The Permanent Site of the Organization
Montréal, Canada, is the seat of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The discussions and decision related to the site of Interim Organization (Provisional International Civil Aviation Organization, PICAO) can be found by clicking on the following link: The Site of the Interim Organization.
One of the legacies of the Chicago Conference was the selection of the permanent seat for ICAO. Since it seemed possible that the first Session of the Interim Assembly opened on 21 May 1946 might also be the last, the selection of the seat was placed upon the agenda of this Assembly. The basic division between a site in Europe or in Canada that existed during the Chicago Conference remained. Even some countries had suggested postponing the final decision for another three years; however, this proposal was largely defeated. Four competing candidacies for the permanent seat were proposed: Canada (Montréal), France (Paris), Switzerland (Geneva) and China. Canada was in good position, as being a bridge between Europe and the Western Hemisphere; however, some also argued that Europe was more central than Canada as regards to travel costs for the Members States. In a secret ballot held on 6 June 1946, Montréal obtained 27 votes, France 9, Switzerland 4, and China 1. This brought an end, at least for a few years, to the discussions on the headquarters location.
The fourth Session of the ICAO Assembly held in Montréal from 30 May to 20 June 1950 considered possible amendments to Article 45 of the Convention, so as to permit the Organization to move its headquarters away from Montréal if the Assembly should so decide. During the 4th plenary meeting held on 17 June, the vote on these amendments was lost, as two-thirds majority vote in favour was required (according to Article 94 (a) of the Convention: “Any proposed amendment to this Convention must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Assembly.”); eighteen nations voted for the amendment, 12 against and 7 abstained.
The question related to the seat of the headquarters resurfaced during the sixth Session of the Assembly held in Montréal from 27 May to 12 June 1952. A proposal was introduced by the Portuguese Delegation asking that the Council be directed to make a study of the relative merits and benefits of the headquarters in Montréal and of other possibilities; it was submitted in the interests of maintaining the highest standard of efficiency coupled with a substantial reduction in the budget and expenses of the Contracting States generally. It was contended that the Organization was located in a city where the cost of living was extremely high and where certain expenses drained on the resources of the Organization. The proposal was lost by vote in the Executive Committee and in the Plenary Session.
The important problem of moving the site of ICAO headquarters was not raised at the following Assembly, mainly due to the increase by the Canadian government of $200,000 per year as contribution to ICAO’s rent.
However, the question of immunities and privileges of the Organization and its personnel became a source of trouble. The anti-Montréal faction mainly revived due to apparent unwillingness of the Québec government to discuss the issues of privileges and immunities raised in early 1954. This prompted the ICAO Council to reopen the issue of the headquarters location; the discussions took the form of a debate on the constitutional issue of the problem, namely an amendment of Article 45 of the Convention. Moreover, Article 94 stipulates that new amendments shall come into force in respect of States which have ratified such amendment. On 7 April 1954, the ICAO Council decided to recommend to the next Assembly an amendment of Article 45. On 14 June 1954, the eighth Session of the Assembly held in Montréal from 1 to 14 June 1954 approved an amendment to Article 45 of the Chicago Convention, which was changed as follows: “The permanent seat of the Organization shall be at such place as shall be determined at the final meeting of the Interim Assembly of the Provisional International Civil Aviation Organization set up by the Interim Agreement on International Civil Aviation signed at Chicago on December 7, 1944. The seat may be temporarily transferred elsewhere by decision of the Council, and otherwise than temporarily by decision of the Assembly, such decision to be taken by the number of votes specified by the Assembly. The number of votes so specified will not be less than three fifths of the total number of Contracting States.” It entered into force on 16 May 1958. Article 45 related to the permanent seat of the Organization has not been amended since then.
To avoid in the future the submission of any last-minute proposal to move the headquarters, Resolution A8-5 adopted by the 8th Assembly (held in June 1954) resolved that no future discussions on the transfer of the headquarters would be permitted without despatching of all pertinent documentation at least 120 days prior to the convening of a Session of the Assembly. The 8th Assembly did not consider any question of moving from Montréal, but only dealt with the constitutional issue.
The scrutiny of the ICAO archives sheds light on several aspects of the importance of international relations for the City of Montreal. The striking thing was the little interaction that ICAO had with the City. For example, in January 1946, when ICAO was about to hold a series of meetings, it was only the Federal Government that was informed of the event. Similarly, a few months earlier, when important meetings were taking place under the auspices of ICAO in Montreal, the Windsor Hotel organized the logistics and the City was absent from this whole affair.
If the interest of the City for the ICAO seems superficial, it should be added, however, that the municipal authorities ensured the minimum so that the organization would function. In 1951, a Headquarters agreement was signed between Ottawa and the Organization setting the terms of the Organization's operation, including the exemption of taxes, diplomatic immunity, courtesy plates and driver's licenses. The granting of such privileges required the consent of provincial and municipal authorities. Water tax, for example, falls under Montreal, while some sales taxes fall under provincial jurisdiction, as do license plates and driver's licenses.
Very quickly, the municipality solved the problem of the water tax by mid-1952. However, ICAO will have a lot to do to convince the Province to grant it the privileges to which it is entitled. As regards the issue of diplomatic plates, ICAO also demanded, and without success, tax exemptions and a special rate of $2.50 for the registration of its vehicles. It will be necessary to wait until 1962 for this file to be completely settled.
The intransigence of the Québec Government in dealing with the issues of taxation and immunity was also obvious. The frustration was evident among the Delegates during the ninth Session of the Assembly held Montréal from 31 May to 13 June 1955. The Delegate of Venezuela introduced a motion to carry out a study in order to determine the costs of maintaining ICAO in those cities which might be most suitable as possible headquarters for the Organization; it also called on the Canadian Government to intervene in the dispute with the Government of Québec. On the last day of the Session, the President of the Council, Edward Warner, informed the Assembly that the Premier of Québec agreed to confer with a delegation from ICAO in an effort to settle the outstanding issues. The resolution put forward by the Venezuelan delegation was maintained (Resolution A9-9), while noting with regret the attitude of the Québec Government. The issues with the Government of Québec were settled further to the meeting held on 16 June 1955.
In the meantime, the Canadian Government took a hard look at the value of having an international organization like ICAO in Montréal and wished to end the dispute over the headquarters location with the 10th Session of the Assembly held in Caracas from 19 June to 16 July 1956. A set of actions were announced and discussed during the Assembly: 1) in May 1956, a memorandum was sent to all States asking for continued support of Montréal as the current headquarters; 2) a reimbursement of the income tax paid by the Canadian staff to the Québec Government; and 3) the granting of an interest-free loan to ICAO for the construction of its own building. However, just before the opening of the Session, the Government of Québec announced on 4 June 1956 that negotiations would be conducted with the Organization to grant various tax exemptions, thus addressing the concerns of item 2 here above.
Once it was agreed that having ICAO in Canada was a good thing, the governments (Canadian, Provincial and Municipal) became more determined to find ways to keep it there. Montréal is the hub of Canada’s aviation industry and its international reputation as a major player is partly based on ICAO’s longtime residency. Montréal, Canada, has been recognized as the permanent seat of ICAO since 1946.
A dedicated building, ready for occupation by 15 July 1949, was offered by the Government of Canada in 1080 University Street in the block housing the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and the Central Station of the Canadian National Railway Company. The building also accommodated various airline offices and the headquarters of IATA, the International Air Transport Association. ICAO moved to a larger building at 1000 Sherbrooke Street West, which was inaugurated on 3 October 1975. ICAO moved to its current location in October 1996 (officially inaugurated on 5 December 1996) at 999 University Street, with some overflow in the adjacent AON Tower (previously Bell Tower).
On 11 March 2013, the ICAO Council endorsed the Supplementary Headquarters Agreement (which would be effective from 1 December 2016 through 30 November 2036) between the Government of Canada and ICAO and authorized ICAO’s Secretary General to sign it with Canada; final reviews of the legal text began right away. However, one month later on 11 April, Qatar submitted its own bid to have ICAO’s headquarters moved to its capital of Doha.
The offer was discussed when the ICAO Council met on 22 April 2013 with a visit of a Qatari delegation to Montréal. Qatari briefing notes suggested that Montréal was too far from Europe and Asia and had cold winters; moreover, Canada made it hard for delegates to get visas in a timely manner and Qatar argued that Canadian taxes are too high. According to newspapers, the move to relocate the ICAO Headquarters was at least partly motivated further to political and diplomatic positions of Canada in the international world. The Qatari bid included the construction of new state-of-the-art premises and the covering of all expenses related to construction and maintenance as well as the moving of staff. Once in Qatar, health benefits and educational fees for ICAO staff would be covered by the government.
Hard work and intense lobbying on the part of the three levels of government (Canada, Québec and Montréal) was run. A high-profile Team Montréal campaign was created to keep ICAO in Montréal; this prompted many organizations, corporations and other stakeholders to join the push to keep ICAO in Montréal. In the weeks that followed, nearly 100 countries were approached to explain the many benefits of keeping ICAO in Montréal.
The provisions of Article 45 of the Chicago Convention stipulate that Qatar’s offer must be considered at the next convening of the triennial ICAO Assembly, which would take place from 24 September through 4 October 2013 and a minimum of three fifths (i.e., 115 of the 191 States) of ICAO’s Member States must agree to the Qatari proposal for it to be approved. In addition, Resolution A8-5 still in effect adopted by the 8th Assembly resolved that no future discussions on the transfer of the headquarters would be permitted without despatching of all pertinent documentation at least 120 days prior to the convening of a Session of the Assembly.
In the meantime, Canada announced concrete improvements to the support it provides to ICAO and representatives of its Member States in Montréal. On 23 May 2013, ICAO confirmed it received a letter from the State of Qatar, officially advising that Qatar had decided to withdraw its earlier offer to become ICAO’s new permanent seat. Reportedly, Qatar's withdrawal came after a separate proposal to the ICAO Council to move the ICAO triennial Assembly to Doha was defeated by a vote of 22–14.
On 27 May 2013, Canada and ICAO signed the Supplementary Headquarters Agreement covering 2016-2036. Montréal has been an outstanding home for the global aviation community since 1945; the city is an important international aviation hub, home not only to the permanent seat of ICAO but also host to several related agencies maintaining a close proximity to ICAO for their work.
The University Street was renamed Boulevard Robert-Bourassa from 15 March 2015, by decision of the City Council of Montréal taken on 15 September 2014.
Bronze plaque which indicated the entrance to ICAO building on 1080 University Street.
Post card showing the International Aviation Building on 1080 University Street, Montréal.
Post card showing the ICAO premises at 1000 Sherbrooke Street West, Montréal.
Picture of the current headquarters at 999 Boulevard Robert-Bourassa, Montréal.
Photo: Alain Roberge, Archives La Presse.