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The Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) is no longer in operation. This website documents FOCAL's activities and accomplishments throughout its existence. Thank you for your interest in the work of FOCAL.

FOCAL genesis

Edgar J. Dosman

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The Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Since all organizations are shaped in part by the circumstances of their birth, it may be worthwhile to reflect on FOCAL’s genesis. The original concept for FOCAL emerged from a special sub-committee of the House of Commons Standing Committee on External Affairs and National Defence on Canada’s relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, a now long-forgotten effort chaired by MP Maurice Dupras between 1981 and 1982. Assisted by a distinguished membership, Dupras’s thoughtful and carefully-crafted reports stressed the growing complexity and importance of the region. “Canada,” he argued, “is a nation of the Americas.” While the Mexican 1982 debt crisis overwhelmed the prevailing optimism on the region’s short-term prospects, the sub-committee correctly identified the knowledge gap in Canadian-Latin American relations as a fundamental, long-term obstacle to closer ties. Dupras challenged the policy community to redress this deficiency, underlining the “need for deeper understanding and sensitivity” in Canada’s relations with the region, and the urgency “to promote an awareness of Latin American and Caribbean affairs among Canadians.” 

An opening was thus created and York University’s new Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) led a high-level task force comprising business, senior officials from Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) and academic representatives to explore the establishment of what would become FOCAL. The task force devoted a great deal of time to achieve consensus on the conceptual underpinnings of FOCAL. “The problem,” it argued, “was that business, government and academic constituencies involved in Latin America and the Caribbean share overlapping interests.” The task force concluded that these constituencies lacked a mechanism to identify and tap into common interests. Overcoming this endemic Canadian problem of competitive fragmentation required a new trilateral forum for business, government and academia to strengthen Canadian-Latin American linkages. 

This forum could be headed by a “secretariat” to pursue four proposed objectives. First it was to serve as a catalyst to identify and test opportunities and emerging interests. Second, it would command the required expertise to gather the foremost knowledge around priority issue-areas for its constituencies including Canadian, regional and international experts as well as international organizations and NGOs. This would allow Canadian actors to develop appropriate strategies for enhanced co-operation in the region and keep them informed about “research priorities and gaps in knowledge, market intelligence, etc.” The third objective was information co-ordination to encourage inter-disciplinarity. Finally the new body would promote networking, as a “national focal point” to strengthen linkages and promote interchanges between Canadian actors and their counterparts across the region, and to bolster Canada’s image and visibility in the region and within multilateral organizations to enhance opportunities for Canadians. This forum would maintain an independent arms-length relationship with all sectors, DFAIT included, to ensure genuine dialogue and accomplish its objectives. 

In 1986, however, the proto-FOCAL task force collapsed due to faltering support. After the debt crisis, Latin America lay prostrate before its worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression, definitively terminating the 1970s commodity and credit boom. The situation was grim: Latin America became identified with “four Ds”: dictatorship, debt, drugs and desertification. U.S.-Latin American relations were paralyzed by the wars in Central America; the already weak Organization of American States (OAS) was now even more irrelevant and Canada opted to limit its role to that of Permanent Observer. Then, on top of everything else the Canadian Association-Latin America and Caribbean (CALA), task force partner and key business lobby advocating for the region in Canada, was disbanded. At the time, enhancing Canadian ties with Asia seemed much more promising than engaging in our hemisphere.

The prospects for FOCAL were indeed bleak. But only three years later the stars in Ottawa suddenly aligned, and so recently consigned to the garbage can of failed initiatives, FOCAL was back on the agenda. The opening of markets and restoration of democracy in Latin America reversed the negative perceptions of the 1980s, while the petering out of the Cold War transformed the prospects for a resolution of the civil wars in Central America. In Canada there was a new impulse from all sectors for more activism toward Latin America. Canadian NGO and student interest in the region had vastly expanded during the 1980s and now business, universities and government feared missed opportunities. For its part DFAIT was finally ready to address the Americas: the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement was signed; ties with the Asia-Pacific region had deepened; and other issues such as the apartheid crisis in South Africa were on their way to resolution. Early 1989, a new group of DFAIT officials headed by Ambassadors Louise Fréchette and Richard Gorham restored the spirit and language of the Dupras reports by proposing the development of a new long-term strategy for Latin America, which was swiftly approved by Secretary of State Joe Clark and Cabinet. On Oct. 27, 1989 then-prime minister Brian Mulroney informed a meeting of hemispheric leaders that Canada had finally decided to take its seat in the OAS.

FOCAL re-emerged as a concrete initiative of the new Latin America policy that same year when DFAIT sought public input and pushed an agenda-building session with business, NGO, academic and government representatives. The meeting confirmed the growing interest in Latin America within all regions and sectors of Canada; it also emphasized the need for an independent forum such as FOCAL to assist policy formation, strengthen linkages and identify interests. The conclusions of the earlier task force were therefore dusted off and adopted without change, and the creation of FOCAL in Ottawa was included in the final draft of the Memorandum to Cabinet. In September 1990, the newly-created entity began operations as the Canada-Latin America Forum.

The new organization, however, was born with a fundamental disadvantage: seriously inadequate funding. FOCAL’s creation coincided with the first serious cuts to DFAIT’s budget and the financial commitment proved insufficient to launch the ambitious program envisaged in the new Latin America policy. The budgetary crisis so familiar throughout FOCAL’s history therefore began on Day 1.

This resource gap required an immediate adjustment of structure and priorities. Instead of a separate board of directors, the new organization saved resources by sharing space and services within the North-South Institute. Fundraising began immediately: support from alternative public sector sources, universities and foundations, as well as international partners sufficiently augmented and diversified income to underpin an arms-length relationship with DFAIT and avoid a premature Contribution Agreement by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Meanwhile offices with regionally-specific programs in Quebec City (Université Laval), Western Canada (University of Calgary) and Atlantic Canada (University of New Brunswick) were set up to harness additional public and financial support across Canada —they would close a few years later. 

These were very good years: a small but excellent staff, creative programs, policy access, growing Canadian influence and regional linkages, and official and public credibility. In the bleak post-Meech aftermath the promotion of ties with Latin America across the country and across sectors also offered a modest national unity activity spanning the linguistic divide. Overall the early 1990s witnessed a unique Canadian enthusiasm for the Western Hemisphere and the unexpected North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations combined with the revival of the OAS confirmed that Canada’s relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean had entered a new stage. Indeed, Canadian diplomacy within and outside the OAS was both creative and successful; partnerships with the region multiplied at every level, with FOCAL increasingly recognized for consolidating these new ties as well as enhancing Canada’s overall visibility. A bright future could be imagined.

By 1993 FOCAL was an established and independent think-tank based in Ottawa and struck out on its own, incorporating as a separate organization in Ottawa with its own board of directors, and re-named the Canadian Foundation for the Americas to reflect its confidence as a permanent member of the Ottawa policy community. In the following years this confidence was rewarded with growth and momentum: FOCAL emerged as a leading clearing-house for Canadian-Latin American linkages, introducing and incorporating specialists from across the country into the full range of Western Hemisphere networks. 

But early successes could not disguise the permanent challenges confronting FOCAL which would continue to require good fortune and dexterous management. The fortuitous alignment of stars in Ottawa that had accompanied FOCAL’s creation and early years was inherently fragile as governments changed and officials in DFAIT, CIDA and other agencies were replaced. Diversification of resources was bound to remain difficult as all sectors in Canada confronted recession, deficits and budgetary contraction during the 1990s. The other precondition of FOCAL’s credibility, mandate and success as an independent think-tank depended on the continuing endorsement of former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s original vision: an arms-length relationship to government for enlarging input and enhancing the overall quality of Canadian policy-making toward the region.  

At the turn of the millennium and in the following years, these challenges to FOCAL’s growth and survival deepened. Dependence on CIDA and DFAIT has inexorably grown despite its manifold program successes. National think-tanks depend on stable, long-term and flexible funding to survive and fulfil their crucial role —this lesson has long been learned by our competitors as well as Canada’s own development agencies working in the South. FOCAL knows what to do, but it cannot live on management acrobatics alone. 

What remains, and provides optimism for resurgence in the next 20 years, is the increasing recognition by all sectors of the centrality of the Americas for Canada’s future and therefore the continuing vitality of FOCAL’s mandate. With the massive changes now underway in the region the Foundation, born in adversity, has never been more important.

Edgar J. Dosman is Founding Executive Director of FOCAL. The archives documenting the evolution of FOCAL during the 1980s, including the membership, meetings and discussion papers of the task force, are housed at York University’s Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC); some documentation is drawn from his own private papers. He is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International and Security Studies at York University. His most recent book is The Life and Times of Raul Prebisch 1901-86.


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