Global Affairs Canada (GAC) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Global Affairs Canada (GAC)

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) was originally founded as the Department of External Affairs in 1909 by Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The operations, mandate and title of the department have evolved over the years. Although legally incorporated as the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, its public designation since 2015 has been Global Affairs Canada.  The department is responsible for overseeing Canada’s international engagement, including diplomatic relations, providing consular services, promoting international trade and international law, and leading Canada’s international development and humanitarian assistance.


Under civil servant Sir Joseph Pope, the Department of External Affairs issued passports to Canadians travelling abroad, kept archives of external events and policies, liaised with the British Colonial Office and foreign consuls in Canada, and managed routine business with the United States.

In 1925 the department came under Prime Minister Mackenzie King's committed undersecretary of state for external affairs, O.D. Skelton. Between 1925 and 1929, Vincent Massey became Canada's first diplomat in Washington, a Dominion of Canada Advisory Office was established in Geneva, and legations in Paris and Tokyo were opened. Skelton was instrumental in nurturing careers in the foreign service on the basis of competitive examinations, a system that produced an able cadre of diplomats, including Lester B. Pearson, Norman Robertson and Hugh Keenleyside.

Post-Second World War (WWII)

After the Second World War (WWII), Canada acquired new status and international influence. The department became the hub of middle power diplomacy, denoting energetic engagement in the international sphere in support of alliance solidarity as well as a stable international system underscored by the rule of law. Canadian diplomats were active participants in the processes leading to the establishment of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and were advocates of a multiracial Commonwealth that included newly independent states such as India. The high-water mark of the middle power ideal was Pearson's 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for the Canadian foreign minister's inauguration of a new style of peacekeeping that succeeded in diffusing the Suez Crisis and resolving a rift between NATO partners.

Late 20th Century

With changing international circumstances and domestic preoccupations such as national unity, the bloom soon went off the rose of the "Golden Age" of Canadian diplomacy. American actions in Vietnam and Cambodia and its prosecution of the Cold War made foreign entanglements unattractive, and the department came under fire for its association with the Western military-industrial complex. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau sought to guide Canada's international policies himself and in a different direction from his predecessors. With power centralized among close advisers and the work of foreign policy making carried out through a system of many Cabinet committees, the department's role was marginalized. Budget cuts in the 1980s and 1990s further depleted morale and bureaucratic resources. Low retention rates of foreign service officers became a pressing problem, with 49 per cent of respondents to a 2001 survey conducted by a private consultancy firm indicating that they had intended to leave the foreign service within the next year, at the end of their current assignment, or were undecided.

At the same time, demands on the department had increased. With the restructuring of government departments in 1981-82, international trade, export promotion and immigration policy came under the department's jurisdiction, as did the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). External Affairs and International Trade Canada, as it was known from 1982, underwent further evolutions in the late 1980s as budget constraints made it necessary to redefine the work of the department around "core functions."

Immigration and aid were dropped from the departmental portfolio in 1992, and diplomacy and trade came to the fore, a shift in focus that continued when Jean Chrétien succeeded Brian Mulroney as prime minister in 1993. A name change to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) was officially recognized by Parliament in 1995. DFAIT's priorities echoed the rising importance of international trade and commerce to Canadian interests.

Instabilities, civil wars and armed conflicts that accompanied the end of the Cold War also called upon DFAIT's energies, as did wider security issues such as resource scarcity, environmental degradation, mass migration, poor governance and erosion of human rights and welfare. Spearheaded by Lloyd Axworthy as foreign minister (1996-2000), human security emerged as a new policy framework that suited both limited bureaucratic capabilities as well as new ideas about power in a globalized world. Also associated with Axworthy, the democratization of Canadian foreign policy included mechanisms for public outreach and policy consultation through the use of information technology and hosting of national policy forums. This approach engaged the expertise and resources of civil society in policy development and the creation of broad-based coalitions behind government policies. The 1996-97 campaign for a treaty banning landmines became a model for NGO participation in the Canadian foreign policy process, but public involvement in policy formation arguably remained limited. Following the 11 Sept 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the threat from global terrorism and failed states came to occupy a large portion of the department's policy agenda. A multidimensional mission in Afghanistan led to calls for a 3D (diplomacy, development and defence) approach to stabilization and reconstruction, involving enhanced co-ordination between DFAIT, CIDA and the Department of National Defence (DND).

DFAIT was split into two separate departments in December 2003, an unpopular decision that reportedly cost the government $2.25 million in one-time costs and $10 million per year.

The Liberal government of Paul Martin had implemented the split, arguing that two departments would better serve Canada's equal commitment to foreign policy and international trade. But debate persisted over whether the move represented an attempt to undermine the influence of the Department of Foreign Affairs or to resolve problems of overcrowding at the Lester B. Pearson Building, the department's headquarters on Ottawa's Sussex Drive. Despite the Conservative government's decision to bring the departments back together, trade officials continued to work out of Ottawa's Old City Hall, limiting the cost savings of re-amalgamation to less than $500 000 a year.

DFAIT managed Canada's political, economic and cultural relations with other nations through bilateral linkages and through membership in international organizations, including the United Nations, World Trade Organization, the G8, the Commonwealth, la Francophonie, the Organization of American States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The overarching objective is to promote and protect Canada's interests and values abroad. The department advances Canada's interests internationally through analyzing national and international trends, negotiating international agreements, co-ordinating implementation of commercial strategies together with other actors and departments, guiding the formulation of Canada's international policies and interpreting the world for Canadians. The Canadian government was served abroad through the delivery of services and management of embassies, consulates and trade offices. According to DFAIT's recent Report on Plans and Priorities (RPP), Canada maintained a formal presence in 80 per cent of the world's 192 independent states. Canadians abroad benefit from the provision of assistance, services and advice related to travel documents and consular needs.

Early 21st Century

In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government brought Foreign Affairs Canada and International Trade Canada back into a single department named Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. In 2013, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was folded into the department, which was then renamed Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD).

In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s newly elected Liberal government renamed the department once again. Although the department is still legally incorporated as the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, its public designation was changed to Global Affairs Canada.

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