Toward a More Brazilian Canada

Jennifer Jeffs on what Canada can learn from Brazil's economic rise.
By: /
August 7, 2013
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Minister Baird’s visit to seven countries in Central and South America, concluding with Brazil, to continue the annual Canada-Brazil Strategic Partnership Dialogue commenced last year, is a reassuring indication of the Harper Government’s commitment to building and consolidating relationships in the Americas. Taking time and effort to understand the region and its dynamics will pay off in terms of status and influence as it has in the past, but Canada can also derive lessons from the region. In this respect, Brazil, the final stop, deserves particular attention. 

A vast country, Brazil is one of the world’s major producers of food, energy, and minerals, and the number one producer of coffee, sugar cane, and orange juice.  Abundantly rich in natural resources, it has leveraged these endowments for increased prosperity. It has also consistently engaged globally with particular countries and regions over the past two decades as part of a strategy to ensure sustainable economic growth, a tactic Canada would do well to emulate. Brazil has also used its natural and strategic resources over the the past decade to transform itself into a global power – the 6th largest economy in the world – that features as strong a sense of social purpose as of economic might.

In the 1990s, President Cardoso saw active insertion into the global economic and political order as essential for democratic consolidation of democracy for addressing inequality. Lula’s populist galvanization of Brazil’s potential early in the next decade produced a unique social compact that not only supported development, lifting 12 million people out of poverty, but also supported expansion of Brazil’s regional and global leadership.

The extent to which Brazil is accepted as the region’s leader is debatable – countries such as Colombia and Argentina, balk at Brazilian dominance – but its emergence as a counterweight to the United States in the Americas and voice for the Global South is clear. Cardoso’s government resisted the FTAA proposal; refused to participate in Clinton’s Plan Colombia; and strongly opposed both the Cuban embargo and the attempt to depose Chavez in 2002.  Lula opposed the Honduras coup and the United States’ refusal to back the deposed president’s return. The decision to back Iran’s pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy was further indication that Brazil had no intention of aligning its foreign policy with that of the United States.

Under Lula Brazil opened 33 new embassies, 19 consulates and 5 new diplomatic missions, forging an important global presence while becoming the nexus for regional institutions and initiatives - Mercosur, Unasur, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Today Brazil boasts one of the highest rates of foreign investment in the world, and it participates as vigorously at the World Economic Forum in Davos as it does at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. Recent protests result from the expectations of the new middle class, an indicator of the fast pace of social as well as economic development.

Canada’s commercial competition with Brazil in areas including agriculture, energy, minerals and aerospace, combined with Brazil’s leadership on the climate file, have pushed Canada-Brazil relations to concentrate on specific issues. While focusing on science and technology, energy, and education is key to moving relations forward, approaches to common concerns such as resource and diversity management and inequality warrant observation.

Brazil’s population is amongst the most varied in the world. Approaching 200 million people and encompassing African, European, Middle Eastern, and Indigenous peoples, Brazil also boasts the largest Japanese population outside Japan; the largest Italian population outside Italy; and the largest Lebanese population outside Lebanon. While developing, Brazil created a redistributive system to address issues faced by those most economically and socially disadvantaged, regardless of race, tenure, ethnicity, or geography. While results are mixed, the concept of a social contract between the country’s wealthiest people and its poorest, entailing those with the most helping those with the least, is well entrenched.

There is a lesson here for Canada. Our social fabric exhibits the largely successful integration of people and cultures attracted by social and political freedom and economic opportunity. Today, however, as Canada seeks to develop its northern regions, natural resources, and energy infrastructure, relations and communications with indigenous peoples remain shamefully under-developed, and the needs and aspirations of many communities woefully misunderstood, or worse, ignored. As we work towards a compact with our own people to gain that essential social license to operate, better understanding the terms of Brazil’s emergence and current social unrest may offer valuable insights.

A version of this article also appears in the Globe and Mail.