Governor-General David Johnston is leading a group of 30 university presidents to Brazil — the biggest such delegation ever sent abroad to promote the benefits of Canadian education.
They will travel to Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to meet academics and business leaders in the hope of attracting Brazilian students to Canada, and forging academic partnerships with Brazilian researchers.
Why Brazil? Because Brazil beckons.
Students there have ample new funding to study abroad. Canadian universities are thirsty for foreign students. And research interests at Brazilian universities complement many of the going concerns in Canada, Mr. Johnston said in an interview.
"We have seen a very happy strengthening of relationships between Canada and Brazil, especially over the last three or four years," he said before leaving on the 10-day trip that begins Sunday.
Still, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has just returned from a visit to Colombia, where his dealings with some of South America's emerging powers were prickly.
Canada and the United States blocked an agreement at the Summit of the Americas to bring Cuba into the organization. That overrode support for Cuba from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and others.
But the trade disputes that for years clouded the Canada-Brazil relationship are now far in the past and Canadian business has a keen eye trained on the burgeoning middle class of the Latin American powerhouse.
"From a strategic importance, it would rank with the top three or four countries in the world, I think, in terms of Canadian interests," the Governor General said.
For Mr. Johnston, the trip is a chance to exercise what he calls the diplomacy of knowledge — the shared academic expertise that will lead to stronger trade ties and a more solid relationship between two countries.
Mr. Johnston says that while Canada has a mediocre record in attracting foreign students, Brazil is fertile ground.
He sees "a huge appetite in Brazil for Canadian education. To my great delight, Canada is the most favoured nation for Brazilians studying abroad."
Last year, the Brazilian government announced funding for 75,000 scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students to study abroad. The private sector stepped up to finance an additional 26,000.
Canada wants a big piece of that program, Mr. Johnston said.
"We're anxious in Canada to obtain not only a good share of that, but to use that initiative to promote the diplomacy of knowledge between the two countries."
International education is big business and there is huge potential for growth in Canada, said Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and a driving force behind the Brazil trip.
Selling Canadian education to foreign students brings in more than $6.5-billion in annual revenue, he says.
But Canada trails other countries in this area.
"Canada has about half as many international students in our classrooms as the global standard," Mr. Davidson said.
Foreign students make up about 15 per cent of the university population in most industrialized countries. In Canada, the proportion is about seven per cent, Mr. Davidson said.
But the trip is about more than luring the brightest prospects from emerging markets, said Mr. Johnston.
"You should always be conscious of that and not go to a country with a rapacious attitude that you're going to collect up their best students and bring them here," he said.
Canadian universities hope to set up an exchange of students, as well as research and ideas, added Mr. Davidson.
For example, the delegation will visit a synchroton much like the one at the University of Saskatchewan, only newer, he said. A synchroton is a giant particle accelerator used in many areas of groundbreaking research.
The delegation includes 10 presidents from Canada's 15 major, research-oriented universities. Three parliamentary secretaries and three MPs from different parties are also in the group, along with Mr. Johnston's wife Sharon.
Mr. Johnston will meet Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, attend meetings and deliver speeches at a couple of conferences. After a week in Brazil, he will visit Barbados and then Trinidad and Tobago.