and states, as well as between the two federal governments and engaged stakeholders.
In reading First Century we are reminded of the particularities of the approximately 140 government references and applications submitted to IJC under the Boundary Waters Treaty, including the singularly significant standing reference created by four iterations of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. As practitioners of the treaty we are particularly pleased that this book offers a deeper dive into the challenges of making the treaty work for multiple interests in both countries. We have lived the treaty and know that many IJC consensus decisions have been realized, not in an entirely pristine, politics-free environment, but rather in the context of vocal expressions of national, regional, local, business, and environmental interests.
We have oft seen the Boundary Waters Treaty likened to a marriage in which each party comes with only one vote—or to be more precise in this case, each party comes with three votes—each side needing the other to accomplish anything. The only way forward is for sufficient numbers from both sides of the border to favour a particular resolution of the challenge before them. As commissioners we have often thought that the federal governments would do well to engage the IJC’s services more frequently. But as First Century points out, national and sub-national politics sometimes intervene to deny the IJC a potentially positive role in resolving knotty binational issues. Increasingly, however, even when the IJC is not granted a new reference, the commission’s binational, basin-wide boards are meeting to resolve water level and flow issues, and, more recently, to address water quality issues as well. Now in the face of climate change challenges, the IJC is supporting collaborations among its inter-basin boards and increasingly supporting adaptive management principles. In every case the IJC is providing a platform for ongoing forums that draw disparate interests into science-based, solution-focused binational discussions.
The IJC has laboured in relative obscurity for more than a century, rarely generating more than passing reference in the media. Few people within the watershed areas—tens of millions of people—can identify the meaning of the initials “IJC,” or even the full name for which they stand. And yet border issues, especially border water issues, rank very high in the minds of the public. As commissioners, we found that the IJC is most likely to make occasional headlines when a well-considered, science-based decision disappoints a player looking for a bigger slice of the interest pie. That the IJC generates few headlines could well be seen as an indication of client satisfaction.
We are pleased to have readers of First Century informed that the consensus decisions we and our predecessors on the IJC have reached were often preceded by substantive, multi-faceted, and indeed difficult discussions that were nevertheless critically informed by a significant investment in relevant science and engineering, and most often marked by the Boundary Waters Treaty’s high-minded bipartisan perspective. As commissioners’ decisions are often not easy ones, this book can only be an asset to those who will come after us in the IJC community, for they will be better informed by the IJC’s history and will benefit from this discriminating analysis of the treaty’s performance.
Gordon W. Walker, QC
IJC Commissioner 1992–95 and 2013–18 and
Canada Section Chair 2014–18
IJC Commissioner and US Section Chair 2010–19