The International Joint Commission, with special emphasis on the Great Lakes water quality agreement : a view from the Canadian side


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




The International Joint Commission was instituted under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909; it held its constitutive meeting in 1912. The prime purpose of this organization is to prevent or settle Canadian -U.S. boundary waters - and certain other - disputes. The functions and powers the Commission was given under the 1909 Treaty are divided into four categories: administrative, quasi-judicial, arbitral, and investigative and advisory. The administrative functions were restricted to a then controversial group of boundary waters in the prairies. In its quasi-judicial capacity, which accounted for the majority of its work in the first half of its existence, the Commission is empowered to grant or withhold permission for certain planned endeavours - public or private - that would affect boundary waters. Thus far, the services of the Commission in its arbitral capacity have not been called upon. In recent years most of the Commission's work has resulted from matters referred to it by the two federal Governments for investigation and advisory opinion. In its most comprehensive endeavour yet the Commission, at the request of the two Governments in 1964, investigated and reported upon pollution in the lower Great Lakes and the international section of the St. Lawrence River. The Commission's final findings and recommendations, published in December, 1970, provided the basis for the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, entered into by Canada and the United States sixteen months later. The Agreement is a comprehensive and detailed pollution abatement programme, based upon laid down water quality objectives. It gives the Commission certain, primarily surveillance powers wiith regard to Great Lakes pollution without, however, changing the fundamental structure of its functions and powers. Though the clean-up of the Great Lakes is taking considerably longer than expected the two signatory countries can, according to the wording of the Agreement, hardly be held liable for breach of treaty. A comparison with several international commissions concerned with water resources reveals that the performance record of the International Joint Commission is decidedly superior to that of the others. This can be attributed to certain extrinsic advantages which it has over its counterparts, such as the number of countries involved, their political, cultural and economic proximity, and the geographically balanced location of the boundary waters, as well as to the way in which it has conducted its business, thus building up a respectable reputation over the years. Nevertheless, the Commission can ill afford to rest on its laurels. There remains considerable room for improvement in its operations. Moreover, major decisions concerning its future structure as well as a reassessment of its future role will have to be made in the near future. The final part of this thesis examines 1. whether the size of the Commission itself should be increased or whether the present six Commissioners should, instead, all serve on a full-time basis; the!latter is preferred; 2. whether the Commission should, or should not move towards becoming an international Great Lakes environmental administrative authority; basically, it should not; 3. the extent to which the public can participate in the work of the Commission.


Water quality -- Great Lakes region; International Joint Commission (U.S. and Canada) 1909-

Geographic Location

Great Lakes Region (North America)

Date Available



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