Founded in November 1978, CERLAC was the first social science research centre formally established at York University as well as the first Latin America and the Caribbean research centre established in Canada. As the centre nears its fortieth anniversary, its Fellows can take pride in a remarkable record of accomplishment, inspired and rooted in collaboration with Latin American and Caribbean colleagues in times of profound political and institutional transformation in the two regions.
CERLAC's history begins with the 1972 founding of the undergraduate Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) program in York's Faculty of Arts. Founded in 1959, York University responded to the wave of new immigrants to Canada in the 1960s by attempting to develop a diversified curriculum and hire faculty with international research interests, particularly in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, as well as East and South Asia. The new faculty members set up Honours Degree programs in areas such as Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) to provide students in a particular discipline with a broader interdisciplinary context in which to locate their intellectual interests. The LACS program facilitated team-teaching and brought faculty together to share interdisciplinary research projects. It also provided a space for students to learn together and advance as a cohort while engaging in related student clubs and extra-curricular activities.
Over the next few years, an influx of immigrants to Toronto from Latin America and the Caribbean drove the program's rapid growth. Scholars and students from the regions, including intellectual refugees from the oppressive military regimes of South America hoping to maintain an intellectual connection with the dramatic events in their home countrie as well as a highly politicized generation of Caribbean students seeking to acquire skills in teaching, law, medicine and other areas to take back to their newly independent countries, found an intellectual refuge in LACS. LACS faculty and students would be instrumental in building and sustaining CERLAC in subsequent years.
The LACS students included a particularly dynamic group of Brazilian and Chilean refugees. In 1974, in office space provided by Founders College and with financing from the World Council of Churches and the United Church of Canada, they established a research group first called “Brazil Studies” and then expanded into the “Latin American Research Unit” (LARU). It maintained an active program of research and publications and established a Documentation Centre that was eventually taken over by CERLAC. Among the Latin American exiles active in developing LARU and its ties to LACS was Herbert "Betinho" de Souza, a Brazilian who was given an honorary doctorate from York University in 1996 for his lifetime contribution as a social scientist and social activist.
LARU scholars were the movers behind the establishment of CERLAC, something that was made possible by a grant from the Donner-Canada Foundation in 1978. In the 1970s, Latin American scholars in many countries were facing severe repression, working in academic institutions that had been “intervened” by the military when not forced to go into exile themselves. Given that the United States provided support for Latin American military dictatorships, independent Latin American intellectuals tended to be highly suspicious of researchers from the North. Consequently, before setting up the Center, with the support of the then Dean of Arts Sidney Eisen, in the fall of 1977 CERLAC undertook a preparatory field investigation concerning the state of research and research institutions in Latin America and their interest in collaboration with York.
This positively-received initiative, along with the existing linkages of LARU members with leading Latin American intellectuals, provided for the trust and legitimacy that allowed the Centre to establish its formal linkages with independent research and teaching institutions in various Latin American countries. As one example, Louis Lefeber’s work with ECLAC and his friendship with Secretary General, Raúl Prebisch, led to Prebisch giving the keynote address for CERLAC’s founding conference. This was also an important step in establishing CERLAC’s legitimacy in Latin America.
Reflective of the difficult political situation of the time was the fact that CERLAC’s first collaborative work with FLACSO-Chile and other research institutions in Santiago was undertaken after they had been taken under the umbrella of the Academy of Christian Humanism (AHC), an institution created by the Archbishop of Santiago to shelter research centres (especially in the social sciences) from military repression. The AHC, because of its linkage to the Vatican through the Archbishop’s office, could provide a degree of protection to the scholars who had been “cleansed” from the Chilean university system.
The situation was considerably more felicitous in Ecuador, the first of the Latin American countries to make the transition from military to civilian rule, already in 1979. There, exiled intellectuals from Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay joined the efforts of a new generation of Ecuadorian scholars to establish FLACSO-Ecuador and other research centres with which CERLAC has maintained active relations to the present date. Among the Ecuadorian scholars was York University history professor Juan Maiguashca, who provided intellectual stimulation for what became a four-volume publication on the history, politics, and economics of Ecuador. Among the other collaborating research groups in Ecuador was the Center for Social and Economic Planning (CEPLAES) where Miguel Murmis, an exiled Argentine scholar who later became a CERLAC Fellow and a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto, assisted in setting up its research agenda.
Funding for such CERLAC projects from organizations such as the Donner Foundation, CIDA and IDRC was largely oriented toward development and the social sciences, and tended to focus on Latin America. Many LACS faculty, however, particularly those with interests in the Caribbean, were based in the humanities with interests related to various aspects of culture. Early CERLAC officers such as Louis Lefeber and Liisa North made a concerted effort to respond to faculty and student demand for stronger Caribbean and humanities initiatives. In the late 1980’s, Alan Simmons was appointed director of CERLAC with a mandate to strengthen CERLAC’s activities related to the Caribbean and the humanities. Two deputy directors were appointed, Peter Landstreet, whose research interests were Latin American and Michael Kauffman, a Caribbeanist. George Eaton was appointed coordinator of the Caribbean program. Margarita Feliciano was appointed coordinator of cultural programs. A new Graduate Diploma Program in Latin America and the Caribbean was established under the direction of John Buttrick that was inclusive of student interests in both Latin America and the Caribbean and social science and humanities areas.