Is Canada Pan-American Dreaming?

While Toronto hosts the Pan Am Games, more concrete regional ties are eroding.
By: /
July 21, 2015
Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University

Amid the excitement over Canada’s medal totals and the concerns about the costs and the traffic snafus, little attention has been paid to the politics behind the Pan-American and Parapan Games and Canada’s position as host.

In his statement at the opening ceremony on July 10, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared his support of Canada’s loyalties and ties to the region. “It is a great honour to be hosting the hemisphere’s finest athletes here at home,” he said. “As we welcome thousands of competitors from 41 countries and territories to our very own Pan American Games, we look forward to celebrating the diverse cultures of the participants and to promoting deeper ties among nations of the Americas. As the official song of the games conveys, ‘Together We Are One’.”

The rhetorical unity Harper celebrated has been undercut, however, by the deep divisions within the Americas and the lack of resources and political support for an Americas project from within Canada.

The first Pan Am games were held in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1951. Canada did not participate in that event because it was a member of the Commonwealth, but it has participated in every edition of the games since the second event in Mexico City in 1955.

The Games are one of the few occasions that bring together non-elites in inter-American affairs. The event is seen as a way of pulling together the peoples of the disparate countries of the Americas. As with most major sporting events, they are often controversial because of the costs associated with them.

Hosting the 2015 Games, however, is an ideal opportunity for Canada to promote its ties with the countries of the Americas and raise its image in that region — an image that has been tarnished in some circles in recent years.

In 2007, Stephen Harper launched an Americas Strategy designed to signal that the region was now a high-level foreign policy priority for Canada. The strategy contains three objectives: promoting economic prosperity; promoting security, democracy, freedom, human rights and rule of law, and, finally, “fostering lasting relationships.”

Since the launch of the Americas Strategy, the government’s major focus has been on signing free trade agreements and promoting Canadian trade and investment. The goal of fostering relationships has been very much an afterthought. Achievements under this category have been largely limited to bilateral visits by Canadian government members and officials to Latin American and Caribbean countries and low-profile initiatives such as support for tourism and scholarships for student exchanges.

Meanwhile, support for Canadian non-governmental organizations, which used to be the real leaders in cultivating people-to-people relationships between Canada and the Americas, has come under siege. Some Canadian NGOs with decades of engagement with the region have been defunded or have seen their funding drastically cut, while others are under-going debilitating politically motivated audits by the Canada Revenue Agency.

The only think-tank promoting research and mutual understanding on the countries of the Americas, FOCAL, lost its funding several years ago. Other NGOs are increasingly tied to Canadian government funding priorities and have lost their capacity as independent voices connecting civil societies in Canada and the region.

And Canada’s prestige has declined in recent years as a result of the imposition of a visa on Mexicans travelling to Canada, scandals over Canadian spying operations in Mexico and Brazil, and the operations of some Canadian mining companies.

At the same time, Canada’s position in the hemisphere is increasingly marginalized as the Organization of American States has been weakened over the years by the rise of other regional organizations and the lack of constructive dialogue between Canada and the U.S. on the one hand and the other countries of the Americas on the other over sensitive issues like drugs, immigration, and the role of Cuba.

The Pan American ideal has always been a contested one. A U.S.-led project dominated the hemisphere for many years, but U.S. influence has been challenged by a group of leftist Latin American governments promoting a Bolivarian vision of Latin American independence from the powerful countries of the north .

Hosting the Pan Am Games, while a small and largely symbolic measure, could serve as a launch-pad for Canada to play important role as a bridge between the countries of the north and those further south.

Playing this role, however, requires us to move beyond celebratory rhetoric and devote more resources and more political will to cultivate more egalitarian and respectful relations with our neighbours to the south. Whatever party wins the next election should put this on its to-do list.