Canadian Public Diplomacy at the Festival Cervantino

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
La Jornada Maya

Tuesday October 22, 2019

Last week, at the Cervantino International Festival in Guanajuato, Mexico, I had the pleasure of visiting Canada House, cultural center for this year’s guest country of honor.

As I walked through the various rooms housing a number of intriguing exhibits, I came across a table at which five year old Maria was busy drawing a picture of her family visiting Canada on a paper in the shape of a monarch butterfly. Many see the monarch butterfly as a metaphor of the union between Canada and Mexico since these remarkable insects migrate once a year each way between both countries.

Migration was the main theme of this year’s festival.

The example of Maria that I described above underscores that public diplomacy can sensitize children to this link between Canada and Mexico. To reach children with a message of these links between both countries inculcates sensitivity to this important phenomenon in children. Art, a language that transcends borders and cultures, is an effective first step in sensitizing youth to the possibilities of unity in diversity at a time when the globe is undergoing political and social tectonic shifts.

I came away thinking that if a country can reach a five-year old through public diplomacy, then anything is possible using creativity and appealing messages.

Today, people to people contact is more prevalent than ever, and governments can ignore this fact of life at their own peril. Public diplomacy is key to creating effective and productive networks at local, regional, national, and international levels, and failure to adopt today’s communication technology risks leaving governments behind in the race for influence.

At the festival, I witnessed the ability of Canada to connect with Mexican audiences through a highly effective program of cultural events, conferences, and dialogues.

With a cultural program presented throughout the city and, especially, in a beautifully designed Canada House, Canada, as this year’s guest of honor, engaged Mexicans from all walks of life in a conversation that bridged two highly different cultures and languages – leaving the concept of the “other” behind and encouraging all who came to begin believing in a connected “us”.

What Joseph Nye calls “soft power” consists of engaging the hearts and minds of foreign audiences through dialogue and culture rather than economic or military force. The use of cultural, scientific, and academic relations brings people closer together through a sharing of ideas and values, with each side benefitting.

Cultural products can be most effective when they result in sharing human values, and this comes from the dialogue that occurs around artistic performances and exhibitions and melding them with carefully crafted national messages.

Public diplomacy must focus on three major pillars: know your audience, have effective and emotionally charged messages, and deliver them in highly creative ways.

Canada excelled in this at the Cervantino, and I came away with a number of key messages that Canada delivered superbly.

Guanajuato is a university town, and some of its students who come from all over will someday go on to become leaders in a wide variety of fields. The Festival attracts a broad swath of Mexican artists and opinion makers from a wide variety of fields. In addition, tens of thousands of sophisticated tourists attend the festival, giving it a global reach.

All of them heard Canada’s messages and felt Canada’s presence.

Canada knew its audiences well, and designed activities to engage them in an active and, hopefully, ongoing dialogue that will continue far beyond the end of the Festival.

Canada’s messages were a) empower women and create gender equality, b) promote the reconciliation of non-indigenous and indigenous peoples, c) create an enhanced understanding of and appreciation for the mining sector, since Mexico is the second largest recipient of Canadian mining investment worldwide, d) promote environmental stewardship in an era of climate change and e) underscore the power of migration to strengthen societies.

During my stay in Guanajuato, I also attended a conference at the University of Guanajuato’s School of Mining in which the role of women in mining and corporate social responsibility were discussed. Speaking to an overflow crowd, participants addressed how the Canadian government is promoting the role of women in the mining sector. The Director of Community Relations for a major Canadian mining company in Mexico described her role in promoting the benefits of mining in rural communities, listening to the concerns of residents, and working both with the community and the company to address problems and concerns.

Corporate social responsibility in the mining sector is actively promoted by the Canadian government and embassies around the world through persuasion and Canadian legislation governing the activities of Canadian mining companies abroad. The strategic melding of these two issues spoke volumes about Canadian values and how they can apply to one of Mexico’s basic industries.

There were also several performances by Canadian indigenous groups at the Festival, accompanied by round table dialogues between Canadian and Mexican indigenous people. Canada House had a marvelous award-winning video of Inuit life around which it engaged Canadian and Mexican indigenous communities to come together and share their experiences in coping with their respective societies.

Isolated or semi-isolated indigenous groups find some solace in knowing that they and their problems do not exist in a vacuum. Learning from and sharing their experiences with other indigenous groups strengthens their ability to adapt and develop in a highly competitive world, and face the challenges of keeping their languages and cultures alive in a globalized environment. As well, many mining projects are found in indigenous territories, and the concept of corporate social responsibility and gender equality are germane to the survival of these communities.

Canada House was the hub of Canada’s presence in Guanajuato and, parallel to the official cultural program, it hosted over fifty well-attended conferences and performances bringing Canadian messages to Mexican and foreign audiences. Moreover, it housed several interactive and virtual reality stands where audiences could enjoy a hi-tech experience in environmental stewardship and indigenous life, while gaining an appreciation for Canada’s cutting edge technology in communications and environmental management.

The virtual reality installations were accompanied by Canadian indigenous artists creating their art on the third floor terrace, as well as an elegant restaurant on the premises offering clients a delicious variety of fine Canadian cuisine, including “poutine with carnitas”, melding two Canadian and Mexican favorites. Canada House’s staff was composed of Mexicans who have enjoyed the Canadian experience and who, for three weeks, became ambassadors for Canada in Guanajuato.

In this context, cultural diplomacy can be seen as an essential investment in country branding while creating the relationships that can result in opportunities for Canada such as more exports, investments, and foreign students coming to Canada to gain a greater understanding that can help lead to more effective cooperation over time.

In a world in which we face many trans-border challenges, people and governments must find ways to survive and thrive together, since no one person or government can address these challenges alone.

Governments can create spaces to promote these objectives, but the real exchanges must take place at an individual level through people to people contact in forums such as the Cervantino Festival.

In this respect the Canadian Embassy, the Canada Council, Canada House, and their Mexican counterparts created a space where Canadians and Mexicans could come together to share their personal realities and their hopes and aspirations in a complex ugly world.

Canada’s participation at this Festival has created a base for better awareness of the “other” and will likely, over time; producing an “us” that transcends national boundaries and linguistic and cultural differences.

Connection between peoples is the goal of public diplomacy, and it is a goal that Canada has achieved through its participation.

Maria and others are excellent examples of this connection.

As a Canadian living in Mexico, I saw the best that both countries have to offer, and share in the hope that this dialogue will broaden and deepen at a people level over time.

Bravo Canada!