The relationship between Canada and the countries in Central America has gone through various periods, each with unique characteristics. That is, from the beginning of the country in 1867 to the modern day, Canada’s foreign relations with the Latin countries has changed dramatically, depending on the leader and on world events. In particular, Pierre Elliott Trudeau radically transformed Canada’s international strategy, as he sought to increase the countries political and economic standing, not only in North America, but throughout the world.
Therefore, under Trudeau’s leadership, Canada looked to increase relations with every country, especially those that had been historically neglected, in particular those in the nearby Latin world. Before this, although Latin American countries were geographically close, they had largely been diplomatically ignored, thus hindering Canada’s economic growth, as well as the country’s international standing. The effects of this period under Trudeau are still being felt today because many of his policies and political philosophy are still being used today or have served as the inspiration for new ones. Therefore, what follows below is a look at the evolution of the relationship between Canada and Latin America, with a focus on three distinct periods: the Pre-Trudeau Years, the Trudeau Years, and the Post-Trudeau Years.
The Pre-Trudeau Years
After Canada was confederated, they were given political autonomy. That is, as a once former British colony, the British monarchy allowed them to break away and form their own country, although they still remained closely tied together. This hindered Canada’s ability to engage in their own foreign policy, as they were both directly and indirectly forced to follow Britain’s lead. Therefore, in the first decades of the country, it still functioned largely as a colony, at least in regards to their relations with other countries. Rodriguez claims that “During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, preconfederation Canada’s links with the area of Latin American and the Caribbean were conditioned by the domination of European powers.”
However, as the economy began to grow, the country began to gain some independence, which resulted in Canada businessmen began to look for new markets besides Europe and the United States. This resulted in minor amounts of trade being conducted with Latin America, although there were no formal diplomatic agreements.
In the early 1900s, the Latin states began to develop and organize, which made them economically attractive to Canada and vice versa. Latin nations joined together under various trade and political organizations, in what would become the Organization of American States. Canada remained distant from these nations, although they had gained the freedom to pursue their own international relations, thanks to the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which formalized the separation of British territories into sovereign nations.
The main reason for this was the opposition from the US, as they felt that Canada was still under direct control of the British monarch, which would have been a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine forced all European nations for engaging in colonial activity or from meddling in affairs of governments in the hemisphere. Therefore, Canada’s relations with Latin America were still limited by the interests of the US. Rodriguez states that “…the relations of the Dominion with the nascent Latin American republics have been conditioned by Canadian political and diplomatic links to the British Empire and the hegemonic designs of the United States in the western hemisphere.”
By the 1940s, the international stage had changed significantly, as had Canada. That is, Canada expanded its economy, particularly its manufacturing sector, thus prompting them to seek foreign markets. World War 2 left Europe with widespread destruction, which ruled them as a trading partner for Canada, leaving Latin America as a prime candidate. Rodriguez claims that “In the 1940’s, there was some evidence that Canadian policy makers had begun to appreciate the potential of Latin America as a trading partner in replacement of its European links.”
Therefore, beginning after World War 2, the relations between Canada and Latin America improved dramatically, as they became major trading partners. This resulted in increased diplomatic relations, although this would be tested with the beginning of the Cold War. For the most part, Canada followed the lead of the US in opposing the spread of communism and promoting democracy and capitalism, but both Canada and the US saw Latin America as place that had a high likelihood of allowing communism to spread. Therefore, Canada often served the role of a negotiator with Latin America and the US.
The Trudeau Years
When Trudeau took power in 1968, Canada was poised to become a major player on the international stage, both politically and economically. Trudeau had the philosophy of strengthening ties with nations in North America, further distancing themselves from Europe. To do this, Trudeau began diplomatic relations with Latin American nations by sending the largest diplomatic mission to the region in history. This led to an intensive study on the region, which led to a series of books that forever changed Canadian foreign policy. “…the six booklets
published in 1970 as part of the Trudeau government’s foreign policy review: Foreign Policy for Canada.” The result of this was an increased interest in strengthening ties with Latin America, including that “Canada would not seek full membership in the OAS at the moment but would seek closer links with the organization.” This also led to them to increase bilateral contacts in
the areas of trade, investment, culture, and development assistance.”
This increased interest in the region led to Canada joining the Organization of American States as an observer in 1972, as well as the Inter-American Development Bank, which served the purpose of providing economic stimulus for developing nations. By 1973, this had the result of strengthening their economic ties, which increased both their imports and exports to and from these countries. This also brought them closer together to fight against the spread of communism and help preserve their independence from Europe. This also bolstered the positions of both Canada and the Latin nations when dealing with US interests, as they could oppose their hegemonic tendencies on the continent.
In fact, throughout the 1970s, Canada pulled out from under the influence of the US and continued to strengthen their relations with Latin America. Ogelsby demonstrates this by looking at the amount of exports and imports that flowed between the two regions. He uses the chart on the left to show the dramatic increase in economic activity between Canada and various Latin countries. That is, both total exports and total imports increased five times over the ten year period between 1967 and 1977. Furthermore, Canada and the many Latin nations allowed for increased tourism, and Canada even took in thousands of refugees from both South and Latin America.
By the end of the 1970s and through the first half of the 1980s, Canada had enough international clout and economic pull that they pushed for changes in the OAS, sought the creation of trade agreements, and began to lean on governments to change their stance on human rights. Many of these changes brought them closer to Latin America, yet these also distanced themselves further from the US, particularly the more conservative policies of Reagan. That is, Canada and Latin America began to lean to the political left, with beliefs in central planning, whereas the US leaned to the right with ideas that pushed for free markets. In fact, during this time the US actively opposed leftist movements by indirectly and directly intervening in the affairs of Latin America, which pushed these countries further towards Canada that had similar ideas. For example, Trudeau pushed for the creation of the Foreign Investment Review Agency, which has the purpose of monitoring and analyzing the effects of Canadian money being invested in foreign countries, particularly those in Latin America.
Therefore, based on the above, it is clear that Canada and Latin America grew closer as a direct result of the policy of Trudeau and his cabinet members. In particular, Trudeau’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, Mitchell Sharp, was the architect for many of the ideas that strengthened the relationship with Latin America. The most well known of these ideas is the Third Option, which spelled out Canada’s options of the future. The first of which was maintaining trade and being under the influence of the US. The second option was the eventual domination of the country by the US, and the third option was to aggressively work around the US to create and strengthen bilateral relationships with other countries, in particular those of Latin America. Policies like this helped Canada move out from the shadow of the US and to help them grow closer together with Latin America.
The Post-Trudeau Years
The years after Trudeau are characterized by both an increase in involvement with Latin America and with the US, which had historically been at odds due to a difference in political beliefs and the desire for hegemonic dominance of the continent. When Trudeau left office, he was replaced by Brian Mulroney, who attempted to undo a lot of the work Trudeau had done to strengthen the relationship between Canada and Latin America. That is, his policies and statements focused on rebuilding close relations with the US, in favor of relations with Latin America. For example, under Mulroney, Canada and the US signed the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement in 1987, which bolstered trade between the two countries.
However, a few years later this eventually became the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, which included the Southern countries. This brought Canada and Latin America in direct economic contact, as trade was facilitated across the continent. Therefore, Canadian goods could flow much more easily to their Southern neighbors and imports from these same companies became cheaper and more abundant. 2 Furthermore, in 1990, Canada finally joined the Organization of American States as a full member, which facilitated multiple trade agreements between Canada and Latin America. Because they were now tied so closely economically, their relationship began to grow diplomatically and culturally as well. As globalization continues to grow, these two regions continue to become intertwined, although many have noted that the presence of the US hinders closer ties. That is, the US has a powerful economic and cultural attraction that stands in the way of a closer relationship, although Canada still remains significantly involved in the region.
Overall, Canada’s relationship with Latin America went from extremely distant to significantly close, beginning in 1867, although there have been some ups and downs. As Canada developed economically, they were able to remove themselves out from under the shadow of Britain in the early days and eventually out from under the influence of the US. This enabled the country to bolster relations with other countries on the continent, which continues to strengthen to this day.
- Amadeo, Kimberly. “What Is the North American Free Trade Agreement?” 2018. https://www.thebalance.com/nafta-definition-north-american-free-trade-agreement-3306147.
- “Brian Mulroney.” 2018. http://www.thecanadaguide.com/history/prime-ministers/brian-mulroney/.
- Ogelsby, J. C. “A Trudeau Decade: Canadian-Latin American Relations 1968-1978.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 21, no. 2 (1979): 187-208.
- Rodriguez, Raul. “Canada’s Policy towards Latin America: Perceptions from the South.” Interfaces Brazil/Canada, Rio Grande 6 (2006): 93-108.