Barring a massive emergency, on December 7,h 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened his fourth and likely final First Ministers’ Meeting (FMM) of his four-year mandate. While the brief lead-up to this meeting featured more acrimony and bombastic hyperbole from some first ministers than had been heard before previous gatherings, many of the complaints were as predictable as the outcomes.
Concerns raised by many premiers centred on the contents of the agenda, which they only received a few days before the event. Ontario Premier Doug Ford threatened to derail the meeting, either by walking out or boycotting it completely. News reports focused on the conflicts and one Canadian pundit even dismissed the event as “cheap theatre.” When the day ended, however, all first ministers remained at the table, a joint communiqué was issued, and the day-today work of running the federation continued.
What role, then, do First Ministers’ Meetings play in Canada’s intergovernmental machinery? Why are they called? What are the procedures that govern them? And, perhaps most importantly, why should we care about them? Here I make the case to set aside cynicism and see the strengths, weaknesses, and untapped potential of this intergovernmental body with clearer eyes.
The Most Visible Cog
First Ministers’ Meetings are only one cog in the network of intergovernmental machinery in Canada. In its entirety, intergovernmental machinery is comprised of all the networks and organizational supports that enable our federal, provincial, and territorial politicians and officials (both political and bureaucratic), to work together. Interactions among our politicians and officials are necessary to ensure that federal, provincial, and territorial governments are capable of coordinating actions to respond to the key challenges that face Canadians.
Much of the work of running the federation occurs at the sector level. Relatively permanent intergovernmental tables bring together ministers and their officials, often multiple times throughout the year. From justice to immigration, health to labour, few areas of government activity in Canada are left untouched by some form of intergovernmental machinery. In contrast to the coverage of FMMs, however, the activities of sectoral tables barely register on the public eye. This is despite the fact that major agreements and activities are often advanced at these tables like, for example, Canada’s new housing strategy.
Prime ministers also stay in regular contact with the other first ministers through bilateral meetings and phone calls. Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Ford, for example, held their own bilateral meeting the day before this most recent First Ministers’ Meeting. And, in his 10 years as prime minister, Stephen Harper favoured bilateral meetings and convened only two FMMs – under what was reported to be considerable duress. So why, then, should prime ministers even bother with FMMs?
Because they feature the leaders of the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, First Ministers’ Meetings (as they have been known since the 1990s) are without a doubt the most visible of Canada’s intergovernmental machinery. Providing the occasion where they all meet face to face, FMMs give the top politicians and their officials the chance to sit around a shared table and hear directly from one another. Put simply, First Ministers’ Meetings are the lone arena where the interdependence of Canada’s federation may be formally and most holistically acknowledged.
Ambiguity in Purpose
The first federal-provincial Conference of First Ministers following Confederation was held in 1906. Convened by Prime Minister Laurier at the repeated requests of the provinces, no formal agenda was issued and no communiqué was released at the end. The closed-door discussions centred on financial subsidies to the provinces, and proceedings were suspended on four occasions so that provincial delegates could meet with their federal counterparts in joint sessions.
From that point onwards, these high-level conferences of the leaders were called intermittently by various prime ministers for a whole host of reasons. Post-war reconstruction plans, fiscal arrangements, the cornerstones of the welfare state – face-to-face conferences engendered considerable rhetoric and some concrete action, while injecting some direction and support into core planks of policymaking.
The ill-fated Victoria Charter of 1971 included a specific provision for annual meetings to take place among the prime minister of Canada and the other first ministers. Part VIII read: “A Conference composed of the Prime Minister of Canada and the First Ministers of Provinces shall be called by the Prime Minister of Canada at least once a year unless, in a year, a majority of those composing the Conference decide that it shall not be held.” While meetings of the heads of government continued to be called, they remained an ad hoc and often unpredictable encounter.
Re-engaging this mechanism of intergovernmental relations, after it was largely mothballed by his predecessor, was a campaign promise of Prime Minister Trudeau. The commitment to calling First Ministers’ Meetings annually marked a first in Canadian history.
A quick glance at the four agendas of these most recent FMMs confirms that the purpose of these meetings remains somewhat ambiguous. The first two FMMs called by Prime Minister Trudeau centred on devising a collective means to address climate change, and – through the active collaboration of the Council of Canadian Ministers of the Environment – generated the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. The latter two FMMs were more open-ended and convened without an agreement in mind.
A cynic would say the latter FMMs were held simply to fulfil a campaign promise. An optimist, however, would argue that these FMMs offered the opportunity for Canadians to see the leaders together, gather representatives from all the bureaucracies together, and symbolically acknowledge the deep and pervasive interdependence of the Canadian federation: a potential clear purpose for the FMMs moving forward, if some small adjustments are made.
Resilience in Organization
The tradition of federal dominance and the pre-eminence of the prime minister is the most consistent and enduring feature of the FMMs. Premiers are often invited to speak according to their entry into Confederation, and the leaders of the territories were only invited to the table as full participants in 1992. Unlike some other sectoral tables, FMMs are not supported by a regular committee of deputy ministers or a permanent secretariat.
Called exclusively at the pleasure of the prime minister, the agenda is often the focus of contention. The prime minister – or better stated the Prime Minister’s Office – sets it himself. And, as evidenced in 2018, the other first ministers receive the agenda with short notice; while politically expedient for the federal prime minister, such a practice fails to treat and respect the provincial and territorial leaders as full partners in the federation.
Setting the agenda does not mean completely ignoring the interventions of the other leaders. In 2017, for example, provincial and territorial premiers successfully pressured the federal government to add certain items, most notably the proposed changes to the small business tax regime. Adjustments indicate a willingness to listen, compromise, and adapt – behaviours that are necessary to govern a federation.
Contrast the relative lack of formalism and the tradition of unilateralism in FMMs with the practices cultivated by the provincial and territorial premiers.
Meetings of the provincial premiers were launched in 1887 and became an annual event starting in 1960. In 2003, the premiers further institutionalized their arrangements by creating the Council of the Federation. Established by a founding agreement, the Council meets at least twice a year, abides by a rotating chair schedule, with the agenda being developed through a consensus of all 13 provincial and territorial premiers. Supported by a Steering Committee of Deputy Ministers and a small permanent secretariat, the Council is intended to enable the Premiers to “play a leadership role in revitalizing the Canadian federation and building a more constructive and cooperative federal system” (Council of the Federation 2003). While the prime minister is always invited, to date, none have attended. In July 2018, however, newly appointed Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc chose to accept the invitation, saying it gave him the opportunity “just to at least formally say hi.” It remains to be seen whether this new willingness on the part of the federal government to more formally engage in the Council of the Federation will be a one-off occurrence or the first steps towards a new dynamic in intergovernmental relations in the country.
Even in this digital
age, experts from psychology, business, and international affairs (to say
nothing of political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists) confirm
that managing a successful team requires personal connections. Governing a
federation requires the building and maintaining of relationships.
While time consuming and easy to dismiss as
elite hobnobbing, face-to-face interactions help build trust, foster a sense of
a shared mission, and potentially increase empathy. First Ministers’ Meetings
are not only about the leaders. First Ministers Meetings are also about their
political and bureaucratic officials who accompany them. Meetings where they
are all together around a shared table create the opportunity where it is no
longer just about their specific jurisdiction or individual concern in a
bilateral relationship with the federal government. FMMs also create the space
for Canadians to think about the federation, for journalists to report on it,
and for the federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions to educate one
another about our individual and collective conditions. Therefore, rather than
mothballing the practice, it should be embraced, strengthened and
 In 2012, the Toronto Star reported that Premier Dalton McGuinty had a secret meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to ask for federal assistance in developing the Ring of Fire in northwestern Ontario. The meeting was not listed on Premier McGuinty’s detailed daily itinerary. (https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2012/05/24/premier_dalton_mcguinty_seeks_stephen_harpers_help_to_develop_ontarios_ring_of_fire.html)
 Laura Stone, ‘Tory whisperer’ Dominic LeBlanc to spearhead Ottawa’s provincial relations in new role. Globe and Mail. July 18, 2018 – https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-tory-whisperer-dominic-leblanc-to-spearhead-ottawas-provincial/