The history of Canada is intertwined with international treaties and treaty making. This paper provides a brief historical survey of Canada’s international treaty diplomacy. It traces how treaties helped shape Canada’s evolution from colony to sovereign nation and determine Canada’s borders, how they ensure peace and security, and how they continue to help Canada to express its sovereignty and protect its economic well-being. Treaties remain vital to a modern middle power, such as Canada, that relies on international cooperation and the rule of law in the conduct of its international relations.

The first part of this survey examines the period from 1700 to 1900. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, international treaties reflected various military conflicts around the globe. These treaties, along with treaties between the Crown and Indigenous peoples who predated Britain’s imperial presence in North America, are fundamental to understanding Canada’s early treaty history and how treaties continue to shape Canada’s evolution.

The second part of this survey traces Canada’s treaty relations from 1900 to 1936, a period in which Canada sought greater autonomy over foreign policy and independent treaty-making power. The paper then examines the period from 1937 to 1966 with the rapid post-World War II expansion of Canada’s bilateral and multilateral relations, and continues with descriptive statistics and analysis of the 50 years of Canadian treaty making since 1967, Canada’s centennial year. The data is divided into thematic elements covering Canada’s bilateral and multilateral treaties in force, the types of bilateral treaties by lead government departments, as well as an overview of new mega-regional agreements, and ends with brief conclusions.

As this is a brief historical survey of Canada’s treaty diplomacy, many treaty-related policy and legal issues are not addressed, such as the domestic process for giving effect to treaties within Canada; the role of Parliament or the provinces and territories in negotiating, approving or implementing treaties; or of the courts in interpreting treaties; the use of non-legally binding soft-law alternatives to international treaties; or the role of non-state actors in treaty making. Several of these topics are addressed in other papers within this series.

Part of Series

Marking 150 years since Confederation provides an opportunity for Canadian international law practitioners and scholars to reflect on Canada’s past, present and future in international law and governance. This series of essays, written in the official language chosen by the authors, that provides a critical perspective on Canada’s past and present in international law, surveys the challenges that lie before us and offers renewed focus for Canada’s pursuit of global justice and the rule of law.
The project leaders were Oonagh E. Fitzgerald, director of the International Law Research Program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI); Valerie Hughes, CIGI senior fellow, adjunct assistant professor of law at Queen’s University and former director at the World Trade Organization; and Mark Jewett, CIGI senior fellow, counsel to the law firm Bennett Jones, and former general counsel and corporate secretary of the Bank of Canada. The series was published as a book titled Reflections on Canada’s Past, Present and Future in International Law/Réflexions sur le passé, le présent et l’avenir du Canada en matière de droit international in spring 2018.

  • Gary Luton is currently director of the Treaty Law Division at Global Affairs Canada. A career diplomat, he has had several postings abroad: in Kuwait and Iraq, covering the Gulf States; in Paris; and at Canada’s Mission to the European Union in Brussels, where he was head of the Economic, Trade and Investment Section.