As colonies of the former British Empire, a common history forms the basis for the centuries-long friendship between Canada and the Commonwealth Caribbean. Later, through active support for CARICOM’s integration process and the establishment of its single market and economy, Canada’s development support also reached Suriname, the only Dutch-speaking CARICOM member. Concern for the serious development challenges and stability of the sole French-speaking republic in the hemisphere has driven Canada’s relations with Haiti, the newest member of CARICOM. Also important in the mix of CARICOM/Canada relations are people-to-people exchanges through tourism, labour relations, academia and migration.
Canada’s visibility in CARICOM states through official, private sector and civil society channels is heightened in times of natural disaster when Canada has been among the first to provide relief and emergency assistance, in addition to ongoing aid for the region’s disaster mitigation programs.
Memberships in multilateral organizations, such as the Commonwealth, the Organization of American States and the United Nations, have been important platforms for interaction between heads of state/government and other representatives from CARICOM states and Canada. For example, Canada represents most CARICOM states on the executive boards of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. At the multilateral level, shared values have prompted support for and even formal endorsement of each other’s initiatives.
Frequent consultation, including in CARICOM-Canada Summits, encouraged CARICOM states to believe that Canada on the UN Security Council would be another positive voice on global issues of significant concern to the region. Canada’s 1999/2000 membership of the Security Council overlapped with Jamaica’s 2000/2001 and arguably saw the most substantive and consistent consultations between those states.
Recently, the relationship has centred primarily on CIDA’s work within the region, with little effort to develop a diversified relationship in the Caribbean, as Canada focused on ensuring its own policy space in the international arena. The last CARICOM-Canada Summit was held in 2001. Apparently taken for granted were the traditional Caribbean friendships and their political support for Canada’s positions at the multilateral level.
Development support to the region waned as Canada reoriented its bilateral development policy (2006) to focus on a core group of 25 countries that excluded most of CARICOM. Trade negotiations to replace the one-way free trade agreement, CARIBCAN, initiated in 2005 at CARICOM’s request, petered out as both Canada and CARICOM focused on the WTO Doha Development Round and on various bilateral trade negotiations.
CARICOM governments welcomed Canada’s 2007 announced decision to re-engage with traditional Caribbean friends. Doubling development financing for the region to $600 million for 2007/2017 was a significant feature of that decision. Beyond that, here was an opportunity to build a mature relationship with a trusted neighbour who had a respected voice in several important bodies including the OECD and the G20, which by their nature excludes CARICOM.
Acting on the decision to re-engage with CARICOM, Prime Minister Stephen Harper met several CARICOM heads of government in Barbados in July 2007. He announced programs for regional development through capacity building, affirmed that Canada would host the next CARICOM/Canada Summit during 2008, and declared Canada’s decision to re-launch trade negotiations with CARICOM.
Apparently, Canada’s expectation was that these negotiations could be concluded in a short time. Thus the Summit would have a substantive document, if not the final text, for consideration. This view was perhaps based on traditional linkages with the region: trade agreements Canada recently concluded with countries in Latin America and the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), which CARICOM also recently concluded with the European Union. Politically, CARICOM favours an agreement with Canada, but advocates a “trade and development” agreement with specific development support targeting capacity and supply-side constraints. Governments also recognize the need to allow their private sector and relevant public agencies time to digest the implications of the EPA implementation. Thus, CARICOM has yet to agree to begin negotiations with Canada.
It is expected that the Summit will take place later this year. Meanwhile, Canada’s prime minister has scheduled a meeting with CARICOM heads while he attends the Summit of the Americas scheduled for Trinidad and Tobago, April 16 to 19. Trade and development issues could well be on their agenda.
Additionally, the region, whose economic vulnerability has worsened in the global economic downturn, could only benefit from Canada’s bilateral and multilateral cooperation in crafting an appropriate response to its current and emerging challenges. Clearly, the wider re-engagement agenda fostered by the CARICOM/Canada traditional friendship will demand pragmatism on both sides.
Her Excellency Evadne Coye is the High Commissioner of Jamaica to Canada, and chairs the Caricom Group in Ottawa. She has been Ambassador to the European Union and to Mexico.