Murray Clamen and Daniel Macfarlane
In the Conclusion to their 1958 book Boundary Waters Problems of Canada and the United States, L. M. Bloomfield and G. F. FitzGerald wrote: “There is no doubt that the International Joint Commission has successfully discharged the high functions entrusted to it by the Boundary Waters Treaty. It has acted successfully as judge, adviser and administrator for two great neighbours during a period of unparalleled expansion when conflicts of important interests were bound to arise. In playing its triple role the Commission has developed techniques of continuous consultation which are a model for the world.”1 More than twenty years later, in the 1981 volume The International Joint Commission Seventy Years On, Kim Richard Nossal wrote in the concluding chapter: “It is inevitable that the IJC with its seventy-year history of problem-solving will be used to point to the success and pitfalls of utilizing bi-national mechanisms to bring to Canadian-American transboundary relations a certain civility and, over the long haul, tranquility.”2
Both volumes were framed by their respective “issues of the day.” In the case of Bloomfield and Fitzgerald, the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project and Niagara remedial works were just being completed, while the “unfinished tasks which stagger the imagination” included the Columbia, the Passamaquoddy, and, ultimately, the rivers of the far Northwest. For The International Joint Commission Seventy Years On, there were of course important issues involving the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River basin in terms of water levels and water quality (1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement) and also, for some, the question of long-range airborne acid precipitation, which “could have far-reaching implications for both the mandate of the Commission and its effectiveness”3—something that really never came to pass.
So here we are, almost forty years after that seventieth birthday, more than a century after the creation of the Boundary Waters Treaty (BWT) and the establishment of the International Joint Commission (IJC), trying to take another objective look back at, and consider future prospects for, this remarkable institution and the 1909 treaty that created it to provide a regime for managing transboundary and border waters between Canada and the United States. In this concluding chapter we want to reflect on what the various authors have written and also to talk about the future of the IJC. We are fortunate that the preceding chapters in this volume have been written by noted scholars, experts, and practitioners who have presented an array of viewpoints, including both the successes and failures of the organization, from which to draw conclusions. Granted, we should add the caveat that the arguments presented in this conclusion reflect only our personal opinions as co-authors of this chapter and co-editors of this collection. What do the contributions that make up this volume collectively teach us about the past of the IJC, and what are the conclusions we should draw about where it goes in the future? What will be key to the success of the IJC moving forward? Is the greatest threat to the future of the IJC likely that the Canadian and American governments will ignore it? If so, what does the IJC need to do and provide to remain, or become more, relevant?
Structure and Governance
One way to measure the success of the IJC and the BWT is the number of references and applications it has dealt with and the results, keeping in mind the overall goal or purpose is to “prevent and resolve disputes.” In the case of applications it would not just be the number but also the success (or not) of projects that were applied for, built, and operated. In the case of references, it would be the number of references sent to the IJC from governments, the recommendations made by the commissioners, and then, ultimately, whether these recommendations were in fact accepted and implemented by either or both governments. While that may seem relatively straightforward, this kind of reference “score card” does not officially exist, so the only answers are for the most part impressionistic. The current perception is that most but not all IJC recommendations are accepted and acted on by governments. Another measure is the administrative responsibilities attached to the St. Mary–Milk Rivers apportionments (see the chapter by Heinmiller). Here the results appear to be quite good, except if you are in Montana, which continues to raise arguments against the current formulae. Still another measure is the ongoing recommendation and implementation cycle under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) and its various renewals since 1972. This standing reference, dealing with one of the world’s more important and precious resources, occupies about half of all the IJC’s time and workload and involves a great many bureaucrats and others, yet it is difficult to determine the success or not of the GLWQA over the past almost fifty years (see the chapters by Read, Krantzberg, and Van Nijnatten and Johns).
But we also need to keep in mind that simply tallying up the number of references or applications can be misleading since the two countries tend to not send references or applications to the IJC if it doesn’t appear that this is likely to produce an acceptable result for those involved. If the federal and sub-federal governments aren’t in agreement about invoking the IJC and don’t think utilizing the commission will produce a mutually agreeable outcome, then they simply don’t utilize the IJC. Thus, good prospects for success are usually key to explaining the IJC’s track record when it comes to crafting references and approving/disapproving applications that both countries are satisfied with. But, as noted earlier, this can also skew the so-called success rate of the IJC—that is, if a matter is likely to break down along national lines, then it is unlikely that both nations will agree to take the issue to the commission.
The procedural and institutional consequences of the IJC and the BWT are also relevant. For example, the IJC has evolved from a body that almost always used to call on government bureaucrats to help with references and applications into one that now seconds experts from various jurisdictions outside government such as universities, the private sector, First Nations and Tribes, non-government organizations, and civil society. And these various disciplines as well as their local knowledge have created a tremendous pool of talent from which commissioners can draw when looking for suitable candidates for IJC boards, task forces, initiatives, etc. Moreover, these members, some of whom serve for many years consecutively, form bonds with their counterparts in other jurisdictions and these spill over into areas far beyond the work of the IJC. This incalculable benefit continues to grow each year the IJC makes new appointments and, coupled with the dictum that members operate in “their personal and professional” capacity while they seek the best science-based objective advice, creates a very powerful tool that governments can call on.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way—the early IJC certainly did not have these important principles and ways of working to guide it—but it evolved and, as one commentator put it, succeeded “out of sheer luck.”4 The IJC started off as an agreement between two countries aimed at the most efficient exploitation of their shared natural resources—the BWT was a conservationist agreement with a dash of preservationist mindset thrown in. The IJC’s first few decades, when it was finding its feet and evolving, reflect that. In the middle third of the twentieth century, the IJC was generally captured by an engineering mentality that saw nature as something to be dominated and controlled—granted, this reflected the prevailing ethos in North American society during this period—resulting in megaprojects and hard-path water infrastructures that are now considered ecologically dubious.5 Ironically, the first decades of the Cold War were also the IJC’s heyday in terms of its prominence and influence—as we have seen, environmental diplomacy was vitally important to Canadian-American relations, and the two national governments took a strong interest and direct involvement in the IJC’s activities (though the bilateral agreements on the St. Lawrence Seaway, Niagara Falls, and the Columbia River all took place outside the IJC). But this also resulted in the overt politicization of the IJC for an extended stretch, during which chairmen such as General A. G. L. McNaughton and Roger McWhorter prioritized their respective nationalist interests.
However, the megaproject era also overlapped with the studies that would produce in the 1970s what is arguably the IJC’s greatest success: the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements. Although the IJC had paid attention to water (and air) pollution since the early twentieth century, it was not until the post–Second World War period that the commission really began to take a leading role in addressing pollution (or perhaps it was more the case that the governments now took pollution concerns more seriously). It shouldn’t necessarily be surprising that, once the commission became preoccupied with efforts that tended to interfere with industrial and economic expansion (and one of its main consequences—pollution), rather than fostering this expansion, the national governments have marginalized the IJC by avoiding it, reducing its funding, and ignoring its recommendations. Moreover, since the 1980s the IJC’s role seems to have been reduced by the proliferation of a range of other transboundary governance mechanisms. But even if the IJC is sometimes ignored or not utilized, it often still plays an important supporting role by providing scientific knowledge and legitimacy to the policy process. Indeed, the IJC’s ability to create, gather, synthesize, harmonize, mobilize, and share environmental and scientific information has only increased since the 1980s, and its reports, findings, and recommendations carry weight precisely because the IJC is widely perceived as objective, impartial, and expert.
One can argue that it is IJC board and task force members who are in fact the real success of the IJC. Why is this so when it is commissioners who sign reports and orders and IJC staff that assists them? One of the editors of this volume served as a staff member himself for over three decades, and he can attest to the importance of commissioners and their advisers; however, if one were handing out awards for accomplishment, the members of IJC boards should be given them first. They more often than not have to find time to devote to IJC work when their employers (whoever they are) cannot sacrifice them from their day jobs. They have to spend countless hours travelling to and from meetings, often away from family, analyzing data, writing reports, and negotiating under often very difficult circumstances in tight time frames on recommendations that many times are not in conformity with the desired outcome of their respective government. This calls for real professionalism and integrity and the IJC is fortunate to have found people ready and willing to serve under such trying conditions. Without their science-based judgment, the IJC commissioners would have little on which to base their findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Why are people willing to serve the IJC under such conditions? Certainly not because of the money—no one gets rich working for the IJC. Possibly because of the prestige—one can say they were appointed to this “illustrious” international body and put that on their resume. Some may actually want to grow professionally and take on a new challenge. Some may be altruistic and see working on Canada-US issues as being very important, especially in these days of heightened environmental sensitivity. Whatever the reason, the IJC is truly fortunate that it has continued to find good people to serve.
That is not to say that the character, background, and expertise of the appointed commissioners themselves are unimportant. While there have been few studies of this issue, aside from Stephen Brooks’s work, first-hand experience would tend to suggest some relevant points.6 The best commissioners (however that may be defined) appear to be those who are the most willing to take an open mind to what they are being called upon to adjudicate and who have, by way of their background and character, a definite willingness and even desire to seek solutions in “the common interest.” Commissioners, just like the board members they appoint, operate in their personal and professional capacities and, on their appointment, take an oath to uphold the BWT. They are certainly aware of their respective governments’ positions on most if not all matters before the commission and while that may guide them it does not dictate the decisions they make and the consensus they strive for.
One of the editors had the opportunity to interview some commissioners in 2012 on matters surrounding their appointments, IJC administrative issues, the successes and failures of the commission during their tenures, and key challenges ahead. Their responses present a very cogent and perceptive view that can only be obtained from having served as a commissioner. All agreed that IJC appointments are important and that governments should show care in selecting a commissioner. While certain training (legal, scientific, engineering) may be helpful, everyone pointed to other characteristics, such as being earnest and seriously dedicated to the task and concept of the IJC. Good commissioners should have the ability to ask questions, listen carefully, and talk last! Interpersonal skills and lateral thinking abilities were also mentioned. Most felt the current administrative architecture (secretariats, board structure, lead commissioners, public involvement, etc.) worked well and they opposed significant changes. The “IJC personality” has evolved over the years and is neither the chief problem nor the solution in dealing with any internal issues. Everyone agreed it will be vital to preserve the independence of the commission at all costs and that collegiality and consensus are critical. While it is healthy to make some board and task force appointments outside government circles, it is important to preserve balance so that IJC recommendations can filter back to government decision-makers and be more easily implemented. On the question of IJC relevance and importance heading into the future, everyone believed the commission will be more relevant in the coming century than the previous one.
It does not appear that any particular educational background or profession has much influence on commissioners’ expertise and their ability to make decisions and work collegially with their counterparts, both from their own country and from their neighbour. And collegiality is another important point often not realized. When six people who are appointed (sometimes all at the same time but more often staggered) are asked to work together “in the common good” of both countries on water issues and broad environmental ones, it does take a special kind of person to really make this work. They must be open-minded, able to read carefully and critically and to consider scientific and other relevant facts, be open to suggestions, be willing to work with and listen to the public, be innovative yet mindful of useful precedents, and above all considerate of fellow commissioners’ views and opinions. If someone has these characteristics then they likely have the makings of a good commissioner. Interestingly enough, even if not all commissioners fit this unique mould (and there have been some commissioners who have definitely not fit this mould), the IJC still manages to survive and, more often than not, to thrive. And that is due to another important part of the equation—the IJC’s cadre of advisers.
In the early years of the IJC up until about the 1960s, the number and expertise of its Canadian and US Section staff in Ottawa and Washington was quite limited. In the 1970s, however, Canadian Section chair Maxwell Cohen, deciding that commissioners needed a broader base from which to draw advice than just board members and their own experience, started to expand the number and types of positions in the Ottawa office. This was met by quite a bit of criticism from the US Section, fellow Canadian commissioners, and Canadian government bureaucrats who did not see such a need. Nevertheless, Cohen persisted and managed to secure funds for several new positions. Eventually, the US Section followed suit—creating the fear among several IJC watchers of an IJC bureaucracy that would not be helpful to the overall process.
And yet now, some forty years later, a strong cadre of advisers in both sections is, and will continue to be, helpful and important. For one thing, it provides continuity and helps with the education of newly appointed commissioners when they can rely on staff who have served the organization well for so many years. Although IJC commissioners take an oath to be objective and to prioritize the wider interest, realistically an IJC commissioner is at least in part a type of appointed politician; thus, having trained and expert staff who are more removed from the pressures of partisanship is important and useful. Secondly, it has allowed, and likely will continue to allow, the IJC to take on more new work and to experiment with new techniques (GIS, computer modelling, shared vision models, etc.). Finally, it helps commissioners with outreach and liaison with governments and other players when knowledgeable and experienced advisers are in the offices and trusted by government bureaucrats and board members.
Indeed, this notion of “trust” is so important it needs to be dealt with separately. One of the co-editors of this book initially envisaged this volume being called “A similar letter, etc.” because this phrase enshrined for him the notion of trust. A word of explanation is perhaps in order. When advisers in both national section offices draft letters or other IJC documents outlining a certain decision, the ending almost always says: “A similar letter has been sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs/State Department by the Secretary of the Canadian/US Section of the Commission.” This signifies that both governments are being sent this identical communication. But rather than write all this out in every draft the adviser would typically put at the end “A similar letter, etc.” to signify this trust—not only that the drafts would be identical when finally agreed to, signed, and sent, but that one could trust the other section to do so every time. Without this trust, which had to pervade the entire organization from top to bottom, likely nothing meaningful would ever get done.
One should also realize that the IJC is, as one adviser often said, just “one of the tools in the governmental toolbox.” Governments can and often do choose which process to use depending on the issue and a wide variety of political and other factors. Sometimes the confidence the governments have in the IJC at any given time (whether it is the commissioners themselves or other factors) precludes using that institution, even if it appears to be the best tool for the job. Sometimes a sub-federal jurisdiction like a state or province may distinctly say it does not want to involve the IJC, even if both federal governments do. As we have seen, British Columbia tends to be wary of the IJC, while Ontario and New York State are sub-federal jurisdictions likely to seek IJC involvement. Sometimes the timing is off, or the cost is too high, or the proposed reference has not evolved to the point where good scientific data can be obtained.
At the very least, the IJC has made a valuable, tangible contribution to economic prosperity (for some more than others) and environmental security (again, in selective ways) in North America, and it continues to offer a much-needed diplomatic safety valve for Canada-US relations. Some have speculated about whether the IJC model could be applied to other Canada-US natural resource questions or to other countries with boundary/transboundary issues—with the quotation opening this chapter just one such example. The authors included in this volume are of different viewpoints about whether the IJC, or certain aspects or programs of the commission, are replicable across the globe, and they differ in their optimism about the IJC’s role in the twenty-first century. However, taking all the contributions to this volume collectively, we contend that the IJC is a unique governance institution between two countries that have a similar culture, language, history, and border, where no country is predominantly upstream or downstream, and that a similar treaty and organization would be difficult to create elsewhere in the world. Thus, the IJC probably isn’t a replicable model. The lack of institutions or countries that have directly used the BWT and IJC as a model testify to that. Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the IJC and the BWT (including techniques, approaches, and programs) that other transboundary water-governance organizations and mechanisms use as a model, or at least borrow as best practices, including: sound science, equality, acting in a personal and professional manner, involving the public and providing opportunities to be heard, openness, flexibility, and stable funding.
Sound science is at the foundation of the IJC’s work, and obviously the commission has evolved considerably over its first century as the ability of scientists and related professions has improved with advanced data gathering and analytical techniques, including modelling and computer technology. The inclusion of transboundary pollution in the 1909 BWT, even if it was a bit of an aside, seems to have been the earliest stricture ever in the world against such activity harming another political jurisdiction. The two chapters on the creation of the BWT and IJC, by Meredith Denning and David Whorley, speak to this. Jamie Benidickson’s chapter suggests that the IJC’s earliest pollution references in the Great Lakes area were important precedents. The GLWQAs are potentially the earliest environmental policy initiative to have incorporated an ecosystem approach, and as the wide range of chapters on the Great Lakes indicate, the GLWQAs are a program that deserves to be used as a model. Regardless of what the future brings, it is important that the IJC scientific process remains open, transparent, shared, and verifiable. Those working on IJC studies have the ability to call into question information from the opposite country and to ask that new data be collected or that existing data be discarded, depending on the circumstances. This way of working is now firmly rooted in the IJC tradition, and other countries would do well to emulate this methodology.
In a number of key respects, it is today simply much more difficult to manage environmental resources than was the case when the BWT was first signed. For example, the populations—and thus the environmental footprints—of both countries are much larger. It was much easier to come to a transborder agreement about a particular waterbody when the various stakeholders weren’t consulted. Environmental knowledge, and thus expectations and beliefs about true sustainability, are also quite different. Even though uncertainty still defines many problems, scientifically we know far more than did past IJC decision-makers. But in some ways we are victims of this success—many of the “wicked” environmental problems we now have to deal with weren’t even known a half-century ago. As environmental requirements pile up, and the legacy of past pollution and mistakes becomes even greater, managing them becomes that much more difficult and complex. We have created all sorts of amazing new synthetic products, but now we have to deal with the legacy of toxins, like the emerging “forever” chemicals PFAS/PFOA. It was much easier to address point-source pollution, as the 1972 GLWQA did, than to address non-point-source pollution, which was the case for the 1978 GLWQA and subsequent iterations. Or consider the current renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty: complex ecological and stakeholder questions that weren’t at play in the early Cold War period now have to be taken into account.
The complexity of environmental governance has been a key factor in the trend toward multi-level and sub-national governance forms and approaches, which is partly related to greater emphasis on the ecosystem and the associated importance of local and multiple stakeholders. While this trend has involved a devolvement of responsibility and funding away from national-level governance bodies such as the IJC, arguably some of the greatest achievements of the IJC policy nexus include: helpful aid to the development of policy communities, state and non-state based, across various levels of governance and interaction. The IJC has never de jure updated its precedence of uses, though it has de facto incorporated industrial, recreational, and environmental elements in its decision-making, particularly since 1945. This situation has resulted in calls to update or modernize the BWT. That said, amending the terms of the treaty, particularly in the current political climate, could do more harm than good if certain interests use the opportunity to water down the BWT (pun intended). Incremental changes, with the International Watersheds Initiative as an example, may be the preferred route over altering the treaty.
In many respects, the IJC is emblematic of the history of the larger Canada-US diplomatic relationship—though with some important exceptions. Had the BWT been signed today it is difficult to imagine that it would enshrine as a central tenet equality of operation, but it has proven to be extremely valuable when IJC commissioners consider report conclusions and recommendations or when passing orders. Such equality may not be achievable between other countries wary of relinquishing sovereignty, especially if there are more than just two involved, but some sort of equality could be helpful, especially if there is power asymmetry. When IJC commissioners as well as board and task force members act in their “personal and professional” capacity, this tends to depoliticize many situations. This is a difficult thing to imagine, let alone act upon, but this practice has and is being implemented time and time again and it helps make the IJC process successful—though not always. As a number of the chapters in this volume have demonstrated, there are numerous cases where the IJC has broken down along national lines and where different commissioners have prioritized national self-interest or otherwise not lived up to the IJC’s lofty reputation (see, for example, chapters by Kenny, Moy and O’Riordan, Nossal, and Clamen and Macfarlane). In his chapter on the St. Mary–Milk basin, Timothy Heinmiller argues that the IJC has contained, if not resolved, conflict there, and Owen Temby and Don Munton’s chapter on air quality shows that the IJC was instrumental to good outcomes, even if it has been marginalized as of late. This marginalization is also true in several cases on the plains, as Norman Brandson and Allen Olson show in their chapter, as well as the realm of Great Lakes water quality, though the authors of our various chapters on this subject (Read, Krantzberg, VanNijnatten and Johns, and Hall, Tarlock, and Valiante) generally paint the IJC’s activities in this basin in a positive light. The synthetic overviews (section 3) also mostly frame the BWT and IJC as successful in such areas as environmental law and Canadian-American relations—though the IJC’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples, even if it has been improving, has contributed to the two federal government’s colonial legacy.
One cannot emphasize enough the importance of the public in the IJC’s work and the value that outside voices can bring to a dispute-finding and resolution process. Someone could write a whole volume on this topic, looking at the evolution over the last century of the IJC’s public consultation, involvement, communication, and methodologies, and what has worked and what has not, and why. Writing the words “and all parties interested therein shall be given convenient opportunity to be heard” directly into the BWT (article xii) placed an added emphasis on this aspect of the IJC process such that today board members are drawn from all sectors of civil society, not just government agencies (as in the past), and the IJC commissioners and advisers continually improve communication and information methodologies by taking advantage of the latest technologies and trends.
Openness, trust, and flexibility are critical characteristics, as has been noted and demonstrated in the various chapters. In chapters on the Pacific Northwest (Moy and O’Riordan); the St. Mary–Milk (Heinmiller); environmental law in the Great Lakes (Hall, Tarlock, and Valiante); Indigenous-IJC relations (Ettawageshik and Norman); Great Lakes water levels (Clamen and Macfarlane); and the long-term importance of the IJC (Kirton and Warren), the authors directly note the importance of trust (or distrust). In addition to most of these chapters, several others directly cite the importance of “flexibility” for the IJC, including those by Krantzberg, Whorley, Pentland and Yuzyk, and Read. Clearly the ability of the IJC to study and make recommendations about the need for an agreement on Great Lakes water quality, and then for governments to assign the commission ongoing oversight responsibilities in 1972 under the GLWQA—which continues through numerous updates to this day—is an indication of treaty and institutional flexibility. This is clearly demonstrated by the initiation and implementation of the International Watersheds Initiative over the last twenty years or so.
Stable funding and a commitment by the signatories to implement the BWT, as well as the creation and support of a permanent institutional mechanism (in this case the IJC) is clearly needed for success. While there is no obvious reason why six commissioners works well, history has shown that, with a few exceptions, this may be a “magic number.” It allows for good dialogue, diverse opinions without unwieldy speeches and rhetoric by numerous players, gives geographic diversity from both countries, and allows for decent social interaction between commissioners of both countries outside of formal meetings, which often is a key aspect of decision-making and consensus.
We noted at the beginning of this conclusion that previous studies of the International Joint Commission were framed by the major issues of their day. As this book was in preparation between 2016 and 2019, the remarkable relationship that has existed between Canada and the United States for so many years in so many areas was being threatened, primarily but not exclusively, by disputes over trade. While a draft North American free trade agreement has been produced, the Trump administration’s demonstrated penchant for reducing or eliminating environmental protections and policies, such as in the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence basin, will certainly impact border waters. However, until Trump’s gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency and attempts to eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Canada was arguably the weaker link when comparing the two nations’ environmental regulations concerning border waters; Canada needs to step its game up, regardless of what is happening south of the border.
Currently, negotiations for a new Columbia River Treaty are underway between Canada and the United States. In their chapter discussing three case studies in the Pacific Northwest, Rich Moy and Jon O’Riordan describe the role the IJC played in developing the technical and policy foundation for the original Columbia River Treaty of 1961. Borrowing from Moy and O’Riordan’s suggestions for the future negotiation of the Columbia matter, which they shared separately with us, as well as Pentland and Yuzyk’s chapter in this volume, we propose the following prescriptions for how the IJC can be successful in not only the transnational Columbia River basin, but along the length of the border, moving forward.
The “Shared Vision Model”
Under this approach, the IJC brings together decision-makers, experts, and stakeholders to create a system model that connects science, public preferences, and decision-making criteria. The process is very transparent. First, the IJC establishes binational technical, science-based, and stakeholder working groups that would first define the issues and options it would like to see addressed. Second, these working groups would become comfortable with the technical information and the methods used. Third, they would operate the models to show the trade-offs between the various economic values for uses and important environmental indicators. And lastly, they would make sure the process is transparent and open to the public. For example, in the Great Lakes, the IJC used this model approach to define and show the trade-offs for a number of important indicators, which included municipal and industrial water use, commercial navigation, hydro-power generation, coastal flooding, recreational boating, flood control and mitigation, and a large number of environmental indicators including wetland enhancement.
International Watershed Initiative Approach
The IJC has been taking the approach that water resources and environmental problems can best be anticipated, prevented, and resolved at the local watershed or basin level before developing into international issues. The IJC has successfully used the International Watersheds Initiative approach and its guiding principles in a number of our shared river basins.7 In these watersheds, the IJC creates a different governance system. It brings together the best minds from academia, governments, Native American and First Nations communities, and the private sector from both countries to build the science and policy considerations in its recommendations to governments for solving cross-border issues and problems. It uses an integrated, ecosystem-based approach that recognizes the complex interrelationships within each watershed. It also develops a common database to understand the science of each watershed, including a better understanding of the aquatic, riparian, and land-based ecosystems and how anthropogenic uses affect them. Further, the IJC develops and uses compatible hydrographic and geospatial data and develops balanced water quality, hydrologic, and other ecosystem-based models. But the IJC also needs to better respect and incorporate traditional ecological knowledge and to effect reconciliation. As part of the destructive legacy of settler colonialism, and its continuing perpetuation and reverberations, First Nations and Native American communities have been disproportionately affected and burdened by hydroelectric and water-control developments—what can be termed “hydraulic imperialism.”8 Like North American societies and governments at large, the IJC will need to find ways of moving forward that both addresses past injustices and gives better voice to those who have lived within watersheds for millennia. In their chapter, Frank Ettawageshik and Emma Norman provide a range of concrete suggestions toward that end.
A Better Governance Structure
Outside of the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence basin governments may wish to consider the oversight framework in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The governments, and specifically the US EPA and Environment and Climate Change Canada, share responsibility for implementing the agreement. The IJC’s role is to oversee and evaluate how well governments are doing in implementing their responsibilities under the GLWQA. The IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board reviews and assesses the progress of the governments in implementing the GLWQA; identifies emerging issues; and recommends strategies and approaches for preventing and resolving complex challenges facing the Great Lakes. The key strength of this twenty-eight-member binational board is that the local members push the governmental members to take appropriate actions in implementing the provisions of the agreement. The board is an effective partnership between the federal government agencies and the local stakeholders and community governments.
A Better Science Foundation
The IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board is made up of two binational committees: the Science Priority Committee (SPC) and the Resource Coordinating Committee (RCC). The SPC, consisting primarily of academic research scientists from universities in both countries, identifies required research for addressing critical water quality issues. The RCC consists primarily of leaders of key federal government agencies from both countries. These agencies monitor and assess the state of water quality within the Great Lakes. These two committees within the Science Advisory Board continually work together in defining and conducting Great Lakes scientific research and comprehensive water quality and aquatic ecosystem monitoring. They provide valuable recommendations and oversight to the IJC and governments on the implementation of the agreement. A key function of the IJC liaisons with these boards is to ensure that their activities are coordinated.
Addressing a Changing Climate
Within the Great Lakes and its other international watersheds, the IJC has put a strong emphasis on refining and improving its process of “adaptive management.” In the Great Lakes, the IJC has built in an adaptive management framework for reviewing and determining ways to continually improve the operations of dams in light of a changing climate, especially extreme events like flooding and drought. Flooding, as was seen recently in Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence, will likely become a flashpoint given uncertainty about climate change. Thus, water quantity and lake level issues may attract a greater share of the commission’s attention in the future. The IJC historically has had little involvement with the areas of biodiversity and invasive species, but considering Annex 6 of the 2012 update to the GLWQA, this is a direction in which the commission might wish to move in the future. The same can be said of micro-plastics and plastics, which could fit under the aegis of water quality.
The inability of the IJC to initiate or get involved in issues that commissioners believe are important, or that the IJC could help “prevent and resolve,” is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, this has allowed the federal governments to avoid using the commission. In the last few decades, transnational environmental governance in North America has increasingly taken place outside of, and has circumscribed, the IJC: the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Compact (and the companion agreement) is just one of the most recent and prominent examples. On the other hand, the inability to initiate applications and references has given the commission a reputation for objectivity and neutrality. The role of the individual commissioners can be extremely important here. The BWT and IJC can foster a unique collegial body that puts commissioners in a position to make the best choices for all involved, which in the last half-century has increasingly included the ecosystem. But the structure of the treaty and the commission doesn’t guarantee that this collegiality and group decision-making happens—it is still up to the individual commissioners to buy into that. Looking at the past century of the IJC it is apparent that its emphasis, focus, and approach has changed over time, so to assume that the IJC of today, or of the 1970s, reflects how it has always been, would be a mistake. The upside is that the IJC can continue to change and adapt in the future.
Likely the best explanation for the IJC’s success is its pragmatism and geographic position, along with its institutional structure and culture. To the extent that the IJC has worked well, it is largely because Canada and the United States share a water border where neither one is the predominant upstream or downstream riparian. Waterbodies like those in the Great Lakes basin form rather than cross the border; and even though there are many rivers where one nation is downstream from the other, there are plenty of others where that relationship is reversed, and thus each nation would have an opportunity for retribution. That is not to say that the countries have not historically engaged in linkage—there are numerous examples just within the realm of the IJC where the politics of border waters on one side of the continent are politically linked to those on the other—but that the national self-interests commonly align, while other aspects of the shared border act as shock absorbers. But if Canadian-American relations perpetually become stressed or fractured—and there are signs of that happening with Donald Trump in office—and if the atmosphere of bilateral co-operation is undermined, then an unfortunate but not impossible future direction for the IJC is drifting into irrelevancy.
In the introduction to this volume we posed the question of whether there is an “IJC myth”? The answer is a measured “yes.” The IJC is not always objective or effective, it is limited in what areas it can have an impact, and it is not really seen as a direct model by the rest of the world. The era when the IJC was the most politically relevant—the 1950s and into the 1960s—is also the era when it was most politicized and advocated for destructive megaprojects. The GLWQA was, on paper, an enormous success—but the IJC’s role within that agreement has been marginalized, the federal governments have proven unwilling to put the necessary money into the agreement’s stipulations, and many of the problems that motivated the initial GLWQAs seem to be returning. However the IJC has also built up scientific expertise networks, is trusted by the public and in many environmentalist circles, its policy and scientific expertise lend legitimacy to its activities, and the IWI indicates that the commission is adjusting its approach.
Looking back at the first century of the IJC and BWT has allowed us to make some observations about how the IJC has changed over time, what has made it successful, and what limitations and obstacles it has faced and might face in the future. Scholars of North American history and policy, particularly in the environmental and transborder relations fields, would be wise to pay attention to the commission—as would any members of the public concerned about the environments in which they reside. There is no question that the IJC has played a significant role in the history of northern North America. Moreover, given the tricky future of climate change, the IJC is well equipped to play a significant role in the future of Canada-US border eco-politics—and we believe that it should.
1 L. M. Bloomfield and G. F. FitzGerald, Boundary Waters Problems of Canada and the United States (Toronto: Carswell, 1958), 63.
2 Kim Richard Nossal, “The IJC in Retrospect,” in The International Joint Commission Seventy Years On, ed. Richard Spencer, John Kirton, Kim Richard Nossal (Toronto: Centre For International Studies, University of Toronto, 1981), 130.
3 Ibid., 126.
4 William R. Willoughy, “Expectations and Experience, in Spencer, Kirton, and Nossal, The International Joint Commission Seventy Years On, 39.
5 Peter H. Gleick writes of “a ‘hard path’ that will rely almost exclusively on centralized infrastructure to capture, treat, and deliver water supplies; and a ‘soft path’ that will complement the former by investing in decentralized facilities, efficient technologies and policies, and human capital. This soft path will seek to improve overall productivity rather than to find new sources of supply. It will deliver water services that are matched to the needs of end users, on both local and community scales.” See Gleick, “Water Management: Soft Water Paths,” Nature 418 (25 July 2002), https://www.nature.com/articles/418373a; Oliver M. Brandes and David B. Brooks, “The Soft Path for Water in a Nutshell,” (Victoria, BC: Friends of the Earth and POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, University of Victoria, 2005).
6 Stephen Brooks “The International Joint Commission: Convergence, Divergence, or Submergence?” in Transboundary Environmental Governance in Canada and the United States (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Canada Institute, Occasional Paper Series, 2005), 3–18; Stephen Brooks, “The International Joint Commission: The Promise and Limits of an Ambitious Model,” in Transboundary Environmental Governance Across the World’s Longest Border, ed. Stephen Brooks and Andrea Olive (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2018).
7 International Joint Commisison, The International Watersheds Inititiatve: From Concept to Cornerstone of the IJC (Fourth IWI Report to Governments) (Ottawa/Washington: International Joint Commission, October 2015).
8 Daniel Macfarlane and Peter Kitay, “Hydraulic Imperialism: Hydro-electric Development and Treaty 9 in the Abitibi Region,” American Review of Canadian Studies 47, no. 3 (Fall 2016): 380–97.