COVER

CANADA'S HELPING HAND

HILARY MACKENZIE February 23 1987
COVER

CANADA'S HELPING HAND

HILARY MACKENZIE February 23 1987

CANADA'S HELPING HAND

More than $1 million worth of clothing, tools and medical supplies was packed last week in Vancouver for shipment on the first available freighter to the Pacific port of Corinto, Nicaragua. The cargo of private Canadian relief supplies brings to $6.5 million the value of gifts to the beleaguered Central American country since 1981 from Tools for Peace, a Vancouver-based aid organization with committees in 120 Canadian communities. To the thousands of volunteers who collected and packed the donated goods—from saws and hammers to medical syringes and sanitary napkins—the supplies are part of an economic lifeline to a country beset by war and poverty. Many people also regard the aid as a gesture of political support for a small nation under hostile pressure from the United States. Said John Foster of Toronto, a United Church of Canada member of the Inter Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America: “The shipment symbolizes Canadian desire for the survival of the new Nicaragua.”

Official Canadian aid to Nicaragua has fluctuated over recent years but is almost three times as high this year as it was five years ago. But there is growing pressure for a more assertively pro-Nicaragua policy from private groups and individuals —including some politicians. Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott, for one, will join eight other members of the provincial legislature on a 10-day visit to Nicaragua in March. Although the Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic Party members will travel as private citizens, Richard Johnston, the trip’s NDP organizer, said that they will promote increased development and trade. Scott, citing the U.S.-backed contra war against the Sandinistas, said he found the U.S. role to be “frankly, alarming.” Added Scott: “I think Canadians and Americans and others who feel like I do should make their feeling known.”

Despite Canada’s close ties with the United States, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have criticized Reagan administration policy on

Nicaragua and given diplomatic support to peace efforts led locally by Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venèzuela in the so-called Contadora process. But many Canadians believe that Ottawa should provide more aid to Nicaragua and play a more energetic role in support of peace talks. Said Tools for Peace adviser Foster: “Canada is in the centre of a historical road because American policy has veered off into the right ditch.”

Critical: Some Canadians, however, oppose any official Canadian aid to the Sandinista regime. Among them: members of the conservative Torontobased Citizens for Foreign Aid Reform Inc. (C-FAR), who say that Ottawa should not support governments that are radically opposed to Canadian values. Said C-FAR cofounder Paul Fromm, a high school teacher in Mississauga, Ont.: “We would agree with Elliott Abrams, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, that Canadian aid is shoring up a Marxist regime in Nicaragua.” For his part, Abrams told Maclean's: “We are critical of democracies that

have taken a somewhat neutral position as between the oppressors and the oppressed, and we urge people to put as much pressure as possible on Nicaragua.” Regarding Canada’s criticism of U.S. policy, Abrams said, “We tend to think that we know more about Central America than you do.”

Still, Ottawa’s special parliamentary committee on Canada’s international relations reported that it received “more submissions on Central America than any other issue” during a 1986 study of foreign aid and other policies. Fully 200 of the 275 political, church and private aid organizations that submitted briefs to the committee called for more active support for Nicaragua.

Many Canadian volunteers in Nicaragua take a similar position. Farmers John Mitchell, 41, and his brother-in-law Blaine Bowersock, 39, both from Vauxhall, Alta., paid their own way last month to spend five weeks manning an

Oxfam mobile workshop that travels around northern Nicaragua repairing farm machinery. “These people will go to their deaths to keep what they’ve got,” said Mitchell. A group of 12 other Canadian farmers who went to teach Nicaraguan peasants how to repair farm machinery included Dick Wisner of Glenbush, Sask., and Margaret Jardine, of Saskatoon. Said Wisner, referring to U.S. charges that Nicaragua is a Marxist police state: “It doesn’t seem like [that]. If we Canadians were fighting a war like this at home, we wouldn’t have much in the way of freedoms either.”

Some Canadian voluntary organizations also say that Ottawa should set up an embassy in Managua instead of conducting relations with Nicaragua through its ambassador to neighboring Costa Rica, who also covers Panama and El Salvador. As well, those organizations want Ottawa to appoint a permanent observer to attend all Contadora meetings. Still, even critics who press for a stronger Canadian role concede that Ottawa has maintained its independence of U.S. policy in declining to view the Sandinistas as a Communist threat to the Western Hemisphere. And although Ottawa has voiced concern over civil and human rights violations by the Sandinista government, and has criticized Soviet arms supplies to Nicaragua, it has also opposed U.S. intervention. In a speech

last September to the Inter American Press Association in Vancouver, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney spoke out against third-party intervention “whoever the third party may be and regardless of its legitimate interests in the area.” Mulroney added: “We do not approve of any country supplying arms to any faction in the area.” At the United Nations last November, Canada broke with its Western allies to support a motion condemning U.S. intervention.

Earlier, when Washington imposed a trade embargo against Nicaragua in May, 1985, Canada provided a new home in Toronto to Nicaragua’s Miami-based trade office. Since then, in the face of U.S. pressure to curtail loans and grants to Nicaragua by such institutions as the International Monetary Fund, Canada’s aid has increased to a peak of almost $12 million two years ago from less than $3 million in 1982. Total aid exceeded $8 million in the fiscal year ending March 31.

Canada’s policy is based on a fundamental disagreement with the United States over the root causes of Central America’s problems. While Washington accuses the Soviet Union and Cuba of fomenting revolution, Ottawa takes the position that social and economic

factors are at the heart of the region’s unrest. Insists External Affairs director general John Graham: “It is not because we find it therapeutic for reasons of shallow nationalism to make anti-American noises.”

Still, Nicaraguan officials say that Ottawa could do more, both diplomatically and in helping to promote trade.

In 1985, the year that Nicaragua’s Deltonic Trading Corp. moved to Toronto, the value of two-way trade between Nicaragua and Canada fell to $44 million from $67.8 million the previous year. Much of the decline was due to Nicaragua’s lack of foreign currency and credit. Nearly bankrupt, and $90 million in debt to Canadian banks, Nicaragua is rated “off cover” by the Canadian Export Development Bank, which means the bank will not insure loans to fund Nicaraguan purchases from Canada.

Trade: Still, trade did increase in 1986, Deltonic’s first full year of operation in Canada. Since then, more than 200 Canadian companies have discovered new markets in Nicaragua. Last year trade between Canada and Nicaragua rose to $56 million. Canada imported mainly beef, seafood and molasses worth $34 million while selling Nicaragua $22 million worth of construction equipment, wheat, grain products and tobacco. Deltonic president Jorge Chamorro, citing a need for Canadian trade credits, said, “I would like more help from the Canadian government.”

Nicaragua’s ambassador in Canada, Sergio Lacayo, says he is encouraged by the growing private Canadian trade

and aid. The latest Tools for Peace shipment, he said, is “a symbol of the way in which ordinary Canadians can relate to a country which is standing up to the ominous power of the United States.”

— HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa with

SHERRI AIKENHEAD