History of the Canadian International Council

The Canadian Institute of International Affairs (CIIA), predecessor of the Canadian International Council, was founded in 1928 by a number of prominent Canadians, among them Sir Robert Borden, Sir Arthur Currie and J.W. Dafoe, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. The devastating consequences of the First World War had awakened in them a strong desire to remedy a lack of public understanding of international affairs. They were also motivated by the chance to participate in new organizations that had just been formed abroad and, indeed, in its early years the CIIA was closely linked to both the Institute of Pacific Relations in Honolulu and the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London (more familiarly known as Chatham House).

What distinguished the CIIA from these organizations, however, was that it was, from the beginning, based on five regional branches, located in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg. The branches, which have since grown to fifteen in number, have been one of the organization’s strengths, contributing their own regional perspectives to its deliberations.

The thirties saw a National Office set up in Toronto, which, in turn, made possible a much more vigorous national program, including annual study conferences, study groups and research. A number of new branches were opened. Issues that struck deep emotional chords were debated within the organization, notably the response that Canada should make to aggression in Europe, and the related issue of whether Canada should carve out a foreign policy role independent of that assumed by the other countries of the British Commonwealth. Though there were heated debates, the principle was firmly established that the CIIA exists to enable free and frank discussion without itself taking policy positions.

Through its research and public education programs, the CIIA was building a network of academics and other foreign policy specialists. This work was considerably advanced by the inauguration of the International Journal in 1946. The “IJ” soon became a highly respected vehicle for the communication of analysis and commentary both in Canada and abroad, and continues to be published on a quarterly basis.

In the postwar era the tenure of John Holmes as president (later director-general) of the Institute, beginning in 1960, was particularly notable. As a former senior official of the Department of External Affairs, he was able to further cooperation with the government, and his writing and speaking both raised the profile of the organization and greatly expanded its contacts with counterpart organizations abroad.

The CIIA continued to be alert to the changing foreign policy agenda and to reflect this in its research and publications. For example, it conducted a series of seminars that contributed to the Trudeau government’s review of foreign policy. As Canada’s relations with the United States became more complex and, at times, difficult, an increasing amount of attention was devoted to that topic. Over the years a vast range of subjects have been explored, from peacekeeping to international trade and development, from the role of the provinces in international affairs to United Nations reform, from the increasing significance of the Arctic to the rise of China.  The CIIA and its successor have also provided a venue attracting major speakers, such as prime ministers, foreign ministers and heads of international organizations.

The CIIA went through a process of renewal in 2007, emerging as the Canadian International Council (CIC). The new CIC was the result of an agreement between the CIIA and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) of Waterloo, Ontario, designed to harness the natural synergies of the two non-partisan organizations. The agreement was overwhelmingly approved by CIIA members.

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the CIC has been its embrace of the digital era, recognizing that this has impacted both the way international relations are conducted and the way a public affairs organization should operate. Thus, the CIC has pioneered in developing the OpenCanada.org website, which is a major contributor to foreign policy dialogue in Canada and has attracted a wide audience. (Relaunched in October 2015, Open Canada is now a stand-alone publication, produced through a partnership of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, the Canadian International Council and the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History.)

Other recent accomplishments have included a major study of Canada’s international role and priorities entitled “Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age,” and the 2012 study, “The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Resource Economies.” Meanwhile, activities at the national level have been complemented by branch programs across the country that have included sessions with visiting speakers, conferences, study groups and, in some cases, “Politics at the Pub” sessions intended to attract young professionals. A good example of a branch initiative is the 2014 conference hosted by the Victoria Branch to explore the potential of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region as a gateway to Asia.

Not far off its first century, the CIC is moving with the times but ever mindful of the commitment of its founders to increase and deepen public understanding of Canada’s place and potential in the world.