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Canadians largely indifferent to Latin America and the Caribbean

Victor Armony and Jack Jedwab

While the government promotes engagement in the Americas, Canadians show little interest in the region.

Vera Lúcia Barrouin Crivano at the Third Plenary Session of the Organization of American States.
Photo: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS
Vera Lúcia Barrouin Crivano, Under Secretary General for Policy in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil at the Third Plenary Session of the Organization of American States.

Last year, Canada didn’t miss any occasion to underline the 20th anniversary of its full membership in the Organization of American States and its positive role in the hemisphere. But how do ordinary Canadians view their place in the Americas? Do they believe, like their government, that Latin America and the Caribbean should be a priority for Canada?

Four years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his “Strategy of engagement in the Americas.” Arguably, Canada has never before played such a relevant role in the hemisphere, diplomatically and economically. But how is that official engagement reflected in Canada’s public opinion on Latin America and the Caribbean? A survey of 1,032 individuals conducted via a web panel by Léger Marketing for the Association for Canadian Studies over the period March 3-5, 2011 (margin of error of 3.9 per cent 19 times out of 20) reveals that Canadians are not necessarily in tune with that new reality. This poll looked at how Canadians perceive selected countries in the Americas and their importance to Canada.

Not surprisingly, Canadians view the United States in by far the most favourable light (77 per cent of respondents), and are least likely to say they “don’t know” when asked to express an opinion about their neighbour (only six per cent). When asked to express their view of selected countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, two Southern Cone nations receive the highest favourable rating from Canadians, Brazil with 61 per cent and Argentina with 57 per cent, although 22 and 24 per cent of respondents, respectively, had not formed an opinion of these two distant countries. Jamaica elicits a similarly favourable response (54 per cent), but a larger number of Canadians hold an unfavourable view of this country (28 per cent, compared to 17 and 20 per cent for Brazil and Argentina respectively).

Figure 1: Canadians' perception of countries in the Americas
Graph showing "Unfavourable" and "Favourable" opinions of certain countries in the Americas.
Source: Léger Marketing Poll

On the other side of the scale, three countries in the Americas receive proportionally more negative than positive responses from Canadians: Colombia, Haiti and Mexico. Colombia appears to be in a class of its own, with less than three per cent “very favourable” responses, the lowest in the survey. Even though Canadians respond unfavourably to Haiti almost as frequently as to Colombia (52 and 56 per cent respectively), Haiti receives a higher number of positive responses (32 compared to 19 per cent). While fewer Canadians expressed an unfavourable view of Venezuela than of Mexico (35 per cent versus 48 per cent, respectively), 27 per cent expressed no opinion on Venezuela, compared to only 13 per cent for Mexico. Canadians also tend to have a formed opinion regarding Cuba (only 16 per cent do not answer), and views seem quite divided: among the 10 countries analyzed in the survey, Cuba placed fifth in favourable views (48 per cent), but also ranks fourth in unfavourable views (36 per cent).

Opinions on nations that do not have a strong historical, geographic or cultural connection with one’s own country tend to form on the basis of three factors: news coverage, travel and perception of diasporas. Over the past decade, coverage of Brazil and Argentina in the Canadian media has been sporadic, and usually related to elections or the economy. Both countries have small immigrant communities in Canada, and travel to the Southern Cone is mostly limited to high-end tourism, education or business-related activities. Distance and ignorance, coupled with benign exoticism, benefit the perception of these two emerging economies and stable democracies among Canadians. This probably explains why Brazil and Argentina rank the highest among those who consider Latin America as “vitally important” to Canada.

Conversely, Mexico, a close partner in the North American context, is the source of consistently negative media coverage —focused on drug-related crime, corruption, or illegal immigration to the U.S.— and is also a prime destination for low-cost tourism. A clear majority of Canadians (62 per cent) see Mexico as important, but only 16 per cent consider Mexico as “vitally important,” compared to 70 per cent for the United States. However slightly less than half of respondents (49 per cent) consider Latin America important to Canada, while 42 per cent consider it “not too important” or “not at all important.” The Caribbean scores even lower: a majority of respondents think it is not important (54 per cent). There is no clear divergence between Anglophones and Francophones in the poll sample, although French-speakers give relatively less importance to Latin America (43 per cent compared to 52 among English-speakers), and significantly less importance to the Caribbean (24 per cent compared to 42 among English-speakers).

The poll demonstrates that many Canadians hold indifferent, divided or unfavourable views of Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean, with some remote countries performing better. Canadian media coverage of political violence in Colombia, human rights violations in Cuba, lawlessness in Mexico, left radicalism in Venezuela, and widespread chaos in Haiti draws a negative picture of Latin America and the Caribbean. Politics and ideological affinities may play a role in some small differences between Anglophones and Francophones. In particular, Venezuela elicits a favourable attitude among 46 per cent of French-speakers, compared to only 38 per cent among English-speakers. But overall there is a deep gap between the Canadian government’s foreign policy priority and the Canadian public’s rather limited and unflattering perception of the region.

In comparison, Canadians perceive Western Europe and China as important for the national interest. For example, 78 per cent of Canadians view Great Britain and 63 per cent view France, as important to Canada. As for China, while 38 per cent of Canadians consider China as vitally important to Canada, 53 per cent have an unfavourable view of that country. This shows that the presence of a significant diaspora is not a guarantee that a country will be regarded favourably. Similarly, while India has a large and fast-growing diaspora in Canada, only 13 per cent view it as “vitally important.” Still, in the case of Latin America, it is likely that the absence of an important diaspora in Canada contributes to some of Canadians’ indifference toward the region.

Canada’s leadership could certainly do more to promote knowledge of the Americas and more clearly present its own role and goals in the region.

Victor Armony is the Director of UQAM’s Observatory of the Americas. Jack Jedwab is the Executive Director of the Association for Canadian Studies.

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