Para-Diplomacy by Provincial Legislatures: How Turkey and Caribou Make the Case

Article 3 / 11 , Vol 44 No. 1 (Spring)

Para-Diplomacy by Provincial Legislatures: How Turkey and Caribou Make the Case

Mark D. Browne (MHA for Placentia West-Bellevue from 2015-2019) was the youngest person ever to be elected to the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly in 2015 at the age of 22. He was subsequently appointed to serve as Parliamentary Assistant to the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Since his tenure in public office, he has completed a Master’s Degree in International Relations with Distinction in Paris, and is currently studying law at the University of New Brunswick.

The notion of cooperative federalism has come to supplant executive federalism as the preferred modus operandi of federal-provincial relations; provinces are increasingly promoting their interests both domestically and abroad. In this article, the author explains how provincial legislatures can participate in these promotional diplomatic efforts when a matter is non-partisan. He outlines how Newfoundland and Labrador’s recent Speakers have been instrumental in using their offices and status to achieve the province’s diplomatic goal: erecting a caribou statue in Gallipoli to honour the Royal Newfoundland Regiment – the site where the Regiment’s first gallantry awards were earned after 29 men of the Regiment were killed in action and 10 more died of disease.


The first half of the 20th century was marked by stark shifts in Newfoundland and Labrador’s political status. It began as a country with its own standing army during World War I (WWI), and would surrender its self-governing status in 1934 before joining Canada in 1949.

Though inhabited by Indigenous peoples and visited by the Vikings, Newfoundland and Labrador was not colonized by England until 1497 for its bountiful cod fishery. It was granted representative government in 1832, responsible government in 1855, and semi-autonomous Dominion status in 1907, governed by its own prime minister and government. This struggle for self-determination yielded a brimming pride and stubborn nationalism, so much so that the prospect of joining Canada in the 19th century was jettisoned by prominent Newfoundlanders fearful of compromising their national identity. Later attempts by Newfoundland to join Canada would be rebuffed by Canada as a result of Newfoundland’s constant struggle to maintain its financial solvency and sovereignty1.

The First World War left an indelible mark on Newfoundland’s political evolution and cultural ethos. Newfoundland’s WWI fighting force, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment – labelled by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as “better than the best”2 was the only regiment to receive the prefix “Royal” during the First World War and only the third, and last, in the history of the British Empire to receive such an honour during hostilities3.

Part of that indelible mark was its cost – in money and in causalities – which contributed to the pervasive feeling that a generation was lost to the War. The effects are starkly noticed on July 1st each year; while the rest of the country commence Canada Day celebrations, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians pause until noon to commemorate the major losses sustained by members of the Regiment on the morning of July 1, 1916 at Beaumont-Hamel, France. It was then, during the Battle of the Somme, that one of the deadliest days of the War transpired. Eight hundred men went over the top that morning, but only 68 answered the call the next morning.

The War’s financial cost compounded an already dire fiscal situation for the Dominion. The subsequent decline of the fishery and global economic crisis led Newfoundland into a financially crippling decade. By 1933, the public debt had doubled, service charges comprised 60 per cent of annual revenues, and borrowing capacity ceased4. As a result, Newfoundland – a country which had its own Regimental Force and established global relationships of trade and commerce5 – ceded its self-governing status. By 1949, following a razor-thin referendum, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians opted to join Canada.

Transition to a Province of Canada

The shift from country to province for Newfoundland and Labrador involved the negotiation of the Terms of Union, where its transition was formalized. They included some localized provisions such as a guarantee of a ferry service to mainland Canada, but by and large Newfoundland and Labrador was expected to integrate into the Canadian mosaic of provinces.

Lines have long been drawn in the Canadian federation on the respective roles assigned to the federal and provincial levels of government in the division of powers of our Constitution. This leads to a mostly harmonious federation predicated on the notion that where cooperation can exist between two levels of government, it does, but ultimately one level of government does not intrude on the other. But, as the world becomes more connected than ever, strict division of powers become increasingly untenable.

In 1648, the peace of Westphalia solidified the notion of sovereignty by concentrating the power of the state over its territorial jurisdiction and the power to engage with other states in acts defending itself, but also in the exercise of peaceful relations. The pre-eminence of sovereignty within the international relations framework left little room for actors other than states themselves to develop, conduct, or exercise foreign policy.

However, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1648. Over the last 75 years, as states gradually became more involved in the welfare of their economies – particularly in the post-war era – a role emerged for sub-national actors to occupy a larger role within international affairs6.

Paradoxically, however, a federation is predicated on an explicit divisibility of sovereignty7. For Canada, this manifests itself in the provinces, each of which have significant responsibilities and devolved legislative autonomy. The notion of cooperative federalism has come to supplant executive federalism as the preferred modus operandi of federal-provincial relations; provinces are increasingly promoting their interests both domestically and abroad.

As provinces play a larger role within the federation, this has been accompanied by a rise in the phenomenon of para-diplomacy. Para-diplomacy is essentially sub-national jurisdictions promoting their interests internationally, often in coordination with, rather than at odds with, the national interest.8 It should not be confused with proto-diplomacy- wherein a non-central government pursues a foreign policy agenda of political independence9.

The concept is simple: the central government manages areas of high-politics such as international security and diplomatic relations, but space is created for sub-national jurisdictions to pursue areas of low-politics such as economic, cultural, or sport promotion. This has become common-place since the 1980s10,11, not only in Canada but also in other federal jurisdictions such as the United States, Germany, and Denmark.

While the federal government can negotiate treaties with sovereign states, the provinces are often relied upon to implement provisions which affect provincial responsibilities, ranging from dropping protectionist trade measures to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, provinces are increasingly consulted on matters of Canada’s foreign policy intersecting on provincial interests, thus producing a state of co-dependency12.

Canadian provinces have engaged in para-diplomacy, in varying degrees. For example, Québec has a stand-alone Ministry of International Relations, permanent representative offices abroad, and maintains delegations to UNESCO and La Francophonie13. New Brunswick has a presence at La Francophonie and has dedicated bureaucrats assigned to international trade files, but to a lesser extent than Québec. Ontario has established ‘marketing centres’ globally in cities such as Shanghai, London, and New York, but makes a conscientious effort to leverage the ‘Canada brand’ by working in tandem with the federal government14. Alberta follows a similar model as Ontario, and aggressively pursues resource development and economic diplomatic goals15. While the foregoing examples do not account for all of Canada’s provinces, it gives a representative sample of western, central, and eastern Canadian provinces and their well-established para-diplomatic efforts.

There is no reason why legislatures in Canada should not play a supportive role to the para-diplomatic objectives of their respective provinces. Such support can be offered without affecting the non-partisan nature of the legislature. Para-diplomacy is often conducted in areas such as resource development, “sports, cultural exchange, trade agreements, tourism promotion, and disaster preparedness”16. Increasing export development, immigration attraction, tourism promotion, or preparing for disaster preparedness are issues of common cause. Exchanges of sport and culture build good-will. In other words, to pursue such endeavours is in the institutional interest of any province regardless of which political party is in power. The legislature can support a province’s apolitical para-diplomatic pursuits in a way that does not compromise the independence and separation expected and required between the legislative and executive branches of government.

Canada’s Parliament has a well-established history in international affairs. This includes a host of multilateral and bilateral formal parliamentary associations, interparliamentary groups, and less official friendship groups. Such entities represent Canada’s Parliament abroad and involve exchanges of ideas, information, and experience with fellow legislators at the international level. While parliamentarians do not necessarily speak for the federal government, when these meetings occur they are representing Canadians while promoting Canadian values and interests within the international sphere.

Legislatures across Canada may not have the desire, fiscal resources, or even the necessity to engage in similarly elaborate structures to pursue foreign affairs or para-diplomatic objectives as those established by Parliament. Complementing a province’s para-diplomatic agenda with legitimate and measurable objectives does not require large junkets or frivolous expenditures. Au contraire, the strategic deployment of legislative assets can be just as impactful. This is exactly what recently occurred in Newfoundland & Labrador to great success.

Caribou Monument in Turkey

As previously noted, Newfoundland’s WWI fighting force, The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and the sacrifices its members made during the War have had significant impacts on the political, social, financial and cultural evolution of Newfoundland and Labrador. Following the War, as a tribute to the Regiment’s sacrifices and valiant efforts during the War, five battlefield memorials in France and Belgium were established. At each site, a bronze Caribou monument was placed. The caribou is an animal indigenous to Newfoundland and Labrador; it was, and still is, part of the symbol of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

The five memorials have come to be known as The Trail of the Caribou. Each year, a delegation including veterans, members of the Royal Canadian Legion, and students led by the Premier, or a minister, travels along ‘The Trail’ to pay homage to Newfoundland and Labrador’s fallen soldiers. The Trail, though, has long been considered unfinished, however. The placement of a bronze caribou at Gallipoli, where the Regiment’s first gallantry awards were earned after 29 men of the Regiment were killed in action and 10 more died of disease proved elusive for years, until recently 17.

All political parties in Newfoundland and Labrador have been on record as supporting the erection of the caribou monument at Gallipoli. Between 2003-2015, while led by the Progressive Conservative Party, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador met with Turkish officials who expressed ambivalence at the idea of the placing of a caribou monument. They preferred instead that the province place a commemorative plaque on the battlefield.18

Following the 2015 general election, the Liberal Party formed Newfoundland and Labrador’s Government and, with a renewed push by Premier Dwight Ball, worked to establish the elusive caribou monument at Gallipoli. Speaker Tom Osborne took the lead, in collaboration with the Premier and the Minister responsible for Culture, Christopher Mitchelmore, and began outreach with Turkish officials.

This involved Speaker Osborne travelling to Ottawa to meet with Turkish Ambassador Selçuk Ünal- who would prove critical to advancing this issue in his home country- and hosting reciprocal visits of Turkish delegations in the provincial capital. These visits would blend being hosted by the legislative branch, while also carrying on meetings and discussions with executive branch officials including the Premier and Minister. While the diplomatic functions of the Office of Speaker usually entail merely hosting courtesy visits with visiting ambassadors, Speaker Osborne embraced these diplomatic functions in conjunction with the Government to advance this critical policy priority.

The back-channel diplomacy led to a December 2017 resolution of the House of Assembly authorizing then-Speaker Perry Trimper to travel to Turkey as an emissary of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to advance discussions on the placement of the caribou monument at Gallipoli. He was accompanied by a senior provincial government official; the mission’s primary objective was to secure a commitment by Turkey to send a reciprocal delegation to St. John’s to meet with Government of Newfoundland and Labrador officials to conclude a possible agreement, in hopes of breaking Turkey’s longstanding moratorium on the erection of monuments at Gallipoli.

It is clear that the position and office of Speaker from a Canadian legislature opened doors for Speaker Osborne in Ottawa at the Turkish Embassy and also for Speaker Trimper’s delegation that may have otherwise continued to prove elusive. The Speaker of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly offered to host Speaker Trimper’s visit, giving prominence to the six-day visit which included meetings at the national level with the country’s Opposition Leader, Foreign Affairs Minister and Culture Minister. Meetings also took place which yielded the signing of a memorandum of understanding between a Turkish university and Memorial University of Newfoundland, as well as a twinning agreement between high schools in St. John’s and Istanbul to enhance cultural comprehension and educational exchange.

Upon arriving in the region of Çanakkale on the Gallipoli Peninsula, Speaker Trimper was greeted in the middle of the night by the Governor and Mayor. He toured the battlefield and cemeteries with high-level officials, where the moratorium on the erection of new monuments had long been in place.

While the mission’s objective was to secure a reciprocal delegation to Newfoundland and Labrador, it was met and exceeded. At the mission’s final stop, a banquet in Istanbul hosted by Turkey’s Minister of Culture, Speaker Trimper and Canadian Ambassador Chris Coons learned that he was proposing to place the caribou monument at Hill 10 Cemetery in Gallipoli National Park. This site is fitting as it is the resting place of 13 regimental soldiers, including Private Hugh McWhirter, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s first fatal casualty at Gallipoli on September 22, 1915.

In consultation with the Newfoundland and Labrador Government, the offer of land was accepted, and a delegation was arranged to visit Newfoundland and Labrador four months later. At that point, the role of the Speaker’s Office concluded. Later that year, Minister Mitchelmore and Speaker Trimper would visit Gallipoli again to reinforce the ties established in the original mission. Before leaving office in 2020, Premier Ball announced an engineering and project management firm had been awarded a contract for the fabrication of the bronze caribou monument to be placed at Gallipoli, the final, and consequential step to completing the Trial of the Caribou.


Legislatures’ involvement in para-diplomatic endeavours do not need to be anomalies. When the issue is consistent with the non-partisan aspect of the legislature – as was the case here – the use of an institutional office already in place and funded by the taxpayer is a strategic deployment of legislative resources for maximum gain. A Canadian speaker travelling overseas opens high-level access; using soft diplomatic tools can advance a province’s para-diplomatic agenda.

Junkets or inter-parliamentary associations can be effective; however, they may be neither practical nor feasible depending on the circumstances of the issue or size of the legislature. Smaller legislatures lack the resources to support large structures aimed at foreign affairs. However, this should not stop legislatures from playing a targeted and strategic role in appropriate foreign affairs issues where the involvement of the legislative branch can enhance viability of success.

While the Government’s commitment was crucial to advancing the issue, it is also fair to conclude the work of the Speaker’s office was critical to breaking an impasse. In a fitting ending, the same legislature that authorized the formation of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment would also play a critical role in completing the Trail of the Caribou. As a result, the memory of valiant members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment will be honoured in a way befitting of their sacrifice.

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17 House of Assembly, Office of the Speaker. (2018). Report on Speaker’s Visit to Turkey as Emissary of the People of Newfoundland and Labrador.

18 “Legionnaire hopeful caribou statue will eventually make it to Gallipoli,” CBC News, May 12, 2015.