Canadians' knowledge of Brazil may be as scant as the country's famed micro-thong swimwear. But somehow the South American economic giant has edged out traditional favourites such as Mexico and Argentina as Canada's new preferred partner in the hemisphere. What accounts for Brazil's ascendancy?
Does the country's sensual exuberance and globe-strutting confidence act as a release valve for all that northern restraint? Is Brazil Canada's alter ego?
"There is a good vibe about Brazil, but what exactly appeals to Canadians – we cannot put our finger on," says Carlo Dade, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL).
FOCAL just released a study that found more than 61 per cent of Canadians have a favourable opinion of Brazil, compared to 39 per cent for Mexico, 41 per cent for Panama and 57 per cent for Argentina. Only the U.S. is seen in a more positive light, according to the 2011 poll, conducted with the Association for Canadian Studies. The survey shows Brazil scores even higher among Canadian men than women. Brazil's overall favourable rating increased 20 per cent in the last four years, while Mexico's favourable rating fell.
Of course, it helps to have one of the most popular politicians in the world, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the charismatic, bearded former president, as your global ambassador. It also helps that Rio de Janeiro is 8,249 km from Ottawa. Canada actually has fewer immigration, trade and tourism links with the country than with many others in the hemisphere. And this ignorance works in Brazil's favour. The country's brand is unsullied by images of migrants trying to flee to el norte, or cartel kingpins dumping headless corpses.
Few Cariocas, as residents of Rio are known, claim asylum in Canada on the grounds of persecution due to sexual orientation. There are no jihadis from Salvador or Sao Paulo. And while Rio's favelas (slums) undoubtedly produce plenty of scary thugs (Brazil's homicide rate is higher than Mexico's), the crime problem doesn't have the same resonance in Canada as Mexico's drug wars. Nor does the media publish as many negative stories about Brazil, the study found.
That helps to keeps the image clean. When Canadians stop to consider Brazil, it's all pristine white sand beaches, Carnival, soccer legend Ronaldinho, supermodels like Gisele Bundchen, and music: Joao Gilberto; Caetano Veloso; Milton Nascimento; Xuxa; and indie rock sensation Cansei de Ser Sexy (CSS).
Of course, for those who dig deeper, there is more to admire than just beaches and gorgeous, buff men and women.
In the past decade, the country has made strides in reducing poverty, racial discrimination and inequality, with 30 million people joining the middle class in the past five to six years. Brazil is a manufacturing giant, a BRIC country that will host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. "This is the new Brazil. They're socially innovative and creative, and they're feeling confident these days," notes Ted Hewitt, a University of Western Ontario professor, and leading Canadian authority on Brazil. "Canadians don't realize it, but Brazil is everywhere: they own Labatt's, make our planes, produce the nickel for our coins and the cement for our driveways."
Even Brazil's gritty side seems, somehow, hopeful: favela tours as a model of sustainable tourism; police pacification units "taking back" slums and re-establishing order.
Of course, the country still faces many challenges. It has one of the highest homicide rates in the Americas, and high inflation. It needs to invest more in education, and root out corruption in public institutions. President Dilma Rousseff must manage the country's explosive growth in a sustainable and equitable way. But this, like everything else about Brazil, is a good problem to have.