New Book About International Joint Commission Takes Hard Look at U.S.-Canada Water Relationship

The First Century of the International Joint Commission is the definitive history of the International Joint Commission (IJC), which oversees and protects the shared waters of the United States and Canada. Created by the Boundary Waters Treaty (BWT) of 1909, it is one of the world’s oldest international environmental bodies. A pioneering piece of trans-border water governance, the IJC has been integral to the modern U.S.-Canada relationship, especially in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin.

Separating myth from reality and uncovering the historical evolution of the IJC from its inception to its present, this edited collection features an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners. Dr. Daniel Macfarlane, an associate professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University, is co-editor of the book.

Why do you think the IJC is worth studying? What prompted this book?

I don’t think we can fully understand the environmental history and present state of the Great Lakes without understanding the IJC. During my doctoral work in Ottawa, over a decade ago now, I met with IJC officials and got to know Murray Clamen, the co-editor of this book.

The book has 19 chapters, 27 contributors (representing different academic disciplines as well as policy practitioners), and is about 600 pages total. It is also Open Access, which means that in addition to purchasing the physical book, PDF copies of the individual chapters, or the whole book, can be downloaded free from the book’s webpage. This accessibility was a key feature for us. The book’s chapters span thematic issues, from water to land to air, and it has geographic breadth: many chapters focus on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, but there are chapters on border waters and environmental issues on the East Coast, the Plains/Prairies, and the Pacific Northwest.

The Commission often calls itself a model for the world of binational transboundary watershed management. Is that a fair characterization, and why or why not?

In The First Century of the International Joint Commission, one of the framing questions we asked the contributors to address was whether there was a ‘myth’ of the IJC, which included whether the commission was a model to the world. And, on that score, I would say that it is a myth. One of the best tests is this: if the IJC is a model, then why have no other transboundary institutions around the world, especially water governance institutions, copied it?

The extent to which there is always agreement and impartiality within the IJC also gets exaggerated. During the mid-20th century megaprojects era — the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project, the remaking of Niagara Falls, the Columbia River — the two national sides of the IJC prioritized their respective national interests and pushed the belief that we can and should fully control nature. The IJC’s record may also look better than it really is because if an issue was not likely to produce a mutually agreeable outcome, then it usually wasn’t given to the IJC to handle.

Even if the IJC is not quite the model that is often suggested (especially by Canadians), where the IJC can appropriately be viewed as an effective model is its incorporation of best science into policy. The first time the ecosystem principle was incorporated into a policy on a large scale seems to have been in the Great Lakes, for example.

Originally, IJC was a water levels/water quantity body, with water quality gradually added to its mission, especially in the Great Lakes basin. Has that transition been a success?  To what extent has it contributed to healthier Great Lakes?

Arguably, the IJC’s greatest success has been dealing with pollution in the Great Lakes. In the middle of the 20th century, the IJC promoted big water control endeavors. But this transitioned into the studies that would become the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in 1972. This focused primarily on conventional point source pollution in the lower Great Lakes and connecting channels.

Despite some early dockets focused on transborder pollution, such as in the Detroit River, it wasn’t until after World War II that the American and Canadian governments really got serious about Great Lakes water pollution. And that was because they could no longer ignore it.

The 1972 GLWQA was superseded by a 1978 version. The 1978 GLWQA, which expanded the regime to all the Great Lakes and encompassed nonpoint pollution and toxins, is still in place today, though it has been amended and added to several times, such as in 1987 and 2012. In 1987, Areas of Concerns (AOCs) and Remedial Actions Plans (RAPs) were added to the GLWQA.

So the transition from water quantity to quality was certainly an initial success. But when it comes to water pollution and threats to human health, we might actually be worse off today than we were a half-century ago. Granted, I think that this has happened despite the best efforts of the IJC.

The IJC’s job, and that of environmental regulation in general, is also more complicated today. The IJC was created as fairly top-down elite body in the beginning, even if it did include provisions for public hearings at the basins concerned rather than just in political capitals. Civil society now includes far more stakeholders, and puts more emphasis on local input and participation. One of the chapters in this book focuses on the role of Indigenous Peoples under the BWT/IJC.

Are the public’s expectations of IJC unrealistic, given its lack of binding decision-making authority?

Probably. It seems people either don’t know what the IJC is, hate it, or have unrealistic expectations for it. Detailing what the IJC has done in the past, and what it potentially can do in the future, were animating concerns for this book. The IJC is often like an umpire — it gets noticed when people are upset with it. Just look at the misplaced outrage from flooded property owners along the south shore of Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence over Plan 2014.

The IJC has a lot of limitations, and really can only be effective in those areas where the federal governments want it to be. The first GLWQA was successful because it was accompanied by major government spending on things like water treatment plants. When the IJC has been more outspoken and proactive, such as with the two nations not living up to their commitments under the GLWQA in recent decades, the federal governments have ignored or marginalized the IJC.

Are there reforms that could make IJC more useful, especially as climate change intensifies?

Should the IJC be able to initiate investigations and references? I tend to think so, but I’m also not sure that is realistic. A more activist IJC might undermine the extent to which it is seen as impartial, or decrease the frequency it is used by governments. Looking back, the BWT and IJC probably never would have been created if the commission was given more power since both countries didn’t, and still don’t want to, give up much sovereignty. The IJC as it was created in 1909 was a compromise, and in some ways it is surprising that this type of supranational body with a mandate to be arms-length, independent, and objective was created (there were some stronger judicial-type powers in the BWT but those have never been used).

Changing the text of the Boundary Waters Treaty would probably be a bad idea, since opening it up may give some political interests the opportunity to water it down — forgive the pun — rather than enhance the treaty or commission. The IJC has shown that it can adapt on its own. For example, the BWT outlined an order of precedence for how boundary waters should be used, and recreational and environmental uses were not even listed. But they have been incorporated over time. Same thing with a concern for ecological health. The IJC alone can’t be a solution, but it can be an important part of it, and this book argues that it should.

Dr. Daniel Macfarlane is an associate professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is also a senior fellow at the Bill Graham Center for Contemporary International History, University of Toronto, and president of the International Water History Association. Daniel is the author of Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seawaythe forthcoming (Sept 2020) Fixing Niagara Falls: Energy, Environment, and Engineers at the World’s Most Famous Waterfalland co-editor with Lynne Heasley of Border Flows: A Century of the Canadian–American Water Relationship. Copies of The First Century of the International Joint Commission can be ordered online here.

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