BACKGROUND The reform of pharmaceutical policy can often involve trade-offs between competing social and commercial goals. Canada's Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR), a legislative amendment that permits compulsory licensing for the production and export of medicines to developing countries, aimed to reconcile these goals. Since it was passed in 2004, only two orders of antiretroviral drugs, enough for 21,000 HIV/AIDS patients in Rwanda have been exported. Future use of the regime appears unlikely. This research aimed to examine the politics of CAMR. METHODS Parliamentary Committee hearing transcripts from CAMR's legislative development (2004) and legislative review (2007) were analysed using a content analysis technique to identify how stakeholders who participated in the debates framed the issues. These findings were subsequently analysed using a framework of framing, institutions and interests to determine how these three dimensions shaped CAMR. RESULTS In 2004, policy debates in Canada were dominated by two themes: intellectual property rights and the TRIPS Agreement. The right to medicines as a basic human right and CAMR's potential impact on innovation were hardly discussed. With the Departments of Industry Canada and International Trade as the lead institutions, the goals of protecting intellectual property and ensuring good trade relations with the United States appear to have taken priority over encouraging generic competition to achieve drug affordability. The result was a more limited interpretation of patent flexibilities under the WTO Paragraph 6 Decision. The most striking finding is the minimal discussion over the potential barriers developing country beneficiaries might face when attempting to use compulsory licensing, including their reluctance to use TRIPS flexibilities, their desire to pursue technological development and the constraints inherent in the WTO Paragraph 6 Decision. Instead, these issues were raised in 2007, which can be partly accounted for by experience in implementing the legislation and hence a greater representation of the interests of potential beneficiary country governments. CONCLUSIONS The Canadian Government designed CAMR as a last resort measure. Increased input from the developing country beneficiaries and shifting to institutions where the right to health gets prioritized may lead to policies that better achieves affordable drug access.