For 5 years, one of my core responsibilities when I served as a Senator was to Co-Chair of the Canadian Section of the Canada–United States Inter-Parliamentary Group (IPG). The Parliament of Canada has, for many decades, had multi-party inter-parliamentary groups and associations whose main objective is to foster stronger legislator-to-legislator relations between Canadian parliamentarians and those of other nations. These groups and associations, which are often focused on nations or groups of nations with which Canada has particularly close relations, also provide our parliamentarians with a very effective vehicle to promote Canada’s national interest when they interact with their foreign counterparts. The leadership structure of the Canada–U.S. IPG consists of two Co-Chairs – one from the Senate and one from the House of Commons – along with not more than 15 Vice-Chairs. At present, the Canadian Section has four Vice-Chairs from the Senate and 11 from the House of Commons. Founded in 1959, the Canada–U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group is the very first IPG established between Canadian parliamentarians and members of the U.S. Congress.
Sharing the world’s longest undefended border, the relationship between Canada and the United States is the envy of many nations. For Canadians, the relevance of this bilateral relationship cannot be compared to any other. That said, it has been our experience that Americans do not often have Canadian concerns “top of mind,” given the United States’ leadership role in world affairs.
Nevertheless, as Canadian legislators, it is our duty to make sure that Canada’s voice is heard within various American political fora. The IPG plays a central role in this effort, although many may be unaware of the IPG’s existence or its activities. In the early 2000s, I joined the IPG under the leadership of former Senator Jerry Grafstein. After a decade of serving on the IPG, I had the great honour of being elected Senate Co-Chair in 2011. Together with our House of Commons Co-Chair, Gord Brown, M.P., we planned many of our activities through coordinating with our American counterparts in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (D) and Michigan Congressman Bill Huizenga (R), respectively. As of the 2014 mid-term congressional elections, we have had the pleasure of working with Idaho Senator Mike Crapo (R) and after the October 2015 Canadian federal election, P.E.I. Member of Parliament Wayne Easter has been serving as the House of Commons Co-Chair.
In the spring of each year, the Canadian Section of the IPG undertakes a visit to Washington, D.C. in order to meet with American legislators and to discuss the main bilateral issues of concern between our two nations, although multilateral topics are at times discussed as well. Regional issues that are of particular concern to a Canadian parliamentarian are also quite often raised when meeting with Senators or Representatives who are from a state along the United States’ northern border with Canada.
In addition to these annual visits, members of the IPG’s Canadian Section regularly attend the winter and summer Meetings of the National Governors’ Association (NGA), and the summer meetings of the regional governors’ associations that bring together governors, and sometimes premiers, from the northeast, west and south. The Canadian Section always tries to ensure that there is a Canadian parliamentary presence in order to ensure that issues affecting Canada are addressed by our parliamentarians. We also attend national and regional meetings of state legislators, and use these occasions to gather information about issues that affect Canada and to share information about the bilateral relationship.
Over the years, the experience of regular meetings and working together has provided Canadian and American legislators at all levels with the chance to develop strong personal relationships, and – in many cases – lasting friendships. This is to the benefit of each nation. The ability to directly call a U.S. Senator or Representative, a governor or a state legislator when a pressing issue that touches Canadian interests arises provides parliamentarians with an effective means to make progress on pressing, and often time-sensitive, files.
Furthermore, as a former member of the IPG for 15 years and especially as Co-Chair for 5 years, it was my experience that partisanship among Canada’s federal legislators decreases substantially when working together in the national interest. This was most evident when we planned our agenda and undertook our visits to Washington, D.C. or when we hosted our American counterparts in Ottawa, as we did in June 2014. The same holds true for other events, such as national and regional meetings of governor and state legislators. The ability to present a common front in an effort to move certain issues forward was one of the most rewarding aspects of being part of the IPG’s Canadian Section.