When Canada opened its first diplomatic mission in Brazil in 1941, one of its principal aims was to help secure support for the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany. Despite some fascist tendencies of the dictator Getúlio Vargas, Brazil was one of the few South American countries to back the Allies and the only one to eventually commit troops. It deployed 29,500 soldiers who were instrumental in the liberation of Italy, most notably in the Battle of Monte Castello, from November 1944 to February 1945. A Canadian legation and soon a full embassy in Rio de Janeiro, the capital until 1960, was notable given our limited diplomatic relations worldwide; we maintained few political missions outside the Commonwealth. Washington’s Lend-Lease program for matériel and infrastructure was clearly a greater incentive for Brazil’s attachment to Allied war aims. But Canada’s new diplomatic presence played a motivating part.
Canadian business had long been active in Brazil, most notably in the form of the Brazilian Traction, Light and Power Company — known there as the Light — an operator of various utilities and the progenitor of what became the giant resource and investment firm Brascan and, later, Brookfield. Business interests were delighted by the start of official diplomatic relations; an embassy would have greater authority than the existing trade office. In addition to backing commercial opportunities, and in a remarkable departure from usual practice, the new delegation embarked on an active campaign of cultural diplomacy focused especially on exchanges of music and graphic arts. This is the subject of Eric Fillion’s Distant Stage.
Fillion’s account of the program, which was undertaken with only grudging support from External Affairs, is suffused with a certain veiled glamour; the colourful hues of a diverse group of expatriates in exotic surroundings might form the basis of a fictional world reminiscent of Graham Greene or Lawrence Durrell. The artist Jacques de Tonnancour, for example, painted vivid landscapes of Rio’s Botafogo Beach and Guanabara Bay from the heights of Santa Teresa Hill, site of the official Canadian residence. The pianist Jean Dansereau and his wife, the soprano Muriel Tannehill, performed Debussy songs on the Light’s sponsored radio program, Ondas musicais (Musical waves). Members of the Quatuor Alouette, partly inspired by missionaries from Quebec who were also in Rio, offered concerts that celebrated the province’s settler heritage and its Catholic proclivities — a conservative ingredient in an otherwise bohemian brew. The great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote a concerto for the renowned pianist Ellen Ballon, who performed it first in a Rio concert hall. Not all the expats were happy ones, though. Marcel Roussin, “a young scholar seeking to bolster his expert status as a South Americanist,” suffered a kind of culture shock, was repelled by Brazil’s relative poverty, and found some social behaviours incomprehensible. He fled after six months.
All such activities were championed by the man who is effectively Fillion’s chief protagonist, Jean Désy, ambassador to Brazil from 1941 to 1947. With a mixture of willful independence and entrepreneurial vigour, the former lawyer and Université de Montréal professor generated the energy behind an ambitious cultural agenda.
In May 1944, Désy arranged an official “exchange of notes” with the Brazilian government to provide himself the authority for his unprecedented and innovative program. Headquarters was leery of the exchange — a formal diplomatic instrument that could be ratified only with Ottawa’s approval — and looked for excuses to reject it. Lester B. Pearson, then Canadian minister in Washington, was asked to determine the State Department’s views, because Désy was treading in what was seen as Uncle Sam’s backyard. The United States did not have similar exchanges in place with Brazil or its neighbours, because, as Pearson reported to Norman A. Robertson, then undersecretary of state for external affairs, “they were afraid that if the agreements were not identical, it would immediately be a cause for complaint on the part of the Latin-American Republics themselves.”
And that was that — a flimsy but good enough pretext to kibosh the whole thing. At least until External Affairs officials were made aware that Quebec had contemplated a cultural agreement with pre-war France and might return to asking for one when the fighting was over. “There was the risk that if the federal government took no action,” some of Désy’s colleagues in Ottawa conceded at the time, “the provinces might come to make cultural working arrangements abroad on the basis of their educational powers.” So in a decision characteristically driven by weighing fear of American displeasure against the impulse to protect federal jurisdiction, the latter prevailed, and the exchange of notes was approved. Given the crippled motivation behind the okay — and caring more about form than about substance — External Affairs subsequently paid no serious heed to the agreement and let Désy run the field. “None of this was surprising,” according to Fillion.
Désy’s aims went beyond playing the part of impresario; he believed that cultural diplomacy could serve a strategic purpose in cementing stronger ties. He hoped to establish a mutual sense of purpose in both countries, as each grasped for “middlepowerhood.” Through closer cooperation, they could offset in whatever minor degree Washington’s hegemony in the Americas and achieve greater respect internationally. Désy strove to build bonds by emphasizing the countries’ shared attributes.
A perennial theme in Brazil’s “national imaginary,” as Fillion calls it, had been the blending of ethnicities: European, Black, and Indigenous. Known as miscigenação, the ideal of interracial harmony was never achieved but was frequently associated with the concept of brasilidade, or Brazilianness. Désy sought to promote the claim of a corresponding métissage for Canada: the harmonious alliance of French and English settler communities within a single polity. In their pronouncements, Canadian and Brazilian officials paid tribute to the similar but by no means identical concepts, and in this we perceive the narrative phenomenon of “lies we tell each other.” Here, they were lies that unified and motivated diplomatic relations.
Fillion, a post-doctoral fellow at Queen’s University, demonstrates his au courant scholarship by recognizing (though not belabouring) the phenomenon of “whiteness” contained in both Désy’s and Brazil’s conceptualizations. Métissage ignored the presence of Indigenous people in Canada. Miscigenação elided the disproportionate influence of European colonists within Brazil’s power structure.
In practice, Désy’s métissage was also heavily, almost exclusively francophone. Fillion traces Quebec’s role in the “making of Canada’s cultural diplomacy” by focusing on the province’s cultural milieu rather than governmental policies. Désy knew the French Canadian scene well, but his program’s privileging of francophone artists and musicians went beyond personal experience. Two particular commonalities clearly weighed on the scales: Catholicism and latinité, which, in some eyes, qualified Quebec “for leadership on continental matters.”
Before the war, Brazil had strong links to France, which was under Nazi occupation during most of Désy’s tenure as ambassador. Brazilian elites were drawn to French artists, who, in turn, viewed Quebec and especially Montreal as a refuge for francophone culture. Désy’s program thrived on this “Francophilia.” (A rare anglophone exception was the participation of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conductor Ernest MacMillan.)
Projections of a truly Canadian identity were also frustrated in other ways. Raul da Sá Barbosa, third secretary at Brazil’s embassy in Ottawa, was among those who recognized what Hugh MacLennan so eloquently described in 1945 as the “two solitudes.” The concentration of the French and the English in central Canada, Fillion explains, “made a nationwide culture unviable, which in turn perpetuated a colonial mentality whereby each group was set in its ways with little chance of reconciliation, let alone engagement with the diasporas that populated the rest of the country.” Indeed, confidential diplomatic readings suggested that Brazil “could teach Canada a thing or two about national unity, racial democracy, and cultural autonomy.” Perceptions of such autonomy were further undermined in 1948, when the first Earl Alexander of Tunis, Canada’s newly installed governor general (and its last not born in this country), made a state visit to Brazil. While there, he awarded British medals to Brazilian veterans of the Italian campaign. Officials in Rio were not oblivious.
Fillion demonstrates that even as Désy completed his assignment, the organic growth of commercial culture began to overshadow the “serious music” that he sought to promote. In the late 1940s, North Americans became enamoured of the sounds of Latin America, including the Brazilian samba and, perhaps most famously, the singer Carmen Miranda. And that was before the arrival of bossa nova in the late ’50s and early ’60s. That “new trend” was typified by the work of João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim, who moved Rio’s metaphorical centre of gravity from Copacabana to Ipanema. The powerful Afro-Brazilian samba rhythm was smoothed into a still pulsing yet silky soundscape that evoked an atmosphere of tropical bliss (“quiet nights and quiet stars . . . oh how lovely”).
In some circles the so-called soft power of cultural diplomacy is accorded a dubious value — even though such initiatives have a lengthy pedigree. As far back as the mid-1930s, the United States happily deployed cultural assets as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy —“from musical tours to film screenings, book exchange programs, and carefully curated exhibitions.” Fillion explains how these activities “rested on bold partnerships with cultural giants, such as Walt Disney Productions and the Museum of Modern Art, to give a positive spin on the United States’ relations with South America.”
Despite the occasional skepticism, cultural diplomacy endures because it is an important facet of effective international relations. Top-flight artists are a tremendous draw abroad. Embassies often wish to cultivate contacts who are eager to attend concerts and exhibitions, which offer opportunities for information exchange and intelligence gathering. Somewhat contentious works can open doors to dialogue, perhaps challenging misconceptions or dogmas. Major musical performances can often be integrated into trade shows or missions, boosting exposure for a country’s goods and services. Cultural events can also become important “branding” exercises that create and implant positive impressions. And from a commercial perspective, an artist’s audience can be expanded and enhanced, adding to national prosperity as well as one’s own through what is, prosaically, trade in services.
Admittedly, in today’s media-saturated world, it is more difficult than in Désy’s time to get attention, and the tools of cultural diplomacy must be carefully considered to suit specific markets and circumstances. On the current Global Affairs web page for Canada-Brazil relations, trade and investment, technology and innovation, and development hold pride of place, alongside that necessarily circumspect category of bilateral political relations, which covers all of the discreet exchanges between an embassy and its host government. (During the Jair Bolsonaro years, confidential reports of political exchanges surely contained some tortured gems.) But even if Global Affairs does not explicitly say so, our embassy in Brasília has almost certainly employed cultural diplomacy in recent years in pursuing its stated priorities.
Fillion is well attuned to the value of cultural diplomacy and favourably cites testimony that the American scholar Nicholas J. Cull gave to the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, as part of its look into “the impact and utilization of Canadian culture and arts in Canadian foreign policy and diplomacy.” In 2018, Cull outlined the four core approaches: cultural gift, cultural information, cultural capacity building, and cultural dialogue. “A well-planned piece of cultural diplomacy can actually hit all four of these marks,” he said.
Distant Stage unearths and illuminates a fascinating piece of such diplomacy — one that was energized by an individual ambassador’s remarkable efforts. Désy’s program may have left little legacy; External Affairs, not enthusiastic to begin with, allowed it to fade from memory. Yet one asset that did survive became something of a political cause célèbre. In 1973, Alfred Pellan’s paintings Canada East and Canada West, which originally hung in the embassy in Rio, were “repurposed” to decorate the loftily imposing lobby of the new External Affairs headquarters, where they stayed until 2011. In what Fillion describes as the “imperialist” vision of the Stephen Harper government, they were then replaced by a giant portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The two large panels were reinstalled after the 2015 federal election. “Although they returned Pellan’s art to the Lester B. Pearson Building,” Fillion writes, “Justin Trudeau and his Liberals were no more au fait with the history and significance of the works.”
Désy, for his part, completed his career as the head of the CBC’s international service before his final assignment as ambassador to Italy. Fillion pays his protagonist a generous tribute. “He held a liberal humanist vision of Canadian culture and championed the image of Canada as a bicultural and bilingual federal state rooted”— hear the modern scholar’s caveat —“in the ‘exceptional’ histories of two white settler societies.” In whatever capacity he found himself, Désy “was single-minded in his devotion to the idea of culture as a force for mutual understanding between peoples and as an expression of national authenticity.”
Geoff White served as a diplomat for nearly thirty years, a period he describes in his new book, Working for Canada.
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David S. Goldbloom Toronto