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Canada country brief


Canada became a self-governing dominion in 1867 while following the British model of parliamentary democracy and retaining the British monarch as head of state. Ties with the neighbouring United States (US) are critical for Canada – particularly in terms of trade and investment.

Both English and French have official language status, and French-speaking Quebec has a degree of constitutional autonomy in Canada. Indigenous people make up around 4.9 per cent of the population.

Canada is the second-largest country in world (after Russia) in land area, with approximately 90 per cent of the population concentrated within 160 km of the US border. Canada has more fresh water than any other country with at least 2 million natural lakes; and almost 9 per cent of Canadian territory is water. Located in northern North America, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean on the east, North Pacific Ocean on the west, and the Arctic Ocean on the north (sitting strategically between the US and Russia via the North Polar route), Canada varies from temperate (south) to sub-arctic and arctic (north).

Canada's population is estimated to be 38,048,738 (as at 1 January 2021; Statistics Canada). Canada is divided into 10 provinces and 3 territories*: Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories*, Nunavut*, and Yukon*.

Political Overview

Three branches work together to govern Canada: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

The executive branch is the decision-making branch comprising the Governor General, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The Prime Minister is the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons.

The legislative branch is the law-making branch, which is made up of the House of Commons and the appointed Senate. The House of Commons has 338 members. The next election is scheduled for 2023. The Senate has 105 senators appointed on a regional basis to review proposed legislation and to provide a forum for debate. Senators are appointed by the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party, formed a minority government in October 2019.

The judicial branch is a series of independent courts that interpret the laws passed by the other two branches.

Foreign, Trade and Development Policy Priorities

In 2021-22, Canada's stated foreign, trade and development policy priorities are:

  • Contributing to a rules-based international system that advances Canadian interests e.g. by championing respect for international law, fostering cooperative multilateral action and pursuing new and innovative partnerships with a focus on democracy, human rights, gender equality, the rule of law, climate change and environmental protection. Canada seeks to pursue these objectives through the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, the Commonwealth, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Arctic Council.
  • Supporting Canadian exporters and economic recovery, building economic resilience and working toward the renewal of the rules-based multilateral trading system i.e. Canada will continue to negotiate free trade agreements, increase inward investment and promote resilient and sustainable growth. Canada will ensure more Canadians, including women, Indigenous peoples and under-represented groups, have access to the benefits and opportunities flowing from international trade and investment. Canada will work towards enhancing supply chain resilience, address barriers to international trade, and protect market access interests. Canada leads the Ottawa Group on World Trade Organization (WTO) reform in pursuit of an open and rules-based multilateral trading system.
  • Deepening Canada’s engagement in the world, by strengthening key bilateral relationships and engaging new partners to address emerging challenges such as the current pandemic. There will be continued focus on the United States and Mexico. Canada also seeks to develop an integrated approach to the Indo-Pacific region to diversify Canada’s engagement and deepen its partnerships in the region. This approach will focus on the promotion of an inclusive trade agenda, collaboration on complex security issues, revitalization of the current rules-based international order, and international assistance.
  • Eradicating poverty, including ongoing implementation of the Feminist International Assistance Policy, which has provided a robust framework to guide Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is focused on reaching the poorest and most vulnerable.

Canada has been an active member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since its inception in 1949. Canada, Australia and New Zealand have a history of working together in the United Nations (UN) on issues ranging from security to development to human rights, including through an informal grouping known as CANZ.

Canada, like Australia, is an active member of the Commonwealth. Canada worked closely with Australia during Australia's chairmanship (2011-13) to revitalise the organisation, including through the conclusion of the Charter of the Commonwealth and implementation of recommendations of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group. We share an ongoing interest in enhancing the role of the Commonwealth.

As export-oriented economies with strong interests in agriculture and resources, Australia and Canada have a common interest in a rules-based, open and non-discriminatory world trade system. Both countries were prominent players in the formation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, and today both are active and influential members of its successor, the World Trade Organization (WTO). Canada and Australia have had a free trade agreement in place since 30 December 2018, when the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) entered into force for Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore. The CPTPP is the first modern, high quality FTA between Canada and Australia. Canada and Australia have mutual interests in open markets which have seen us cooperate in a range of forums advocating freer trade, such as in APEC and in the Cairns Group in the WTO.

Australia and Canada work closely together to promote a coherent and robust system of global trade and economic cooperation in key international organisations such as the G20, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and in many UN agencies. Canada joined APEC in its inaugural year (1989) and Vancouver hosted APEC in 1997.

Bilateral relations

The Australia-Canada relationship is mature, highly productive and broadly based. People to people contacts between our parliaments, government officials, private sectors, academics and communities are extensive and wide-ranging. We are both large countries with geographically dispersed population centres and many small and remote communities. We are also both federations of states and territories and share Westminster systems of government and a similar standard of living. Trade relations date from 1895, when the Government of Canada sent its first Trade Commissioner, John Short Larke, to Sydney to establish an office. Diplomatic relations began formally in 1939 when, on the eve of the Second World War, Australia and Canada first agreed to exchange High Commissioners.

Australian and Canadian military forces fought side-by-side in the Sudan War, Boer War, both World Wars, the Korean War, the 1990-91 Gulf War and Afghanistan. They have cooperated on peacekeeping operations, including Canada's contribution of over 600 troops to the Australian-led mission in Timor-Leste (East Timor) in 1999. Australia and Canada were among the first countries to join the global coalition against terrorism, and both countries committed military and development resources to stabilise and help rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq. Australia and Canada work closely to counter potential global terrorist threats through technical cooperation, information-sharing, exchanges of personnel and joint training.

Today, both countries face comparable public policy challenges in areas such as health, transport, indigenous issues, regional development,  managing the effects of the global economic crisis and economic recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Canada-Australia Public Policy Initiative (CAPPI), launched by Prime Ministers Howard and Harper in 2007, brings together Australian and Canadian senior officials biennially for wide-ranging public policy discussions. CAPPI Retreats are held biennially, with alternating host duties. The last meeting was held in Australia in January 2019. At any time there are a number of public servants placed in Australian and Canadian ministries on exchange.

A comprehensive range of bilateral agreements cover issues such as trade, space cooperation, social security, air services, wildfire management, crisis management and consular services abroad, co-location of our missions overseas, mutual assistance in criminal matters and avoidance of double taxation. Consular cooperation is important, with Canada and Australia providing consular services to each other's nationals in around 30 countries where the other is not represented.

The Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations was launched on 15 February 2021; Australia joined more than 55 international partners to endorse the Canadian initiative.

During Foreign Minister Bishop's visit to Canada in July 2015, she signed with her then Canadian counterpart Foreign Minister Nicholson the Glasgow-Burchell Declaration on diplomatic cooperation, with both Ministers characterising the Declaration as symbolic of the closeness of our relationship. The agreement establishes a formal framework for existing cooperation and identifies areas in which Australia and Canada might collaborate and cooperate closely.

Development Cooperation

Australia has a close and productive development partnership with Canada. In April 2015, DFAT entered into a new Partnership Arrangement on International Development with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), which has subsequently been renamed Global Affairs Canada. The Partnership Arrangement reaffirms our commitment to work in a harmonised way when delivering programs together, and provides a renewed framework for dialogue and cooperation between the two Departments.

The Partnership Arrangement outlines Australia and Canada's shared objectives in development and priorities for cooperation including sustainable economic growth (for example, through innovation, leveraging private sector finance, aid for trade and infrastructure development), global health issues, gender equality and coordination on global development policy agendas.

People to people links

People to people links are strong and diverse despite geographic distance. A working holiday program allows young people to travel and work for set periods in each other's country. Tourism links are strong and growing.

Of particular note, educational links continue to grow with Universities Australia's 2018 International links data identifying 363 agreements between Australian universities and vocational providers and Canadian institutions covering student and apprentice exchanges, and academic and research collaboration. There are more than 130 members of the Association for Canadian Studies in Australia and New Zealand. Canadian student enrolments declined slightly in 2020, with 4,347 Canadians enrolled in Australian educational institutions (Higher Education, VET, Schools, ELICOS and Non-award programs). The majority of Canadian students were enrolled in higher education programmes and were studying in the fields of medicine, health and the sciences. A number of Australian universities deliver Australian qualifications in Canada, including Charles Sturt University which has an in-market campus in Burlington, Ontario. During a visit to Canada in 2015, then Foreign Minister Bishop and her then counterpart, Foreign Minister Nicholson, witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Universities Australia and Mitacs, a Canadian not-for-profit research and training organisation, that will allow Australian undergraduate students to participate in an elite research internship program in Canada for the first time.

Economic Overview

Like Australia, Canada has a low population density and a vast wealth of natural resources. The Canadian economy was the 10th biggest economy in the world by GDP ($US billions, current prices) in 2019 (according to the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook, October 2020 database). Australia was ranked 14th. Canada is highly integrated with the US economy, with each being the other's major trading partner. Canada is the 14th most competitive nation economically among 141 countries ranked by the World Economic Forum (in the WEF Global Competitiveness Report, 2019). Australia is ranked 16th.

Trade and investment

Total two-way trade in goods and services amounted to around A$7.7 billion in 2019-20.

In 2019-20, two-way trade in goods was $4.7 billion with Australia exporting $2.1 billion in goods to Canada. Top performing exports in 2019-20 included alcoholic beverages (Canada is Australia's fourth largest overseas market for wine by value), beef and other meats. The top three merchandise imports from Canada in the same period were medicaments (including veterinary), wheat, non electric engines and motors and agricultural machinery (excluding tractors) and parts.

Two-way services trade was valued at approximately $3 billion in 2019-20, with Australia exporting almost $1 billion in services to Canada. Services trade was mainly in personal and education-related travel. Though Canada's trade regime is generally liberal and transparent, tariff peaks and other distorting trade mechanisms apply to domestically sensitive agricultural sectors such as dairy and poultry. Tariff rates can be found on the APEC Tariff Database.

Investment ties are substantial. At the end of 2019, Australian investment in Canada was valued at $83.4 billion, an increase of 4.6 per cent over 2018 (representing 2.8 per cent of all Australian foreign investment). This places Canada as the 8th most popular destination for Australia's total outwards investment). As of 2018-19, 180 Australian companies operate in Canada. Canadian investment in Australia was valued at $60.7 billion at the end of 2019 (representing a 13.4 per cent increase in total Canadian investment over 2018 figures). Canada is Australia's 11th largest source of investment, providing 1.6 per cent of Australia's total inwards investment.

Australia and Canada grant each other preferential tariff rates on a limited range of products agreed under the Canada Australia Trade Agreement (CANATA), established in 1960 and amended in 1973. As CANATA pre-dates the multilateral trading system, most of its provisions have been superseded by tariff reductions achieved by negotiation in the WTO, and now the CPTPP.

Austrade has offices in Toronto and Vancouver to pursue Australia's trade and investment priorities.

Information on doing business and opportunities in Canada

Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum

Formed in 2010, the Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum (AusCan Forum) brings together business, academia and other non-government players to contribute to the development of the bilateral relationship. It is modelled on similar gatherings Australia has with its closest political and economic partners, notably the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. Canada will host the next AusCan Forum in Toronto in 2021. Previous Forums have been held in Sydney (November 2010), Toronto (July 2012), Melbourne (February 2014), Vancouver (July 2015), Sydney (February 2017) and Montreal (July 2018) and Melbourne (February 2020).

Chamber of Commerce

The Canadian Australian Chamber of Commerce (CACC) was launched on 20 October 2005. The Chamber is an independent, non-profit organisation that aims to contribute to increasing the level of trade and investment between Australia and Canada. Membership is free of charge to interested parties.

High level visits

There have been frequent high level visits, including:

To Australia

2017: Former Minister of International Trade, François-Philippe Champagne

2016: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan

2014: Then Foreign Minister Baird and then Finance Minister Flaherty (for the Australia Canada Economic Leadership Forum, February); then Trade Minister Fast (for the G20 Trade Ministers Meeting, July); then Prime Minister Harper (for the G20 Summit, November).

2012: Then Trade Minister Fast.

2011: Then Prime Minister Harper and Then Foreign Minister Baird (for CHOGM). Then Defence Minister MacKay.

2010: Then Immigration Minister Kenney.

2007: Then Prime Minister Harper (when he became the first Canadian prime minister to address the Australian parliament).

To Canada

October 2018: Then Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Simon Birmingham, for a meeting of the Canada-led initiative on WTO reform.

September 2017: Then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Dan Tehan, representing the Australian Government at the Invictus Games in Toronto.

July 2015: Then Foreign Minister Bishop (for the Australia Canada Economic Leadership Forum in Vancouver).

February-March 2015: Then Trade and Investment Minister Robb and mining-focused business delegation including indigenous representatives (for the 2015 Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada Convention). Mr Robb also attended the 2015 Vancouver International Wine Festival (Australia was the feature country).

June 2014: Then Prime Minister Abbott and then Trade and Investment Minister Robb and business delegation.

April 2013: Then Governor General, HE Ms Quentin Bryce.

July 2012: Then Minister for Resources, the Hon Martin Ferguson (for the Australia Canada Economic Leadership Forum in Toronto).

June 2012: Then Minister for Family and Community Services, the Hon Jenny Macklin and then Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon Jason Clare.

September 2011: Then Minister for Trade, the Hon Craig Emerson.

2010: Then Treasurer, the Hon Wayne Swan (for the Toronto G20 Summit in 2010).

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