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The Quiet Collaboration between Canadians and Jimmy Carter

With former US President Jimmy Carter now in hospice care, Canadians have begun to reflect on what he meant to them over the years.

By: /
6 March, 2023
Shelley McConnell
By: Shelley McConnell
Shelley McConnell served as Senior Associate Director of the Americas Program at The Carter Center

With former US President Jimmy Carter now in hospice care, Canadians have begun to reflect on what he meant to them over the years. Some have recalled how, as a young lieutenant in the US Navy, Carter led a team to repair a damaged nuclear reactor at Chalk River, just 200 kilometers from Canada’s capital. Other tributes have emphasized the cooperation Canada provided to President Carter during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Ordinary folks on both sides of the border have praised Carter’s post-presidential work with Habitat for Humanity, with whom Carter helped build the 58 Carter Place townhouses near Edmonton. 

But what earned Jimmy Carter the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize was primarily his post-presidential work through The Carter Center, the Atlanta-based non-governmental organization he founded in 1982 where I had the privilege to work for a decade (1997-2007). Our goal was to promote peace, democracy, health, and development in the world’s least developed countries. And quietly, without fanfare, Canada and Canadians stepped in to help.

The collaboration began when former Prime Minister Joe Clark joined The Carter Center’s Council of Freely Elected Heads of State and Government, a group of current and former presidents and prime ministers based at The Carter Center who worked together to improve policy and promote democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Election observation would be the Council’s main activity, and Carter’s denunciation of the electoral fraud perpetrated by Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989 made clear that they meant business.

The end of the Cold War created new opportunities for cooperation within the Western Hemisphere. In 1990, Canada joined the Organization of American States (OAS) and became its second largest donor (after the United States). Deepening democracy topped Canada’s priority list. The first director of the new OAS Unit for Promotion of Democracy was Canadian John Graham, a former Ambassador to Suriname, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic as well as High Commissioner in Guyana. Graham became an active participant in democracy promotion work at The Carter Center, traveling to Latin America and the Caribbean to conduct political assessments and election observation missions with Carter. This included monitoring the 1997 national elections in Jamaica, when fully one quarter of The Carter Center’s observers were Canadians, brought on board with funding from the government of Canada. Their familiarity with elections in parliamentary systems was a big help for observers from the presidential democracies of the United States and Latin America. Canada also helped fund The Carter Center’s monitoring of elections in Nicaragua after democratic erosion set in there.

In 2001, at the Quebec City Summit of the Americas, the presidents and prime ministers of OAS countries authorized drafting of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, an accord completed and signed later that year which committed OAS members to democratic governance. Among other things, they would need to hold periodic competitive, free and fair elections with an honest vote count. The Carter Center would be one of the main organizations conducting election observation to help assure those standards were met. And when compliance with the accord waned, scholars at the University of British Columbia convened a meeting in which Lloyd Axworthy met with a Carter Center representative and others to form a support group of leaders from the region. The Friends of the Democratic Charter would be based at The Carter Center, and both Joe Clark and John Graham immediately signed on. The Friends group analyzed the problems blocking democratic consolidation, made policy suggestions, and commissioned experts to interpret key provisions of the Charter, engaging directly with the OAS.

Canadian participation in Carter Center projects was an exercise in quiet diplomacy, but those of us inside the organization were well aware of it. Indeed, The Carter Center’s Latin American and Caribbean Program changed its name, becoming the Americas Program, in recognition of its intensifying engagement with Canadians to promote democracy in the hemisphere. This notably included a joint project with the nongovernmental Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) and the University of Calgary to create geospatial maps of media coverage in Latin America and Canada. The electronic maps helped election authorities and civil society groups understand which areas of their country were receiving vital information about elections via the media as well as how much money each candidate was spending on the media in an electoral district. Canada was among the first countries mapped. Another new Carter Center project sought to increase transparency in the Americas by fostering better access to information. Canada’s experience was among the first that The Carter Center studied as that project developed, because the careful balance between Canada’s Access to Information and Privacy Acts was instructive. 

President Carter had a warm relationship with former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and was invited to become a pallbearer at his funeral in Montreal. So was Fidel Castro, and as they walked together, Castro leaned over and asked Carter why he had not visited Cuba after leaving the White House. Carter replied that he had not been invited. Soon thereafter an invitation arrived, and in 2002, Jimmy Carter would become the first US president, former or current, to have visited the island since the 1959 revolution. That encounter in Montreal between Castro and Carter could never have occurred in the United States, where Castro could not travel absent normal diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. Canada was neutral ground. When Carter reached Havana, he gave a celebrated speech highlighting the Varela Project’s work to nurture human rights and democracy on the island. He also called on the United States to end its trade embargo against Cuba, which remains a point of divergence in the foreign policies of Canada and the United States. 

There were countless other Canadians whom I remember supporting The Carter Center’s work – a quick count expert who offered our election observation missions informal advice, a university professor who guided us in determining which democracy measurement tools were reliable, a conflict resolution expert who headed The Carter Center’s peacemaking initiatives for a time, an economist who briefed Carter before his trip to Cuba, and the friendly staff at the Consulate General of Canada in Atlanta, to mention a few.

To be sure, the relationship was not entirely tension free. In 2014, former President Carter and other Nobel Prize winners sent a letter to then-President Barack Obama calling on him to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline, slated to stretch from Alberta to Texas. Carter also published a critique of Canadian softwood lumber exports to the United States, saying they were traded unfairly, even going so far as to agree with President Trump’s decision to impose anti-subsidy duties on them. 

But what stands out in this little-known history of lengthy collaboration between Jimmy Carter and Canadians through The Carter Center is that they shared democratic values and a deeply ingrained civic consciousness. Their democracy promotion efforts improved the lives of millions of people in the Western Hemisphere, and despite later reversals for democracy in some countries it was well worth doing.  

Shelley McConnell served as Senior Associate Director of the Americas Program at The Carter Center from 1997 to 2007 and is now Associate Professor of Government at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.  Photo: Courtesy of The Carter Center.

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