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The Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) is no longer in operation. This website documents FOCAL's activities and accomplishments throughout its existence. Thank you for your interest in the work of FOCAL.

The role FOCAL was born to play

Joe Clark


FOCAL was created 20 years ago as part of a deliberate emphasis on the Americas in Canadian foreign policy. I was the foreign minister at the time, or to use the grander title, Secretary of State for External Affairs. As a centrepiece of that new policy, Canada decided to take its seat as a full and active member of the Organization of American States (OAS). We had enjoyed a right of membership since the organization was established in 1948 but left our seat empty, largely because of an apprehension that a more formal role would draw us into unhelpful disputes with the U.S.

Nonetheless, Canada had long been active and influential in our hemisphere. Canadian banks and resource companies were a significant presence in the region, as were non-governmental organizations. Despite U.S. pressure, the John Diefenbaker government chose to maintain Canadian diplomatic relations with Cuba when the U.S. shut theirs down. In the 1970s, the Pierre Trudeau government advocated for a “North-South dialogue” which had roots in the Americas. Canada’s presence and partnership in the Caribbean was extensive; our diplomatic and trade relations with individual countries were strong; and many Canadian organizations played critical roles in promoting democracy in the region.

Extending that tradition, the Brian Mulroney government played an active role in facilitating the Contadora peace process in Central America in the 1980s, and Canadian peacekeepers helped make it work. That involved some tensions with Washington’s policy, but did not constrain the bilateral relationship on other fronts; indeed, it demonstrated that on certain regional issues Canada could play a more constructive role than the U.S. We concluded that time had come to match our actual presence in the region with a full presence at the OAS, and saw the value of facilitating the creation of an independent organization such as FOCAL to inform and engage Canadians interested in the Americas.

Today, FOCAL has a strong and growing reputation in the region as a respected source of analysis and research. The organization’s challenge is not abroad, but at home in Canada where there is too little attention on Latin America and the Caribbean. In terms of geography, economics and political institutions, Canada is clearly a country of the Americas. But —with notable exceptions— Latin America is not part of Canadians’ mindset, and our once close relationship with the Caribbean is fading. Why is that? And what can be done?

Canada is an unusually international country, and our diversity is growing every day. We depend heavily on international trade, and are a significant source and destination of foreign investment. Despite our wealth, and our relative geographical isolation, we are acutely vulnerable to the disruptions of the world —from pandemics to drug and human trafficking to the daily attrition of climate change and the threat of terrorism. When polled, a remarkably high percentage of Canadians identify as “citizens of the world,” far more than in the U.S., or other comparable countries.

Yet Canadians generally pay relatively little attention to formal foreign policy. We are not animated by the missionary gene which leads some Americans to describe the U.S. as the “indispensable country,” and have neither the sense of noblesse oblige of former colonial powers nor the assertiveness of emerging economies. Canadians accept that our country has influence, and are generally supportive when our governments take an international initiative. As individuals, we respond impressively to disasters and growing numbers of our citizens are directly involved, hands-on, in international projects and initiatives, commercial as much as humanitarian. Yet foreign policy is rarely an issue in election campaigns, or in serious national debate.

From a domestic Canadian perspective and beyond economics, there is a question of where we belong in the world. We have become increasingly wedded to the U.S., which remains our principal partner, but the Tea Party movement and other eruptions in that society reveal our difference. With the growth of the European Union and the decline of the tensions that spawned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Old Continent’s attention is drawn elsewhere, and we are not as integral a part of their community as we once were. Moreover, a close relation with Asia is still more an aspiration than a reality.

But geographically, there is no doubt that we are part of the Americas.

The rest of the world is now paying more attention to our hemisphere. The dramatic example is Spain, which is emphatically increasing its presence and influence in the region, with implications for the European Union. China is investing in the Americas. The U.S. retains a strong interest in the region and, critically for Canada, is fully aware that our active role there is usually complementary, and not competitive.

That speaks of Latin America. The other growing issue in the region is the future of the Caribbean island nations whose strength is so crucial for Canada’s own security, but also important because of strong historic bonds. Small states face unusual problems today, from the “natural” changes in climate and sea levels to their vulnerability to organized crime. Although Canada has increased its development assistance to the Caribbean in recent years, the reality is that it receives less help and attention from larger countries now than it once did. That was clear at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, and is clear in the trade policies of former close friends such as the European Union.

The Government of Canada has declared the Americas a foreign policy priority and others can speak more authoritatively than I can about that initiative. But if this or subsequent Canadian initiatives in the Americas are to succeed, they require more active, informed and articulate support among citizens at home. That is a role which FOCAL was, literally, born to pursue, and which provides a great opportunity for the decades to come.

The Right Honourable Joe Clark was Prime Minister of Canada from 1979 to 1980 and Secretary of State for External Affairs in the Mulroney government from 1984 to 1991.

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