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Globe and Mail photo illustration. Photos: Getty Images

John Baird, the new Foreign Affairs Minister, should be encouraged to deepen Canada's engagement with the hemisphere by supporting and expanding the government's Americas Strategy. The region is important for reasons that resonate with both our national interest and our shared values.

Latin America is forecast to grow at over 4 per cent annually for the coming five years. Its burgeoning democracies are carrying out reforms and strengthening institutional infrastructures, thereby improving lives and providing a brighter future for its people. Consequently, many countries are investing and participating in the region in myriad ways. Canada must not get pushed aside or fail to seize opportunities for fuller engagement with the potential and dynamism in its own hemispheric neighbourhood.

Fortified democratic governance and enhanced human rights in Latin America serve commercial interests in Canada. Robust institutional frameworks underpin stable economies and encourage trade and investment. Functional police and judicial systems, strong financial and fiscal governance mechanisms, resilient regulatory frameworks, healthy people, and modern education systems preparing young people for global realities are economic indicators sought by mobile international capital. Canada can and should take a leadership role in supporting efforts to build those indicators. It has a history and reputation to build on, but the current scale is too small.

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The region offers tremendous economic resource potential, both natural and human. Canadian mining companies represent more than half of all mining investment in the region. Our national corporate giants - Barrick, Bombardier, Magna, RIM, and Teck are obvious ones - employ thousands of Latin Americans. Scotiabank alone employs more than 32,000 people in the region. Increasing numbers of Canadian small and medium enterprises are curious about the possibilities Latin America offers: its human resource base and its expanding middle class.

Supporting and enhancing stable and safe environments that benefit Canadian commercial interests makes good sense. So does encouraging and enabling increasingly skilled Latin Americans to visit us, to do business with us, to teach us and to learn from us.

Our aging population means we face worrying labour shortages in the not-distant future. By encouraging young Canadians to be ambassadors for social, academic, research, and business interests in this vibrant and culturally rich region, and by maintaining open and hospitable opportunities for education, employment, travel, and business for our Latin American neighbours, we could weave a dynamic social and economic hemispheric tapestry that would enrich our lives in many ways.

Education and work opportunities do exist in both directions, but they require publicity, expansion and deepening. Latin American studies programs need to include economic and political analysis; business and journalism programs need to develop ongoing institutional relationships. Academic exchange programs should develop collaborative research agendas, and business partnerships should launch joint ventures. And of course, it is essential that all visa requirements be simple, uniform and affordable.

Threatening to overwhelm the promise of the region are its grave security issues. While impressive recent growth rates are creating a growing middle class, persistent underdevelopment and poverty exacerbate social inequalities. The demographic between the ages of 17 and 25 is a valuable potential work force; it can also pose a serious security threat. Only economic development will allow education and employment opportunities to supersede those offered by organized criminal networks. Only fully functional policing and legal systems will weaken the power of those networks.

Canada's commitment of a renewable $15-million annual regional security fund is a start, but more is needed. In Central America, where homicide rates are currently the highest in the world, country leaders admit they are losing control. According to the 2010 Latinobarometro poll, crime is the single highest concern of every country in the region. However, Canada still drags its feet in becoming a full member of the co-operative hemispheric policing network. How does this make humanitarian or economic sense?

Canada needs to pay attention to developments in the region. Latin America is strategically very important to the U.S., but historic legacies breeding mistrust and suspicion persist. Meanwhile, the growing Chinese focus on Brazil shouldn't distract us from the fact that Chinese interests are also building football stadiums in Costa Rica, roads in Jamaica and bridges in Peru. If Canada fails to be a leader in its own hemisphere, others will step in and reap the rich rewards.

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Jennifer Jeffs is president of the Canadian International Council.

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