This is an excerpt from John Kneale's essay about his assignment to Madrid in 1995. It will be part of his third book about the Canadian Foreign Service, to be published in 2021.
When I arrived in Madrid at the end of June, the relations between Canada and Spain were at the lowest point they have ever reached since ambassadors were first exchanged in 1953. Years of increasingly bitter quarrels over fisheries quotas on the Grand Banks had escalated in March 1995 when Canadian patrol vessels arrested the Spanish fishing vessel "Estai" for overfishing and escorted it into port in St. John's, Newfoundland. The government of Spain reacted with indignation and dispatched naval ships to the zone. The Canadian government responded by sending naval vessels to confront them. Then, adding insult to injury, Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin displayed the fishing net cut from the "Estai" at a press conference in New York where international representatives were meeting to negotiate rules for high seas fishing. He accused Spanish fishing captains of using illegally small mesh sizes.
For the Spanish government, the embarrassment was bad enough but they considered, in addition, that the seizure of the "Estai" was illegal under international law. Compounding their shock and anger was the bitter feeling that Tobin and his officials had used them as scapegoats to draw attention away from their own disastrous management of Atlantic cod stocks.
This crisis was in many ways typical of international relations in the modern era. Not only did it involve the two national governments at the highest levels, including several different ministries in each, it drew in regional governments: Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in Canada, and Galicia and the Basque region in Spain. These regions were vociferous in their demands and accusations. In both countries, in addition, the fishing sector was mobilized to protest. To complicate matters, the whole issue, at least on the Spanish side, was governed by the European Union. I spent many hours on the phone with my colleague Bob Hage at the Canadian Mission in Brussels navigating the intersection of EU and Spanish politics. In addition, the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization, in which both Canada and the EU were members, claimed authority over the issue. Modern foreign service officers must have the skills to work these different fora simultaneously (which is a little like playing chess in three dimensions).
In April 1995 an agreement was negotiated between Canada and the European Union setting new rules for establishing quotas and deploying observers on board all fishing vessels. Spain, however, began an action against Canada in the International Court of Justice. Relations between the two countries remained cold. During March and April, the Canadian Embassy had twice been under seige by angry fishermen bussed in from Vigo, in Galicia, the home port of the "Estai", who chanted “Canada pirata!" in the streets and hurled dead fish at the embassy building. At the worst moments of the crisis, an actual break in relations or at least a recall of ambassadors looked possible.
To make matters worse, Spain was about to take up, on July 1st, the rotating six month presidency of the European Union. Canada had been hoping to sign a new Transatlantic Declaration and Action Plan with the then fifteen country Union initiating a new era of closer political and trade relations. But when Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez outlined at the beginning of July his government's objectives for the presidency he specifically rejected including Canada in the new transatlantic relationship.
For the Canadian Ambassador, David Wright, and his staff in Madrid, here was a classic diplomatic challenge: how to rebuild an important bilateral relationship, and one that currently had a special status within the European Union, without retreating on a principle of fundamental importance for Canada. The embassy tackled the problem in two ways; first. by stressing in all its public statements that the protection of endangered marine resources was a duty incumbent on all governments; and second, by reminding the Spanish authorities that the dispute over fisheries was only a small part of their country's relationship with Canada and overshadowed by our growing investment and trade links and by the need to collaborate as partners in NATO.
These arguments had an impact. When the Canada-EU agreement of April was ratified by the other North Atlantic Fisheries Organization member states at their annual meeting in September, the dispute was effectively shelved, although Spain continued to press for a decision by the International Court of Justice on the legality of Canada's action. At about the same time, in New York, international representatives put the finishing touches to an agreement setting new rules for the protection of straddling stocks, ie. fish that move between national waters and the high seas, the central issue in Spain’s conflict with Canada. This agreement implicitly approved Canada's action.
Meanwhile, the embassy had been working assiduously to restore and even improve the standing of Canada in Spanish public opinion. As it happened, two publications were ready to be released at this time, both of them demonstrating the long-standing ties between the two countries. The first was “Nootka”, a magnificent volume of maps, plates and text depicting the discovery of the west coast of Canada by Spanish fleets. This is a history not well known in either country; the Spanish left their names on numerous west coast landmarks: Juan de Fuca, Quadra, Capilano, Malaspina, Gabriola, Galliano, etc, but never established a settlement.
The other publication was poetry, love poetry mainly, written by Canadians who served in the Spanish Civil War. About two thousand Canadians went to Spain to support the Republican cause and half of them died there. Most were leftists or Communists and many were poets. This volume had been conceived as a way of honouring them as the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the war arrived in 1996. The embassy cultural section threw its support behind both publications as a way of reminding Spaniards of the other important elements of our relationship.
In another stroke of serendipity, we learned that the Canadian rocker Bryan Adams would be giving a concert in Madrid. Adams was very popular in Spain; he spoke Spanish, having lived there for several years when his father worked in the embassy, and had often performed there. We had little to do with the concert itself but were given a number of good seats. We used these to invite important contacts in the Spanish government, and their spouses, and to spend some friendly time with them. All of these cultural efforts helped to blunt the anger of Spanish officials and to underline that the fisheries dispute was only one aspect of the broader bilateral relationship.
The Gonzalez government maintained its cool demeanor toward us but soon dropped the visa requirement it had briefly imposed on Canadian visitors. Senior officials acknowledged privately the larger importance of good bilateral relations, and some even went so far as to say that the dispute had opened people's eyes, probably on both sides, to how much more there was, or could be, to the relationship. One observer noted that the fisheries dispute had had an exaggerated effect, like a large boulder falling into a small pond, because there wasn't enough other content in the relationship to absorb the impact.
The change of government in Spain that brought Jose Maria Aznar's centre-right Partido Popular to power in May of 1996 turned another page on the dispute. The new team showed little inclination to defend the fishing captains who were giving Spain a bad reputation and produced new legislation increasing the sanctions against cheaters. Although still suspicious that Canada's longer term goal was to push the large Spanish fleet off the Grand Banks altogether, the Aznar government put our fisheries differences in perspective and demonstrated a willingness to develop new and more productive types of collaboration, both bilaterally and in international fora such as NATO and the United Nations. When Canada undertook not to arrest EU ships so long as the new North Atlantic Fisheries Organization rules were working, Spain dropped its objection to the signing in December 1996 of a new Canada-EU Political Declaration and Action Plan, similar to the one signed a year earlier with the USA.
The action against Canada in the International Court of Justice fizzled out because the Canadian government, at the time it accepted the jurisdiction of the Court, had specifically excepted fisheries disputes as an area where it would be bound by the Court’s rulings.
A good fight can sometimes produce a closer friendship, and only two years after Canada-Spain relations hit an unprecedented low they had rebounded to unprecedented heights. Many people on both sides began to see synergies they had not noticed before.
Of Quadra and Brigadistas
Canada's links to Spain go back a long way. In the great era of European exploration, Spanish admirals were the first to see the Pacific coast of what is now British Columbia and their names remain. On the east coast, a little later, Basque and Galician fishermen began to arrive to fish the Grand Banks and they too left names: Labrador, Port aux Basques, Argentia. No permanent Spanish communities were established in Canada, however, as they were in the southwestern United States and probably for that reason there has been little Spanish emigration to Canada. During the Spanish Civil War and the years of political repression that followed it, émigrés went to many countries including Canada but their preferred destinations were France or Mexico or the USA.
The brutal fascism of Franco's Nationalist movement provoked a strong response in the western democracies in 1936, and soon Canadians were joining their comrades from the United States, Britain and France in the International Brigades, slipping across the Pyrenees to support the Spanish Republican forces. Over two thousand Canadians went to Spain as "Brigadistas" and half of them died there. One of the Canadians, who was a little older than the others, was Dr. Norman Bethune. During the Nationalists' seige of Madrid, he put in place an innovative method for transporting blood to the front lines and carrying out operations or blood transfusions within minutes of an injury occurring. His method was credited with saving thousands of lives on the Republican side.
Bethune also made an important contribution some years later to the struggle in China that pitted Mao Tse-Tung's Communists against the Nationalists of Chaing Kai-Shek. But Mao won his war and the Spanish Republicans lost theirs, so while Bethune became a revolutionary hero and cult figure in China, in Spain his memory is lost to all but those who served with him or shared his cause.
Spain stayed out of the Second World War and so did not see Canadian troops as liberators, as was the case in northern Europe and Italy. Nor, after the war, were there marriages with local girls or the economic assistance programs or cultural exchanges that occurred with other countries that allowed those populations to get to know Canadians as decent and friendly people. A kind of silence grew in the relationship between the two countries. In the years immediately after the war Spain was a pariah nation, excluded from the United Nations, and it was not until 1953 that Canada opened a diplomatic legation in Madrid.
Curiously, after the very first ambassador, General Pope, nine of the next ten heads of mission were francophones until David Wright was appointed in 1994. This was probably because there was a mindset in Ottawa that saw Spain as a latin country (true but irrelevant) where the second language was French (only true up to about 1975 when English began to replace it). The result was that, for more than four decades, influential Spaniards saw only one face of Canada. It would be impossible to measure the effect this might have had, but it would certainly undermine efforts to portray Canada as a richly varied nation with much to offer, or to build understanding of the fact that Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, like Galicia, were facing a crisis of resource collapse and severe social adjustment.
In the spring of 1996, a bottle washed up on the shore near La Coruna in Galicia and was found by a 12 year old boy. Inside was a letter from a girl of about the same age who lived in a Newfoundland outport. She wrote that she had thrown the bottle into the ocean (some two years earlier) because she wanted to communicate with kids in other parts of the world. The incident got brief coverage in the Spanish media, but in the embassy we asked ourselves why it was that the only form of communication between people with so much in common, with even a common Celtic origin, was via bottles thrown hopefully into the Atlantic waves.
Friends at last?
With eyes opened on both sides, the post-fisheries relationship between Canada and Spain held interesting potential. For instance, bilateral trade and investment was not what it should be between two economies that are among the ten largest in the world. This phenomenon was due, no doubt, to the fact that Canadian companies look first toward the U.S. market while the Spanish private sector is drawn to other European countries and Latin America. But many Spanish businesses were becoming curious about the North American Free Trade Agreement that linked Canada, the U.S.A. and Mexico together in a tariff free zone; many noted that one of the largest Spanish investments abroad is in Canada, a petrochemical plant in Bécancour Quebec that exports its entire production to the north-east USA. Some were interested in Canada's own business ties to Latin America and saw possibilities for joint ventures there. Canada's vocation as an Asia-Pacific nation was also a lure, since Spain has had greatly reduced commercial contacts with that region since the traumatic loss of its colony in the Philippines in 1898. While American firms and American business methods still dominated their thinking, some Spanish businesses observed that Canadian and Spanish firms are, generally speaking, closer in size and that Canadian companies have a business approach that is closer to their own while still highly competitive.
Spanish policy-makers likewise noted the similarity of interests. In international affairs, Spain and Canada are of roughly equal weight in population (Spain 39 million in 1997 and Canada 31 million), in Gross National Product, and in military strength. Both countries were active contributors to peacekeeping missions. We have a similar status within NATO and the United Nations and a shared worry that bigger players will not allow us the influence we feel our contributions have earned us. We have similar interests and objectives in places like Cuba, Central America, North Africa and the Middle East. In domestic affairs, the Spanish government noted that Canada has evolved a social security model that is less laissez-faire than the American one without sacrificing economic competitiveness.
Two other areas also intrigued Spanish policy-makers. One is the priority we attach to environmental awareness and the management of sustainable development. The first Environment Ministry was created in 1996 by the Aznar government and senior officials have expressed great interest in the Canadian policy structure, which, despite its many shortcomings, was still far beyond anything Spain had envisioned. The other area of interest was constitutional law. Like Canada, Spain has strongly nationalist minorities, the Catalans and Basques and to a lesser extent the Galicians, and again like Canada these minorities dominate regional governments and are continually demanding further devolutions of powers and greater local autonomy. Spain's seventeen "autonomous communities" do not have the range of powers that Canadian provinces do, but some - like the Catalans - have declared their desire to emulate the status of Quebec. There was thus a great interest at both national and regional levels in the evolution of Canadian federalism and the search for an all-inclusive "projet de société" that will reconcile centralists and independence-minded minorities.
The degree of interest in things Canadian is reflected in the number of academics and other specialists who make up the Spanish Association for Canadian Studies. Constitutional law, native peoples, environmental practices, Canadian history, even our geography, are subjects researched and taught in Canadian Studies Centres or as parts of broader university courses. Canadian literature is of particular interest to a wide range of academics, writers and critics. The curious fact that a large number of our best writers are women appeals to the younger generation. The leading expert in this field in Spain, Professor Bernd Dietz, suggested that Canadian literature expresses feminine - but not necessarily feminist - values. With its emphasis on family, community and duty it reflects the differences between American and Canadian social outlooks and offers an alternative that is attractive to the more conservative European reading public. Whatever the appeal, novels by Canadian authors, both men and women, have been translated into Spanish and launched with great success.