Interprovincial relations have occurred since shortly after Confederation, but the extent of formal meetings of the premiers was limited prior to the Second World War. In 1960, at the instigation of newly elected Québec Premier Jean Lesage, provincial premiers took part in a summer meeting in Québec City (see Provincial Government in Canada). This became an annual event which, after 1982, also included territorial premiers as observers, then starting in 1991 as members.
The event began more as a social gathering; a chance for premiers to get to know one another but proved useful enough that premiers opted to continue with an annual meeting. Over time, the Annual Premiers’ Conference became more formalized, featuring an agenda negotiated ahead of time as well as ongoing work. Constitutional negotiations and other intergovernmental agreements provided significant opportunities for provincial-territorial input. It is significant, for instance, that both the 1986 Edmonton Declaration and 1997 Calgary Declaration, which each addressed the place of Québec in the federation, emerged from Annual Premiers’ Conferences (see Constitutional History).
The idea of a more formal body for intergovernmental relations had been previously proposed, but these proposals typically involved the federal government (see First Ministers Conference). The idea of an exclusively provincial-territorial body began appearing in earnest during Daniel Johnson Jr’s time as premier of Québec (1994). The idea was expanded upon by the Québec Liberal Party’s 2001 Pelletier Report, which called for a quasi-constitutional Council of the Federation.
On the formation of government by the Liberal Party of Québec in 2003, Premier Jean Charest enthusiastically embraced the idea for a formal PT body. The efforts of Charest and other premiers led to the signing of the Council of the Federation founding agreement in December 2003. The Council as created in 2003 differed from the more ambitious recommendations of the Pelletier Report, maintaining the consensus-based decision making typical of Canadian intergovernmental forums.
The Council has met twice yearly in most years since 2004. The centrepiece of COF’s work has been the summer meeting, with the host jurisdiction serving as chair for the year. The other yearly meeting generally takes place in winter, although as many as five COF meetings have been held in some years.
The meetings of the premiers are supported by an array of working groups through which officials continue work between formal meetings. The summer meeting serves as the forum both for releasing reports on completed work and for announcing new projects.
The Council has two main purposes: to present a common PT position toward the federal government, and to facilitate collaboration between PTs in their own areas of jurisdiction. Which purpose the Council focuses on in a given period depends on the interests of the premiers and, critically, of the prime minister. Although Ottawa plays no formal role in COF, the federal government still has a significant impact on the agenda of the day.
COF served as an effective forum for presenting a unified front to Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2004, during negotiations on health funding (see Health Policy). The resulting 10-year accords were seen as a major victory for the premiers. COF was less successful in establishing consensus on reform of equalization in 2006, for reasons inherent to the Canadian federation (see “challenges”, below).
The period from 2006 to 2015 presented a challenge for the premiers, as the government of Stephen Harper tended to eschew multilateral relations with the provinces in favour of bilateral relationships (with some exceptions). Lacking a federal partner willing to engage intergovernmentally, COF turned its attention to matters the PTs could resolve on their own. The replacement of the Agreement on Internal Trade by the Canadian Free Trade Agreement in 2017, for example, followed a decade of work among the provinces and territories to remove barriers to internal trade. Similarly, shortly after the 2015 election the federal Liberal government announced that it would work with PT governments on bulk purchasing of prescription medication, which followed five years of work by the premiers through COF.
The wide scope of provincial jurisdiction gives premiers a range of potential avenues for action. Accordingly, COF has turned its attention to a laundry list of topics, from the economy and climate change to drug addiction and energy transmission. Successful cooperation on some of these files has occasionally been overshadowed by disagreement over others. Fundamentally, this dynamic is tied to the operation of federalism in Canada.
COF has also faced a changing role regarding Indigenous relations. From 2004 to 2016, premiers met before the COF summer meeting with leaders of national Indigenous organizations. In 2017, leaders of the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Métis National Council boycotted the meeting, arguing that they should get a seat at the table as full participants. This would represent a fundamental change to Canadian intergovernmental relations, and it remains to be seen how the relationship between premiers and national Indigenous organizations will evolve (see also Indigenous Self-Government in Canada).
Canada may be the most-decentralized federation in the world, with provinces holding a high degree of autonomy. This creates a specific Federal-PT dynamic, since PT governments are wary of federal intrusions in their areas of jurisdiction. The conflictual nature of parliamentary government contributes to this dynamic, since political actors are used to a system that does not necessarily foster coalition building. In comparison to other federations, Canada also features few legal or constitutional mechanisms for resolving intergovernmental conflict. The interactions of governments are generally driven by the political executive (rather than legislative actors). For this reason, political scientist Donald Smiley coined the term “executive federalism” to describe Canadian intergovernmental relations.
In COF, this is apparent not only in the way premiers interact with the prime minister, but also in the way they interact with each other. PT governments can be as wary of joint provincial-territorial action as they are of federal intrusion. This is periodically apparent at COF meetings. The disadvantage of a regular, publicized forum for intergovernmental relations is that the agenda can be captured by the disagreements of the day. Thus, since 2003, COF has also seen very public disagreements, most notably over equalization, climate change and energy transmission. These stories are often framed around particular premiers, but the reality is generally more entrenched: provincial and territorial positions are shaped by their context. In a country as large and diverse as Canada, those contexts will occasionally lead to diverging interests. The very factors that make Canada a federation also create limits on how unified PT positions are likely to be, whether the premiers are gathered under the auspices of COF or not.
Nonetheless, the Council is now a regular part of the intergovernmental landscape in Canada, one which structures ongoing work. Its meetings attract media attention and can force the federal government to react, as occurred with Paul Martin on health in 2004 and Stephen Harper on changes to labour market training in 2013. While COF has not fundamentally changed the intergovernmental dynamic, it has created a new space for PT relations.