The Latin American community in Canada is not strongly defined, though our contact with the Spanish-speaking world goes back to the country’s origins.
The least-discussed facet of the economic and cultural transformation that began in Canada with the implementation of NAFTA on January 1, 1994, is the fact that of the 450 million people who inhabit the North American Free Trade Area, roughly one-third—more than 100 million in Mexico and more than 45 million in the United States—speak Spanish.
The Latin American community in Canada does not have a strongly defined public image, even though our contact with the Spanish-speaking world goes back to the country’s origins. Some of the first non-indigenous visitors to both our Atlantic and Pacific coasts were of Iberian heritage. Navigators from Spain and Portugal, such as the Corte-Real brothers and João Fernandes, visited Atlantic Canada as early as the summer of 1500. These voyages were the catalyst for increasing numbers of fishermen from the Basque country to spend their summers on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. When Jacques Cartier, heralded by high school history textbooks as the pioneering post-Viking European explorer of eastern Canada, arrived in 1534, Aboriginal Canadians, recognizing Cartier as a European, naturally addressed him in the Basque language of northern Spain.
Men of Hispanic culture were also among the first explorers of Canada’s Pacific Coast. In 1774 Juan José Pérez Hernández, a naval officer based in San Blas, Mexico, sailed up the British Columbia coast as far as Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands). In 1775 the Peruvian captain Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra retraced this route and claimed the coast for Spain. In 1789 the Spaniard Esteban José Martínez constructed the fort in Nootka Sound—Santa Cruz de Nutka, in Spanish—that is often considered to be the first European building on Canada’s Pacific Coast. But these early contacts did not result in Spanish colonization, and the Hispanic cultural presence in Canada soon disappeared.
As recently as 1970, it is unlikely that Canada’s population counted much more than three thousand people of Latin American origin (and even fewer from Spain). The catalyst for the growth of a Latin American community was the military coups in Chile, Uruguay and Argentina between 1973 and 1976. When the United States refused to accept most refugees from military governments that the U.S. supported, tens of thousands of people were diverted to Canada. Most were middle class and well educated; since many knew more French than English, the first beachheads of a Latino-Canadian culture were established in Montreal and Ottawa. Small travel agencies, empanada shops, newspapers and, because the refugees included many writers and avid readers, Spanish-language literary presses, became the first outposts of this new contribution to our cultural mix. The civil wars in Central America in the 1980s diversified Canada’s Hispanic community. Many of the immigrants and refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala came from rural areas and were of indigenous descent; they settled throughout Canada, often in places where unskilled labour was in demand. In the new millennium, Colombia and Venezuela have become major sources of immigration. But it is the passage of NAFTA, which has weakened Mexico’s once-powerful middle class, that has contributed to the greatest change in the Latin American community. Since NAFTA provides for free movement of “professionals,” middle-class Mexicans whose prospects have dimmed at home can settle here with less difficulty than other Latin Americans. In recent years, Mexicans have overtaken Chileans to become the largest Spanish-speaking group in Canada.
Census figures maintain that the Latin American population of Canada is a little more than 250,000 people. This figure is almost certainly too low, just as the one million claimed by one Hispanic lobby group is too high. The probable figure—around 500,000— amounts to about 1.5 percent of Canada’s population, far below the almost 15 percent in the United States, and the more than 30 percent in the entire North American Free Trade Area. This imbalance generates a series of paradoxes in the ways in which Canadians experience Hispanic culture. Products on sale in big box stores bear trilingual labels: Shower door/ porte de douche/ puerta de ducha. Some items that arrive in Canada directly from the United States, disdaining official English-French bilingualism, have labels in English and Spanish. For example, when someone spills a soft drink at my local shopping mall, employees set out a yellow pylon with Wet Floor on one side and Piso Mojado on the other; Plancher Mouillé is nowhere to be seen. The Greyhound buses that I ride between Guelph and Toronto often have bilingual English-Spanish signs, but no French.
Yet, outside of Alberta and Quebec, Spanish is sparsely taught in our high schools. As a result, Spanish departments in Canadian universities are bottom-heavy, with hundreds of students taking one or two semesters of introductory language to use on the beach in Cuba or the Dominican Republic. In contrast to French, which is booming, advanced courses in Hispanic literatures and cultures are thinly subscribed; among students who are not of Hispanic ancestry, enrolment in these courses is plummeting. Since the implementation of NAFTA, Carleton University, Simon Fraser University and McMaster University have closed their BAs in Spanish; the BA at Queen’s University was recently threatened with closure. This is a startling fate for the second language of the Americas during a period of hemispheric integration. The trend suggests that for most Canadians, Spanish remains an exotic anomaly promoted by corporate priorities, the U.S. entertainment industry and the drive to sustain the continental market. (It is elderly Canadians who have most conspicuously deepened their contact with Latin America, by retiring in ever greater numbers to Costa Rica and Panama.) As more Canadians have begun to learn a few words of Spanish, fewer than in the pre-NAFTA era are pursuing a serious interest in the language, literature or culture of the Hispanic world. Our engagement with our Latin American neighbours remains distant and primarily commercial, our place in the Americas as nebulous as it has always been. Alejandro Saravia, a Bolivian-Canadian writer from Brossard, Quebec, whose impressively fluid trilingual book of poems, Lettres de Nootka, was published in 2008, laments a time when: “along with the indigenous languages/ Spanish was/ the newest, most fragrant bride/ of the North Pacific Coast// yet the maps/ the history books/ barely retain the fragile memory/ of Santa Cruz de Nutka.” Our history tells us that our links to the rest of the hemisphere run deeper than commercial treaties.