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FOCAL Views: Are we competitive in our own hemisphere?

Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) economic growth rates exceed five per cent and its population of 550 million includes a growing middle class with a significant per capita annual purchasing power of $11,000. Canada-LAC bilateral annual trade tops $40 billion, and investment from Canadian firms in LAC is $100 billion plus —triple the levels of our investment in Asia. Spanish is the third most spoken language in Canada and 11 per cent of our immigrants come from the region. 

But the obvious and growing importance of the region to Canada has not been matched by a commensurate level of interest or resources, and public perception lags far behind. Very often, a mention of our neighbours only evokes images of abject poverty, organized crime, or democratic upsets.

It is true that the region faces real challenges. There are high levels of inequality and areas of serious poverty. The fight against organized crime and corruption has reached crisis levels in some countries and “drugs and thugs” do capture headlines. However, things are changing rapidly and Canada will lose out if it does not continue to build its relationships with this dynamic part of the world.

There has been some success. Canada named the Americas as a foreign policy priority in 2007. Growing immigration, tourism and educational connections have built new cultural and social ties. Canadian companies are highly visible in the resource extraction, financial, industrial and agricultural sectors. Our universities have extensive academic partnerships with the region. 

But curiously, Canada is little known in Latin America and vice versa. Changing this calls for sustained, deliberate effort to better match our interests. Hosting international meetings will not suffice; gaining ground in the long run requires long-term action.

Other countries are doing just this. In 2000 Spain launched a concerted effort that unites business, government and academia working in the Americas. The latest European Union-Latin America and Caribbean Summit has implemented a detailed joint work plan. China’s trade success is yielding a series of broader exchanges. India is rapidly making inroads with new trade and investment ties. 

Canada is often cited for effective governance, responsible business practice and democratic freedom; a competitive edge on countries such as China or India. The challenge is to translate this generally positive image into results when we need international allies, when our firms compete for new business, and when our universities seek international students and academic exchanges. 

Right now, our fragmented approach makes it very difficult for people from the Americas to see beyond the vaguely positive and seek out Canada as a partner and a source of expertise. Why not change this and create a one-stop portal to offer easy access to the best that Canada has to offer? Or go a step further and create a new way to support the joint development of innovative ideas?

It is time to catch up with the U.S. and Europe with a program of concerted public-private action. 

From socially responsible business to public sector policy making, Canada has a wealth of relevant analysis, experience and expertise. However, if these ideas are to impact our image and influence in the Americas, we need to pay more attention and focus our efforts. 

It is time to up our game and really connect with our partners in the Americas. Our competitiveness is at play.

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