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Foreign Minister John Baird's visit to seven countries in Central and South America, concluding with Brazil, where he will continue the annual Canada-Brazil Strategic Partnership Dialogue commenced last year, is a reassuring indication of the Harper government's commitment to building and consolidating relationships in the Americas.

Taking the time and effort to understand the region and its dynamics will pay off in terms of status and influence, but today, Canada can also derive important lessons from the region. The last country on Mr. Baird's itinerary, Brazil, deserves particular attention.

Brazil is a vast country with a diverse population, one of the world's major producers of food, energy and minerals, and the No. 1 producer of coffee, sugar cane and orange juice. It is abundantly rich in natural resources and has leveraged them for economic growth.

But unlike Canada, it has consistently engaged globally with particular countries and regions over the course of the past two decades as part of a strategy to ensure sustainable economic growth. Also unlike Canada, Brazil has leveraged its natural and strategic resources over the past decade to transform itself into a global power – the sixth-largest economy in the world – featuring as strong a sense of social purpose as of economic might.

In the 1990s, president Fernando Henrique Cardoso saw active insertion into the global economic and political order as imperative to the consolidation of democracy and the fight against inequality. Early in the next decade, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's populist galvanization of the country's potential produced a unique social compact that lifted 12 million people out of poverty and supported the expansion of Brazil's regional and global leadership.

The extent to which Brazil is accepted as the region's leader is debatable – countries such as Colombia and Argentina balk at Brazilian dominance – but its emergence as a counterweight to the United States in the Americas and voice for the global South is clear. Mr. Cardoso's government resisted the Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal, refused to participate in Bill Clinton's Plan Colombia and strongly opposed both the Cuban embargo and the attempt to depose Venezuela's Hugo Chavez in 2002.

Lula opposed the Honduras coup and the U.S. refusal to back the deposed president's return. The decision to back Iran's pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy was further indication that Brazil had no intention of aligning its foreign policy with Washington's. During Lula's reign, Brazil opened 33 new embassies, 19 consulates and five new diplomatic missions.

Today, Brazil boasts one of the world's highest rates of foreign investment and participates as vigorously at the World Economic Forum as it does at the World Social Forum. The recent protests are a result of the new middle class's rising expectations, and indicative of the fast pace of social and economic development.

Canada's natural economic competition with Brazil in areas such as agriculture, energy, minerals and aerospace, combined with Brazil's leadership on the climate file, have already pushed Canada-Brazil relations to concentrate on specific issues. While science, technology, energy and education are key to moving relations forward, other areas warrant observation, such as diversity management.

The Brazilian population is one of the most varied in the world. Approaching 200 million people and encompassing people of African, European, Middle Eastern and indigenous descent, Brazil also boasts the largest Japanese population outside of Japan; the largest Italian population outside of Italy; and the largest Lebanese population outside of Lebanon.

As it developed, Brazil created a redistributive system designed to address problems faced by those most economically and socially disadvantaged, regardless of race, tenure, ethnicity or geography. Clearly, the results have been mixed, but the concept of a social contract between the country's wealthiest and poorest is well entrenched.

There is a lesson here for Canada. The social fabric of this country is the result of the successful integration of people and cultures attracted to social and political freedom and economic opportunity. Today, however, as Canada seeks to develop its northern regions, natural resources and energy infrastructure, relations and communications with indigenous peoples remain shamefully underdeveloped, and the needs and aspirations of many communities are woefully misunderstood or ignored.

As we work toward a compact with our own people to gain that essential social licence, a better understanding of the terms of Brazil's emergence and current social unrest may offer insights.

Jennifer Jeffs is president of the Canadian International Council.