International Joint Commission

The following section takes the analysis further and focuses in more detail at the 1JC.


The impetus for developing the Boundary Waters Treaty and creating the IJC in 1909 was straightforward—each country recognized that they are affected by the other’s actions in lake and river systems along the US-Canadian border. The treaty gave the IJC a clear water diplomacy mandate: to prevent and settle disputes over the boundary waters. The IJC also has an important role of approving and managing structures that affect water levels and flows. The organization’s role was greatly expanded with the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA)—a binational executive agreement—in 1972 (and amended several times since) which gave the IJC specific roles to oversee implementation of the GLWQA and to advise the US and Canadian governments in meeting the terms of the agreement. The IJC is a binational body comprised of and governed by six commissioners: three appointed by the president of the United States and three appointed by the prime minister of Canada. The secretariat, provided for in the agreement, consists of 13 people in the IJC’s office in Windsor, Ontario. Additionally, the IJC has offices in Ottawa and Washington, DC, each with staff that provide secretariat support for the IJC’s broader mandates under the Boundary Waters Treaty and who also assist with GLWQA duties as needed.

Remarkably, it was not an actual conflict, but the possibility of a conflict that led to the treaty and agreement. The establishment of the IJC arose from concerns about how one country’s actions along the boundary water might impact the other, with foresight concerning potential cross-border impacts of water infrastructure—hence the creation of the IJC’s Boards of Control for regulating water levels and flows. In the 1960s and 1970s, wicked problems related to water quality were the key areas of uncertainty—and potential conflict—that led to the GLWQA in 1972. This was also the year the United States passed a national Clean Water Act. (The parallel national Canada Water Act was passed in 1985.)

Interdependence of the two countries was explicitly recognized in both the Boundary Waters Treaty and the GLWQA and consequential incentives were embedded in both agreements. While the IJC’s authorities under the treaty are undoubtedly a clear water diplomacy mandate, the organization’s role under the GLWQA as watchdog and advisor to the governments, with no direct executive powers, established the requisite leadership to absorb much of the transactional costs of collaboration and facilitate collaborative problem-solving. It also offers a more interesting case study of the IJC as a CGR.


The Clean Water Act in the United States and the Canada Water Act are the enforceable policies used by each country to implement the GLWQA. Collaborative governance supporting water diplomacy comes into play in how the IJC effectuates its mandate under the agreement—notably in the collaborative processes used by the various IJC boards in their oversight and advisory roles.

While decisions at the highest level are made by the appointed IJC government officials from the United States and Canada, virtually all the technical work, and the majority of the planning and practical thinking about how to address issues of uncertainty or instability, is done through the IJC’s various boards and committees, many of which bring governmental and nongovernmental actors to the table to tackle specific issues. These boards and committees commonly engage in iterative multi-stakeholder processes to address a common

Water diplomacy 55 objective (implementing a directive), which evolves into mutual understanding, trust, and ultimately the development of a shared motivation that is both individual and collective. These shared motivations take the form of reports and recommendations to the parties (the US and Canadian governments).

By way of example, the IJC’s Water Quality Board is charged with assisting the organization in its assessment of the US and Canadian governments’ progress in implementing the GLWQA, identifying emerging issues, and recommending approaches. In the 2012 renegotiation of the agreement, the makeup of this board was expanded to include greater nonstate participation: it includes 28 members from diverse sectors including federal, state, and provincial governments, First Nations, tribes. Metis, nongovernmental organizations, municipalities, agriculture, business, and the public.13 The multi-stake-holder participation enables joint action that embodies collaborative governance—that is, “to generate outcomes that the cooperating parties could not accomplish separately.”14 Reports, studies, and the recommended actions called for under the GLWQA are developed with the potential implementing parties at the table, which increases the potential capacity for joint action.

The 2012 renegotiation of the GLWQA also formalized a new binational partnership known as the Great Lakes Executive Committee. This committee is co-chaired by representatives of the United States and Canada but also includes representation from states, provinces, tribes and First Nations, municipal governments, watershed management agencies, and other public agencies. The committee coordinates implementation of GLWQA, primarily through subcommittees that address specific priorities established through Annexes to the agreement related to legacy contamination, chemicals, nutrients, discharges from vessels, invasive species, habitat, groundwater, and climate change. The committee also reviews and reports on progress every three years. Since 2012, the Annex subcommittees have become important forums for collaborative governance. While a significant step forward by focusing on key challenges facing the lakes, leadership for the Great Lakes Executive Committee’s subcommittees varies considerably. Those with stronger leadership are able to engage necessary stakeholders more effectively to develop more meaningful products that influence management and governance.

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