Canada and the Commonwealth

What is the Commonwealth?

The modern Commonwealth is an association of 53 countries, most with historic links to the United Kingdom, and home to two billion citizens, almost 30 per cent of the world's population. It is the world’s oldest political association of sovereign states. Members cooperate within a framework of common values and goals.

The Commonwealth has a small permanent Secretariat in London, led by a Secretary-General, currently former Indian diplomat Kamalesh Sharma. The Secretariat supports intergovernmental meetings, and operates a number of small programs related to building support for democratic processes and human rights, as well as inclusive growth and sustainable development. It also coordinates several election monitoring missions each year. The Secretary-General uses his "Good Offices" to support democratic processes and to help resolve conflict. The Commonwealth sees itself as an advocate for small and vulnerable states, helping to strengthen their resilience and inclusion in the global economy. The Commonwealth also includes a number of intergovernmental and accredited civil society organizations.

The Commonwealth celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2009.

Head of the Commonwealth

Queen Elizabeth II is Head of the Commonwealth, and is Head of State of 16 Commonwealth member countries.

In 2012, Canada celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, or 60th anniversary of Her Majesty's accession to the throne as Queen of Canada.

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

A Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is held every two years and is an opportunity for Leaders to discuss global issues and Commonwealth priorities. The next CHOGM will be hosted by Malta in 2015.

There are also regular meetings for foreign, finance, justice, education, health, youth, tourism, gender, environment and sports ministers at which Canadian ministers become acquainted with their counterparts from other countries and both enhance their understanding of international issues and promote Canada's multilateral and bilateral priorities. Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meet annually on the margins of the UN General Assembly.

Commonwealth Renewal

At their summit in November 2009, Commonwealth Heads of Government established an Eminent Persons Group, of which Canada’s Senator Hugh Segal was a member. The Group was tasked with developing options for reform in order to sharpen the impact, strengthen the networks, and raise the profile of the Commonwealth as a values-based organization. At the 2011 CHOGM in Australia, the Eminent Persons Group presented a report, entitled “A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform”, to Heads of Government. This report ultimately resulted in the December 2012 adoption of an historic Charter for Commonwealth and a wide-ranging package of reforms, including improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Commonwealth Secretariat to deliver results. Canada welcomed this advancement as an important step in the Commonwealth’s reform and renewal process.

Canada's Financial Contribution to the Commonwealth

Canada funds the Commonwealth and its institutions through assessed contributions as a member state of the Commonwealth, and through voluntary contributions for specific projects and programs, with the amounts determined at Canada’s discretion. Key institutional partners include the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation, and the Commonwealth of Learning (located in Vancouver, British Columbia). Canada’s support to the Commonwealth of Learning contributes to helping member governments provide increased access to affordable, quality education and training opportunities for those who need it most, particularly women and girls, using open, distance and technology-based approaches.

Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) is a rotating group of nine Foreign Ministers that meets when necessary to examine serious and persistent threats to democracy in Commonwealth countries.

CMAG was created at the 1995 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Auckland, New Zealand, and was the outcome of a Canadian initiative to give the Commonwealth a high-level inter-governmental mechanism to respond to serious violations of the “Harare Declaration” of 1991. CMAG was given an enhanced mandate at the 2011 CHOGM, where Leaders agreed to strengthen the Group’s ability to address serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth political values.

The CMAG’s membership is reconstituted every two years. CMAG’s membership is currently comprised of Ministers from: Cyprus, Guyana, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. Canada last served as a member of CMAG from 2011-2013.  

Commonwealth Promotion of Democracy and Development

The Commonwealth contributes to international efforts to promote democracy and prevent conflict. Leaders are committed to uphold the "Harare Principles" or standards of democracy, good governance and human rights as agreed to at the 1991 CHOGM. The Commonwealth reinforces the Harare Principles at the political level through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), a group of nine foreign ministers that meets to discuss serious threats to democracy in Commonwealth countries.  CMAG then recommends appropriate Commonwealth action.

The Commonwealth Secretary-General also promotes democracy through quiet diplomacy, and efforts to defuse potential conflict and to support democratic processes in Commonwealth countries. The Secretary-General's “Good Offices” address potentially volatile situations quickly and quietly, particularly when undertaken in a low-key and confidential manner. The Secretary-General and the Commonwealth can facilitate the successful resolution of difficult problems, and the Secretary-General is often seen as an unbiased presence whose only goal is a peaceful and equitable solution.

The observation of elections is one way in which the Commonwealth Secretariat works to strengthen democracy. Observer Groups are asked to consider the various factors impinging on the credibility of the electoral process as a whole and to make a judgment as to whether or not the elections have been conducted according to the standards for democratic elections to which the country has committed itself, making reference to national election-related legislation and relevant regional, Commonwealth and other international commitments. Each Group's report also contains practical recommendations to help improve electoral arrangements for the future. 

Through the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC), the Commonwealth operates a number of small technical assistance and capacity building programs aimed at improving democratic governance, human rights and the rule of law in member countries. To do so, the Commonwealth Secretariat provides expert advice, models legislation, runs workshops and regularly sends experts to member countries for training purposes. For example, the Secretariat has helped member countries adopt and ratify human rights instruments, and translate these into national level legislation. The CFTC also supports programs that promote inclusive growth and sustainable development, by for example helping governments improve the management of debt and natural resources, more effectively integrate into the global trading system, and strengthen the resilience of small states and vulnerable states, which make up a significant portion of the Commonwealth membership.

Canada and Canadians have been actively involved in the Commonwealth's democracy work. Former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Christine Stewart acted as the Secretary-General's Special Envoy to Cameroon in advance of the 2004 national elections, while former Prime Minister Joe Clark led the Commonwealth Election Observation mission to Cameroon the same year. Most recently, Audrey McLaughlin, former Member of Parliament, participated in the Commonwealth Election Observation mission to Tanzania in October 2005. Read more information about Commonwealth activities aimed at promoting democracy.

Commonwealth Games

The XX Commonwealth Games will be held in Glasgow, Scotland from July 23 to August 3, 2014. Canada has participated in every Commonwealth Games since the first Games were held in 1930 in Hamilton, Ontario. The Games have been held in Canada four times.

For more information, please visit the Commonwealth Games Canada web site and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games official website.