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1For over 92 years the International Joint Commission (IJC), United States and Canada, has effectively served the two nations in approving and providing continuous oversight of water resource projects along the 5000-mile common border, in assisting the governments in preventing and resolving issues and disagreements regarding the use of these waters, and in addressing other environmental issues affecting or potentially affecting one or both of the countries.

2During the first years of the 20th Century, the governments of the United States and Great Britain were forced to deal with numerous issues concerning the use of waters that flowed across the border or served as the boundary between Canada and the United States.  In 1909, the two nations ratified the Boundary Waters Treaty and established, under the Treaty, the IJC. The Treaty also provided a framework for dealing with transboundary environmental issues.

3The Treaty provides for six Commissioners, three from each country. The U.S. Commissioners are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  The Governor General-in-Council appoints the three Canadian Commissioners. The Commissioners serve in their personal and professional capacities and do not receive instructions from their governments.   The IJC acts as a unitary body and acts to achieve the best long-term interests of the two countries.  Small section staffs in Washington, D.C., Ottawa, Ontario and a binational, Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, support the commissioners.

4The Treaty gives the IJC the responsibility for approving and overseeing the operation of dams and other structures or “applications” in waters along the U.S. -  Canadian border in order to protect all interests from the effects of the project.  When the IJC approves such projects, a board of control is typically established to oversee construction and operation of the project.  The board assures that IJC Orders are met and reviews the operational criteria for projects under IJC jurisdiction and makes recommendations when appropriate.  

5In addition, the Treaty provides that the U.S. and Canadian governments may refer questions or matters of difference to the IJC for examination and report.  When such a “reference” is received, the IJC appoints an investigative board or task force for advice on the matters addressed in the reference.  Following the issuance of an IJC report on the Reference, the IJC often undertakes a continuing surveillance role to monitor progress being made on implementing the report’s recommendations.  The IJC generally appoints a surveillance board for assistance in carrying out these functions.

6Since the IJC’s establishment in 1909, the two governments have requested, on more than 120 occasions, that the IJC consider “applications” for work on the boundary waters and undertake “references” on critical issues about which they disagree or on which they seek the advice of the Commission.  The IJC currently supervises 17 boards of control, investigative and surveillance boards, task forces and accredited officers who operate from the Gulf of Maine to the Pacific Northwest. Boards and task forces are established with equal U.S. and Canadian membership.  Like the Commission itself, members serve in their personal and professional capacities and do not represent the agencies and institutions from which they come.

The US-Canada Boundary Region

7Examples of projects falling under IJC jurisdiction include hydropower structures at the outlets of Lakes Superior and Ontario, water control facilities on the Niagara River, and dams on the Kootenay, Columbia, Okanagan, Pend d’ Oreille, Rainy, St. Croix, and St. John Rivers.  The IJC also advises the U.S. and Canadian governments on other environmental and natural resource matters and administers the apportionment of the waters of the St. Mary and Milk Rivers, which flow through Saskatchewan, Alberta and Montana, and the Souris River, which flows through Saskatchewan, Manitoba and North Dakota.

8The IJC also has critical duties under the revised 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to monitor progress and coordinate activities associated with the GLWQA.  The IJC evaluates programs and measures designed to improve water quality in the Great Lakes and reports to the federal, state, and provincial governments and the public on achievements and shortfalls under the Agreement biennially.  The IJC’s emphasis on direct access for and contributions from citizens of both nations have not only helped shape policy recommendations, but also enhanced the governments’ efforts to restore the Great Lakes ecosystem.  The IJC has helped to transform a vast potential source of conflict into a model of binational environmental cooperation.

9Other, separate, treaties and conventions permit the IJC to deal with emergency water level conditions in the Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods watershed (Minnesota, Manitoba and Ontario); approve diversions of water from the Lake of the Woods (Minnesota, Manitoba and Ontario); oversee the operation of control works that distribute water over the crest of the Niagara Falls (New York and Ontario); and resolve disputes regarding the use of the Columbia River (Washington and British Columbia.)

10The IJC has helped the two countries avoid or resolve environmental conflicts and to effectively address common environmental concerns along the boundary.  As stated earlier, the IJC has dealt with over 120 cases involving a wide variety of complex water-related and air quality issues.  In many of these matters, the IJC’s work has freed the two governments from having to deal continually with problems that might otherwise have troubled their diplomatic relations.  In other cases, the IJC has provided early warnings of issues that might have become sources of environmental conflict.  The IJC focuses on utilizing technology and science in order to make the most informed objective decisions.  

11As noted in the IJC 1997 report “The IJC and the 21st Century”, the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty established a framework for the Commission’s role. Within this framework, the IJC has developed a process that has provided the basis for much of the success of the bilateral environmental relationship. This process is characterized by six main elements, which have become a fundamental part of the relationship between the parties in boundary areas.

12Consultation and Consensus Building. The Commission and its network of advisers and regulatory boards strive for consensus as a means of reflecting the common interest. In practice most Commission decisions are taken this way and the Commission requires some key boards to refer matters to the Commission for decision if board members are unable to achieve consensus.

13Providing a Forum for Public Participation.  Article XII of the Boundary Waters Treaty requires the Commission to assure that “all parties interested therein shall be given convenient opportunity to be heard”. In practice the Commission has always emphasized the importance of public participation and advice.

14Engagement of Local Governments. The Commission invites and facilitates the engagement of state, provincial and municipal governments and other authorities in transboundary environmental issues. At the same time the IJC brings binational and national resources and considerations to bear on the resolution of local and regional matters.

15Joint Fact-finding. This is a cornerstone of Commission practice. The Commission recognizes that binational joint fact-finding builds an important and often essential foundation for the achievement of consensus in appropriate actions. Joint fact-finding normally takes place within the Commission’s advisory and regulatory boards, whose members are drawn equally from both countries and who are recognized as having the range of expertise required to address an issue.

16Objectivity and Independence.  The authors of the Boundary Waters Treaty built into the Commission an expectation that its members would seek to find solutions in the common interests of the two nations. To that end, Commissioners “make and subscribe a solemn declaration in writing” that they “will faithfully and impartially perform the duties imposed” under the Treaty. Similarly, members of IJC boards are expected to serve the Commission in their personal and professional capacities. This allows board members to explore all options, which helps promote the development of novel solutions and consensus.

17Flexibility. One of the most important features of the Commission’s work (some would say the most important) has been the flexibility, inherent in its mandate and process, to be able to adapt to the circumstances of particular transboundary conditions. The terms of the Boundary Waters Treaty have allowed the Commission, in practice, to develop innovative mechanisms for soliciting public participation, for problem solving, and for working with the governments themselves.

18The IJC’s role of preventing and resolving transboundary environmental and water-resource disputes between the U.S. and Canada through a process that seeks the common interest of both countries is unlike that of any other institution in the two countries.  This institution not only offers the countries a flexible set of mechanisms to help them manage their relationship in the boundary region, but also provides them with the assurance that it will reflect the shared system of principles and values recognized in the Boundary Waters Treaty.  Its success over these past 92 years reflects the foresight and sound judgement of those who developed the Boundary Waters Treaty and the professionalism of the Commissioners who have executed its provisions.

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Murray Clamens, « The international joint commission », VertigO - la revue électronique en sciences de l'environnement [En ligne], Hors-série 2 | septembre 2005, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2005, consulté le 17 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Murray Clamens

Secretary, Canadian Section, International Joint Commission

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