Parliamentary Diplomacy, Canadian Parliamentarians and the World

Natalie Mychajlyszyn
Economics, Resources and International Affairs Division

In today’s complex world, the lines between domestic and international policy are blurred and governments are no longer the only global actors.

As a result, Canadian parliamentarians are more than ever stepping outside their legislative chambers to speak directly with their international counterparts.

In Canada, diplomatic engagement has been a longstanding dimension of parliamentary activities.

Our parliamentarians have three goals in mind: to exchange ideas and best practices with fellow parliamentarians; to help guide collective policy and action; and to promote democratic values and Canadian interests abroad.

Parliamentary diplomacy in action 

The Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons, senators and members of the House of Commons, as well as the clerks of both chambers, represent Parliament internationally in many ways. Among them:

  • Conducting or participating in visits to foreign countries;
  • Welcoming foreign parliamentary delegations, heads of state or government, ministers and other officials to Parliament;
  • Participating in meetings and activities of multilateral parliamentary organizations; and,
  • Engaging in committee studies of topics with international dimensions, and carrying out fact-finding missions abroad as part of those studies.

Both Speakers are prominent in the conduct of parliamentary diplomacy, due in large part to the nature and function of their offices.

They also participate in numerous international Speakers’ consultations that are organized parallel to various intergovernmental meetings, such as the G-7 Parliamentary Speakers’ Meeting.

Association work, as outlined in the table below, is a key vehicle through which Canadian parliamentarians from both chambers meet and engage with their international counterparts. These interparliamentary bodies cover a wide range of topics, many of them on top of the Canadian parliamentary agenda. They can be multilateral or bilateral, official or, as in the case of friendship groups, unofficial.

Many of these interparliamentary bodies also organize parallel consultations for Speakers and parliamentary officers. These include the World Conference of Speakers of Parliament, the Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth, and the Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments.

Canadian leadership in parliamentary diplomacy

In Canada, Parliament’s international engagement predates the establishment of a federal department dedicated to foreign affairs. Since 1912, Canada has been a member of the oldest and largest assembly, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, evidence of its longstanding involvement in parliamentary diplomacy.

The Canadian Parliament helped found the precursor to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in 1911, and since 2001 has housed the secretariat to ParlAmericas (Parliamentarians for the Americas). In 2010, Parliament initiated and hosted the inaugural G-20 Speakers’ Consultation.

Canadian senators and MPs are regularly elected or appointed to high-level executive positions in interparliamentary bodies, as presiding officers, rapporteurs or special representatives, for instance.

They also have a strong record of proposing resolutions and seeking consensus on various policy issues. One example is the January 2015 meeting of the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum. The Canadian delegation sponsored or co-sponsored several resolutions on human trafficking, terrorism, cyber security, the Middle East Peace Process and the denuclearization of and peace on the Korean peninsula, among others which were adopted by the forum.

Canadian parliamentarians frequently observe presidential and parliamentary elections in foreign countries, such as in Kyrgyzstan (2009), Azerbaijan (2010) and Ukraine (2014).

Parliament welcomes the world

Over the years, Canada’s Parliament has hosted numerous interparliamentary seminars and conferences. Most recently, it hosted meetings of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Parliamentary Assembly, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, the Assemblée Parlementaire de la Francophonie, the Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, and, in January 2016, the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum.

These events can draw from a handful to hundreds of foreign parliamentarians to communities across Canada, including Whitehorse, Vancouver, Fort McMurray, Regina, Toronto, Halifax, St. John’s and, of course, Ottawa.

In 2012, Parliament hosted its largest such conference, the 127th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, welcoming over 1,300 delegates to Quebec City.

Foreign parliamentary delegations frequently visit Parliament. In 2014 alone, there were nine such incoming visits by Speakers and their delegations from parliaments as diverse as Scotland, Moldova, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Malaysia.

In addition, Parliament organizes a Parliamentary Officers’ Study Program numerous times a year. This professional development program offers senior parliamentary personnel from around the world an opportunity to exchange views and best practices on procedural, administrative and research services.

Benefits of parliamentary diplomacy

 As Canadian foreign policy grows more complex and interconnected, parliamentary diplomacy offers opportunities for parliamentarians to share best practices on many issues.

Among them are human rights, good governance, security, prosperity, food security, education, youth, the environment, information and communication technology, and health. In a more globalized world, many of these issues cannot be solely understood or advanced through a national or intergovernmental lens.

At interparliamentary meetings of international organizations, Canadian parliamentarians scrutinize and oversee the work of the corresponding intergovernmental body. At the same time, they debate timely issues of relevance to Canada and its partners.

Bilateral exchanges, either with official high-level delegations or through bilateral associations, allow for a focused discussion of pressing topics. They also serve to strengthen cooperation and personal ties between the two countries.

For example, during frequent meetings of the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group, Canadian parliamentarians discuss issues concerning our relationship with the United States with U.S. congressmen and women, as well as with governors and state legislators.

These delegations are comprised of individuals of various political parties, as well as both chambers of parliament. Their diverse nature means that parliamentary diplomacy also enhances networking and collaboration among the delegates and provides a unique opportunity for non-partisan collaboration on international issues.

By expanding contacts and opening new channels for dialogue, parliamentary diplomacy links our Parliament, and Canadian communities, with the world.

It deepens diplomatic relations, builds understanding, empowers Canadian parliamentarians to make better informed decisions affecting their constituents, and raises awareness of Canada in an immeasurable way.

Table 1 – List of Official Associations and Interparliamentary Groups

Table 1 – List of Official Associations and Interparliamentary Groups

Related resources

Barnett, Laura and Sebastien Spano. Parliamentary Involvement in Foreign Policy. Publication no. 2008-60-E. Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 10 November 2008 (Revised 28 August 2013).

Joint Interparliamentary Council, Annual Report on Parliamentary Associations’ Activities and Expenditures, International and Interparliamentary Affairs, 2013-2014. October 2014.

Noulas, George. “The Role of Parliamentary Diplomacy in Foreign Policy.” Foreign Policy Journal, 22 October 2011.

Fiott, Daniel. “On the Value of Parliamentary Diplomacy.” Madariaga Paper, Vol. 4, No. 7, April 2011.

Šabič, Zlatko. “Building Democratic and Responsible Global Governance: The Role of International Parliamentary Institutions.” Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 61, No. 2, 2008, pp. 255–271.

Weisglas, Frans. W. and Gonnie de Boer. “Parliamentary Diplomacy.” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, No. 2, 2007, pp. 93–99.

Kinsella, Noël and Peter Milliken. “Parliamentary Diplomacy: the Canadian Approach.” May 2007.

Inter-Parliamentary Union. Parliamentary Involvement in International Affairs. Report to the Second World Conference of Speakers of Parliaments. September 2005.

Hays, Dan and Peter Milliken. “The Increasing Role of Parliamentary Diplomacy.” Diplomat, March-April 2005, pp. 26-27.