By Alexander Britell
Senator Don Meredith is one of the leading figures of the Caribbean diaspora. A native of Jamaica, Meredith is an ordained minister, and was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 2010. Meredith, who immigrated to Canada in the 1980s, has made it a mission to solve community issues, and since 2002 has been meeting with Canadian police and politicians to come up with solutions to the growing problem of gun violence. Meredith talked to Caribbean Journal about CARICOM-Canada trade negotiations, developing technology in the Caribbean and Jamaica’s relationship with Canada.
Canada and the Caribbean Community have been working on a free trade agreement. How have the talks been developing?
Well, they just celebrated the third anniversary of negotiations just a few months ago, and I see things moving in the right direction. The people I’ve been in contact with here on the ground in Ottawa are very optimistic that a free trade agreement can be worked out with CARICOM. They didn’t want to just do one specific country – they wanted to have a collective agreement that would encompass all the countries. That’s the hurdle, because you have to get consent from all the leaders. But they’re optimistic that this can go forward. I’ve been pushing [for this], and in fact I’ve been meeting with Minister of State to see what I can do from my office here, and see that those negotiations stay on track. Hopefully by late this year or the beginning of next year, some agreement can come into place.
CARICOM and Canada have been discussing enhanced economic interaction; what are some of the sectors in which you see this playing out?
Well, I see the technology sector and agriculture. There’s a lot the Caribbean has to offer in terms of agricultural products that are needed within the Canadian marketplace. Gas and oil, for example, is another sector, with Trinidad and Tobago, and we obviously have demand for oil even though we do produce here. But certainly there are opportunities to share technology, in terms of the oil sands we have here. When I look at technology and see how the Caribbean needs to advance technology, Canada is very well positioned to be able to do that. So those industries and sectors are the ones I see moving forward.
How much interaction is there at present?
There is a lot of interaction right now that’s going on. Our prime minister is committed to working with the Caribbean region. I spoke to him and he said, “Don, we want to move forward.” So we will certainly be pushing that. They do have a strong Canadian team that’s working on the negotiations, and they were meeting them a few months ago before we took the break, and they were very optimistic that things are on the right track. We’re also collectively working with the Heads of Mission, particularly the CARICOM Heads of Mission. We’re looking at Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and the Bahamas and seeing how we can work with those Heads of Mission to make sure that things continue to grow economically for all the countries involved.
Can you talk about the interaction between the Caribbean diaspora community in Canada and how it engages with its home countries?
In terms of the individual diasporas – Jamaica is coming up on 50 years of independence, and we’ve had a long history with Canada. And when you look at the diaspora, it’s made a lot of connections both in the US and Britain to really impact the Caribbean. A lot of Caribbean folks have left and gone to the States or Canada or England to further themselves. Some of these individuals are presidents of their own companies, or presidents of companies, and in terms of their expertise, they’re definitely going back to the Caribbean region to assist with development. Because I want all of these Caribbean countries to move from developing to developed, and I think it’s possible. I look at my country, Jamaica, and some of my missions there. One of my goals is to say, we need to move forward, we need to improve. So we have the expertise in place to be able to make this happen, and the financial resources of those who will come into the CARICOM region and invest. So those are, I think, what the relationships of the diaspora bring to the table.
After the Christopher Coke Extradition Affair in Jamaica, its relationship with the US seemed to be a bit strained. How would you describe Jamaica’s relationship with Canada?
We have a very strong relationship with Jamaica. I was with [Prime Minister Stephen Harper] as part of a delegation in 2009 that went down with him prior to my appointment to the Senate, and our relationship continues to develop. Obviously there are individuals who have committed crimes in this country, or are wanted in Jamaica, and we have worked closely to make sure those individuals get extradited or sent back. That’s obviously always a problem and a concern when you ship individuals back to a country. But I think Canada should do what’s best for Canada, and those receiving countries need to look at these individuals and make sure the Rule of Law is being met.
In terms of the overall relationship, Canada has a very strong bond with Jamaica, and there’s still that continuous, ongoing relationship that continues to build. We here in the diaspora are looking to do a lot of things. We’re open to have the prime minister of Jamaica visit Canada in the new year if possible. The situation with [Christopher] Coke in the US and what transpired there was an unfortunate situation. It was something that I believe could have been handled differently. However, it did happen, and I think it’s important that we just look forward to a better relationship, and hopefully the US will look forward to a better relationship with Jamaica.
What can the Caribbean do to develop its technology sector?
We know that the IT sector is huge. I personally know of one company that was developed in Jamaica that was acquired by a Canadian firm, and they basically brought 28 employees from Jamaica to Canada. So the Caribbean has a lot to offer there to the rest of the world. I believe the sector is going to continue to grow. We know travelers depend on Wi-Fi, and I think there’s a great opportunity to continue to expand on that, so people have those amenities when they go on vacation. When you look at the telephone sector, there’s a lot of opportunities that can be improved. When I look at Haiti, and what has transpired in Haiti, and how the CARICOM region is trying to get Haiti back on its feet, Canada stands to, probably more than any country in the world, to be able to help that region, through hydroelectric and telecom in particular. We have huge telecom firms here in Canada that are prepared to work with the Haitian authorities in terms of rebuilding that country.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty just signed a multi-billion dollar deal with Samsung for green energy, and I think there’s a huge opportunity in the Caribbean region to tap into that sector and move those technologies forward. We also need to be able to begin allowing the farming industry to thrive again. The [Caribbean] countries were built on farming, and we need to get back to that. The rest of the world is starving, and food prices are going through the roof. I believe we need to harness those technologies that are available at this present time to make our market not only for ourselves, but to export. The best social program for me is a job. When companies are able to establish and hire people, there’s less crime, there’s less need to go toward illicit drugs and gunrunning across the Caribbean sea. For me, it’s about getting people to work. I believe that Canada stands poised to be able to really do that by having the right partners – it’s critical that we have the right partners on the ground with these Caribbean countries. But I think there’s an appetite in Canada, and the individuals I’ve spoken to are willing.