Now is the time to put Céline Dion and the Cirque du Soleil on a plane to South America. While we are at it, let’s not forget to book additional seats for the singer-filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, the novelist Dany Laferrière and countless other Quebec artists who help project an engaging image of Canada abroad. Cultural ambassadors may be just what our country needs as it embarks on a journey of negotiations with the four countries that make up the Mercosur trade bloc: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Talks between Canada and Mercosur member nations began in March when Minister of International Trade François-Philippe Champagne met twice with his South American counterparts, first in Asunción, Paraguay, and then in Ottawa. As a strategy for coping with US President Trump’s “America First” policy, diversification with the Mercosur trade bloc (the fourth largest in the world) should not be overlooked.
Brazil is the major player in that group, and many of its connections to Canada run through Quebec. In 2008, the province opened a government office in São Paulo to help foster bilateral cooperation agreements and trade. It has since welcomed thousands of francophile Brazilian students, immigrants and tourists in addition to helping tighten relations between the two countries in the field of science and technology. Yet Brazil’s enthusiasm for Canada’s trade diversification scheme cannot be taken for granted, as the Université de Montréal political scientist Philippe Faucher recently told Le Devoir.
Canada’s deal makers should therefore take advantage of all the talent on hand, including that of cultural ambassadors. Such an approach would be consistent with the Trudeau government’s nation-branding efforts. In fact, last fall the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade launched an encouraging initiative: a study on the “impact and utilization of culture and arts in foreign policy and diplomacy.” It signals a willingness to re-engage with art’s potential as a means of building trust and mutual understanding through projects that enhance Canada’s international image and encourage people-to-people interactions.
Cultural ambassadors may be just what our country needs as it embarks on a journey of negotiations with the four countries that make up the Mercosur trade bloc: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Placing culture somewhere close to centre stage is an especially good idea considering that the preservation of cultural diversity is a contentious issue in a globalizing world. Mercosur member nations are currently grappling with this, both in their relations with each other and as a region engaged in international trade. Just like Canada, they are parties to UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection and the Promotion of Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which recognizes that cultural and creative industries are unlike other industries in that they serve a dual function: they help spur economic growth while also producing the works that make up the fabric of a nation’s identity. Some protection for cultural goods and services is therefore warranted in the making of free trade agreements. We Canadians, by virtue of our proximity to the United States, have no shortage of experience on that front. Our South American counterparts are well aware of that because of our interactions with them in various transnational networks. There is a recent history of shared preoccupations here.
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There is also an older history to build on. It is a little-known fact that Canada’s first official foray into the realm of cultural diplomacy occurred in 1944 following the establishment of reciprocal diplomatic relations with Brazil. That year, according to archival documents, the Montreal-born diplomat Jean Désy and Oswaldo Aranha, Brazil’s minister for foreign affairs, signed an acordo cultural to facilitate “the organization and presentation of artistic exhibitions, concerts, lectures, radio programmes, films and other activities” to further “the understanding of one country by the other.” The agreement and the subsequent inauguration of a Canada-Brazil Institute (with branches in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo) helped kick-start a particularly intense period of cultural exchanges, which provided the backdrop to closer economic and political relations.
Canadian artists and cultural promoters, most of them from Quebec, played an active role in this rapprochement: from the composer-educator Claude Champagne to the painter Jacques de Tonnancour and the pianist Ellen Ballon. Others did so remotely, such as Alfred Pellan, who, in 1942, prepared a pair of paintings for the recently established legation in Rio de Janeiro. Désy had commissioned the two works — Canada West and Canada East — to tell Brazilians about our country’s diverse landscape and our accomplishments in the arts (these are the same two paintings that caught the media’s attention in 2011 when they were temporarily removed from their current location in the Lester B. Pearson Building by then Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird). That Brazil and Canada have maintained cordial relations despite a number of recent economic irritants (most notably in the aerospace market, with Bombardier competing against Embraer, based in São Paulo) is a testament to the solid foundations established through these efforts.
We are now emerging from a “decade of darkness,” to borrow an expression used by the analyst Daryl Copeland to describe the Harper government’s lack of interest in cultural diplomacy. Canada and Quebec should seize this opportunity together to tighten their bonds of friendship with Brazil and, concurrently, its Mercosur partners. More importantly, cultural actors from all sectors must mobilize to ensure that diversity and inclusiveness, as well as reciprocity, are the sine qua non of any Canada-Mercosur trade agreement — that is, if it is indeed Ottawa’s intention to diversify in ways that reflect and strengthen our core Canadian values.
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