December 14, 2011

Towards a New and Improved Americas Strategy for Canada?

In July 2007, the Prime Minister launched Canada’s “Re-engagement in the Americas” strategy. At the time, no policy document on the Americas Strategy was made available, nor were there any substantive opportunities for civil society engagement and comment. CCIC’s Americas Policy Group (APG) was left to piece together this elusive “Americas Strategy” by reviewing speeches, statements, political appointments and visits in the region.

Four years later, in October 2011, DFAIT decided to “review and renew” the Americas Strategy and approached the APG for input. DFAIT recognized that the original Americas Strategy had been somewhat haphazard and designed without sufficient input from civil society organizations. We were assured that the process would be different this time and were invited to participate in a series of consultations on Canada’s engagement in the Americas.

We were not sure whether to be pleased or skeptical. Would our participation help give credibility to their consultation process and imply that that we endorsed the final product – even if it didn’t reflect our views? Was this a worthwhile use of our sector’s already over-stretched time?

Despite these doubts, it seemed contradictory to turn down the opportunity after having criticized the government for its failure to consult civil society the first time around. We therefore agreed to participate in the process and to wait before making any definitive statements on its merits or demerits.

The consultations held thus far have been encouraging at times and discouraging at others. We are receiving signals that the government’s priorities in the Americas differ from our own. In a consultation on October 31st, Allan Culham (DFAIT’s DG of Hemispheric Affairs and Permanent Representative to the OAS) rejoiced at the free trade agreement with Colombia, pointed to Canada and Colombia’s robust trade numbers, and failed to mention human rights at all until prompted. The APG would have preferred to see him adopt a more nuanced approach to the trade deal, one that acknowledged the potential for Colombian lives and livelihoods to be affected by the scramble for metals and land, and one that took seriously the annual Human Rights Impact Assessment that both governments have agreed to conduct.

The consultation was nonetheless encouraging to the extent that many civil society organizations spoke up and voiced concerns similar to our own. Representatives from numerous Canadian civil society organizations called on the government to pay more attention to marginalized groups, to consider the root causes of organized crime and to improve Canadian extractive companies’ human rights and environmental record in the Americas.

A December 6th dialogue with Diane Ablonczy (Minister of State of Foreign Affairs, Americas & Consular Affairs) signaled, once again, that the government’s priorities in the Americas differ from our own. The panelists (12 men and 1 woman) were mainly business-oriented, and there was more discussion of how to compete with China for investments in the Americas than talk of human rights or equitable development. An Export Development Canada panelist stated that they key to Canada’s success in the region was its ability to “import labour without moving it” – in other words, to make full use of the cheap labour available in Latin America. The APG would have liked to hear a more nuanced statement: one that was accompanied by a recognition that the pursuit of cheap labour at all costs can be a slippery slope, especially in contexts where the right to unionize is severely constricted.

DFAIT has also asked for written input on Canada’s engagement with the Americas, and the APG has agreed to submit its recommendations. We will continue to promote an Americas Strategy that is based on respect for the full spectrum of human rights for all citizens of the hemisphere - an Americas Strategy that leaves no one behind. The civil society voices we heard at the October 31st consultation with Allan Culham suggest that others want the same thing. We hope that our participation in this process will encourage the government to think about these issues and include them in its Strategy. If the government is serious about putting together a new, improved and inclusive strategy for the Americas, it should.

This blog post was written by Brittany Lambert, coordinator of CCIC's Americas Policy Group (APG).

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC, APG or its members.

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