Know your neighbours

Whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney prevails on Nov. 6, official Ottawa should be asking itself the same question.

Whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney prevails on Nov. 6, official Ottawa should be asking itself the same question.

Do we even know our neighbours anymore?

With the most fundamental demographic shift of our lifetimes unfolding before their eyes, successive Canadian governments have blissfully continued traditional relations on traditional matters based on a United States that no longer exists.

There is no evidence that foreign affairs has paid anything more than lip service to the Hispanic explosion south of the border, a cultural and business transformation happening outside the doors of our consulates and embassies, with Canada as spectator.

Inaction has a price.

By not reaching out to the new Hispanic U.S., Canada is unable to bring its message to this group.

It loses out on tourism, it falls behind on attracting both skilled Hispanic immigrants and temporary foreign workers who pick fruit, work in hotels and, yes, meat packing plants, doing jobs Canadians are unwilling to take.

It means we are missing niche trade and business opportunities because Hispanic buying habits and preferences are different than those of African Americans.

It means we are not crafting environmental policy that will conform with a segment of the U.S. population that, polling shows, is more protective of the natural environment than Americans as a whole, whether because they are working in environmentally threatening environments or live in areas that are more likely to be fouled by industry.

And it means we are losing the battle for attention from U.S. political and business elites who routinely vacation in Caribbean and Latin American locales where the potential photo-ops are better for business and re-election prospects.

As it has let this potential Hispanic message get away, the Harper Conservatives have closed five U.S. consulates: Anchorage, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

“We have cut our ability to deliver the message even as we have cut our ability to determine what that message should be,’’ says Carlo Dade, a senior fellow at University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies.

In a previous life, this transplanted American and World Bank official was the executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), the country’s only think tank dedicated to policy research on Canada’s place in the Western Hemisphere.

He went to Foreign Affairs with a detailed plan to help Ottawa understand how U.S. Hispanics see Canada, how the way this country describes itself works with Hispanics.

He wanted to help craft a message that would have an impact on an ethnic population that has grown 43 per cent over the past decade, and will be 30 per cent of the U.S. population by 2050 (double the size of the African American population).

Dade recalls the problems faced by our Dallas consulate staff when it approached the association representing Texas homebuilders during the softwood lumber dispute, expecting to sit down with “Billy Bob and Bobby Ray.”

“Instead, they encountered Juan and Julio and Roberto. Billy Bob had left the building.”

Ottawa did move on this, creating a program named HISPANET, involving the embassy in Washington and eight consulates, aimed at “intelligence gathering” for better advocacy of the Canadian interest and better knowledge of the economic benefit of Canadian links to the Hispanic community.

That was five years ago. The program was quietly allowed to die because of spending cuts.

Despite that, the federal government maintains it reaches out to Hispanics worldwide “to forge deeper people-to-people ties.”

Hispanics became the largest minority in the U.S. nine years ago, and their population has more than doubled in Alabama and Kentucky. They are the largest minority in key states that border Canada.

Every month, some 50,000 to 60,000 U.S.-born Hispanics turn 18 and become eligible to vote.

Ottawa might get lucky. Maybe Canadian neglect will not hurt us on trade, it will make no difference on immigration, it will not become key, in hindsight, to a waning influence in the U.S.

But neglect is not a policy.

There were 24.3 million eligible voters in Canada in 2011. There are 21.3 million registered Hispanic voters in the U.S. this year. There is no sign Ottawa knows anything about them.

The Los Angeles Times recently pointed out the difference between traditional America and Hispanic America.

An ad for a truck in the Midwest would show beer-drinking men and the American flag, but an ad for the same truck targeting Hispanics would show them hauling construction equipment and working on their farms.

“We are still using flags and beers to sell our trucks,” Dade says.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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