Today is Canada Day, marking the anniversary of the British North American Act of 1867 when Canada started on the road from colony to nationhood. Marking this national day by interviewing Canadian Ambassador Reid Sirrs, the Times began with the symbolism of the occasion itself before proceeding to more concrete aspects of his work handling the relationship with Argentina.
Volunteering the definition of the difference between Canada and its giant (although geographically smaller) neighbour as two Qs, the Queen and Québec (at least until last year), the Times asked the envoy for his take on the Canadian identity.
Sirrs began by paying tribute to the late monarch as a true representative of the Commonwealth during her long reign – if mother to the United Kingdom, she was “Canada’s aunt.” Asked how the transition to King Charles III ran so smoothly in Canada in the form of last October’s overwhelming 266-44 parliamentary vote against a motion to cut ties with the British monarchy when often controversial elsewhere, he replied that Canada was quite happy as a Commonwealth country and if there was to be a change to something so fundamental, it should be given much more time, even in today’s fast-moving world.
And the Canadian identity? Self-effacing, self-critical and producing more than its share of comedians – at a more serious and collective level, more prone to seeking consensus for its objectives than its giant neighbour. But also an identity in a state of flux with only a shrinking percentage now able to sing the first lines of the national anthem: “O Canada! Our home and native land!” as a literal truth. A huge country with vast natural resources but a low population (much smaller than even a sparsely populated Argentina although three times its size) screams for immigrants and is welcoming them at the rate of several hundred thousand a year with an ever richer multicultural identity as the result. Not least Ukrainians in recent months, with Canada already having the world’s second-largest Ukrainian population before the war. And this year it has also become easier for Argentines to enter. But to everybody Canada offers a free and fair country and a tolerant society – a mosaic, not a melting-pot, Sirrs insists.
An immigrant society in a vast but underpopulated country rich in natural resources and with a giant neighbour – does that sound familiar here? Canada and Argentina have more in common than being the two book-ends of the hemisphere (a geographical circumstance also making them more vulnerable to climate change, Sirrs points out, since Polar countries are the most affected, as Canada is now bearing witness with 250 forest fires and minimal visibility in smoky Ottawa).
Those natural resources led to the next question. Beyond the obvious inquiry into the Canadian role in the scramble for lithium (Vancouver-based Lithium Americas Corp.), the Times pointed to two faces of Canada in this area – on the one hand, the intense activity of dozens of mining companies (including such prominent investors as McEwen, Lundin and Consolidated Uranium) and on the other, famous film director James Cameron’s highly public complaint about being “ambushed” into seeming to support lithium extraction in Jujuy when he had gone there to promote solar energy. Which was the true face of Canada?
Sirrs began his reply by saying that Canada was represented by its people rather than any one sector like mining or its outstanding individuals such as Cameron. Having said that, the extraction of natural resources had always been a bedrock of the economy from the beaver furs and timber taken to Europe in colonial times centuries ago to the metals and fossil fuels of more recent times but mining has come a long way from being the dirty business it once was, learning the hard way. Even such notorious culprits as the oil sands have improved.
Corporate social responsibility is now the name of the game with sensitivity to both the environment and native communities – so much so that Canadian law prevails for companies abroad if operating in countries with softer legislation in order to eliminate any environmental terrorism, thus setting international standards. This has applied not only to underdeveloped countries but also to Donald Trump when he lowered the bar – within the auto pact with the United States dating back to 1965, Canada is going all out for electric cars.
Turning to lithium, Sirrs sought to place the current fad in perspective. Firstly, it was not the only game in town – one solution but others are being explored. Secondly, the access varies – in Canada it is extracted from rocks, not from salt flats like Argentina’s northern provinces. And thirdly, lithium only accounts for three percent of batteries, which contain more copper – the latter is indeed more the interest of Canadian miners like Rob McEwen, seeking to catch up on the long neglect of the metal on this side of the Andes following the traditional division of labour between mining in mountainous Chile and agriculture in the fertile pampas.
But moving beyond mining, Sirrs would like to plug Argentina’s tourist potential with so much to offer – mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and all the local colour of the North – impossible to see it all during his mission here (nor even the capital city around which he likes to cycle).
Before proceeding to the number-crunching side of the relationship, the envoy underlined Canada’s progress from being hewers of wood and drawers of water to world-class technology (information and otherwise – from the pioneering BlackBerry smartphones to providing Argentina with Candu nuclear reactors) and prize-winning wines.
Last year Canada contributed almost a billion dollars towards Argentina’s trade surplus, importing almost US$1.3 billion while exporting US$325 million here – 70 percent of Argentine exports are base or precious metals as against 20 percent food while the breakdown for imports from Canada is one third mineral products, one third machinery and chemicals a quarter. Canadian direct investment totals over US$3.7 billion.
Previously Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2020 with earlier postings in Honduras and Tanzania, Sirrs has always placed Argentina at the top of his preferences for family reasons. His great-great-grandfather Alexander Reid was a merchant seaman who docked here during the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870) with a frustrated arms delivery to Paraguay – where Reid Sirrs is also Canada’s diplomatic representative. One of his daughters ended up in Rosario where the envoy’s grandmother was born, meeting her husband in Tigre while an uncle was raised in Buenos Aires. It’s a small hemisphere as well as a small world.