Why Canada should work to strengthen its ties to Mexico

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
October 14, 2016

The Trudeau Government should prioritize its strategic partnership with Mexico. The June visit of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to Quebec City, Toronto and Ottawa set a plan for closer collaboration. Both nations need to deliver on specific initiatives, especially those that emphasize our people-to-people ties.

The signature of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) established a framework through which we have become each other’s third-largest trading partner. It is built largely through the investment of Canadian banking and resource industries in Mexico and through continental supply chains in manufacturing industries. Together, we make planes, trains and automobiles.

With a 44 million strong middle class, Mexico’s market will only increase. By 2050, Mexico is expected to rank fifth in global economic weight.

There is no shortage of collaborative instruments. The Canada-Mexico Partnership, with its private-public membership, has been in place since 2004. Its agenda covers the waterfront: energy; agri-business; labour mobility; human capital; trade, investment and innovation; environment; mining; forestry; and recently we have commenced annual security discussions.

With the election of the Trudeau government, we have developed a common North American approach to climate.

And, last December, after collaborating at the World Trade Organization, we persuaded Congress to roll back the protectionist US country-of-origin labelling requirement that threatened both of our country’s meat exports into the USA.

Canadians have begun once more their annual migration south. More than two million Canadians spend over 22 million nights in Mexico, making it our second most popular destination after the USA.

But despite the declared ambition and collaborative framework, the relationship seems less than the sum of its parts. The arbitrary imposition of a visa in July, 2009 offended Mexicans. It damaged the vital people-to-people ties that underwrite lasting relationships.

Mexicans stopped coming to Canada, complaining that the information required for the visa was excessive, intrusive and the processing time too long. Tourism and student study from Mexico sank. Mexican investors looked elsewhere. Today, we get more visitors from South Korea and Australia than Mexico, even though those flights are at least three times as long.

The visa will be replaced in December with the much-delayed Canadian Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) system.

In anticipation of this change, the Trudeau government should work with the provinces to aggressively market student study in Canada.

We have more than 400 interinstitutional agreements and Canada’s International Education Strategy identifies Mexico as a priority market. What is missing is Mexican students; there are only 5,000 among the 200,000 foreign students in Canada.

To give the initiative momentum, why not have Governor-General David Johnston lead a group of Canadian university presidents to Mexico to promote joint study opportunities and co-operation in innovation? Mr. Johnston, a former university president, represented Canada at the inauguration of Mr. Pena Nieto and recently played host to him in Quebec City.

High-level visits are catalysts for action. Justin Trudeau should also put Mexico on his travel agenda for 2017. Why not make it a trade and investment mission with the premiers?

The Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, that effectively updates NAFTA, will depend on whether U.S. President Barack Obama can secure its congressional approval during the lame-duck session. To prepare, we should be discussing with Mexico what provisions we can jointly salvage and make bilateral, to our mutual benefit.

Mexican ministers are making regular visits to the United States to make the case for continental trade and the jobs they create. Canadian ministers should join them.

As the Trudeau government contemplates a renewal of Canadian involvement in peace operations, it should look first to the challenges in our own hemisphere.

Citing its “global responsibilities,” Mr. Pena Nieto has committed Mexico to peace operations. Helping Mexico with training of peace troops would be a useful contribution as we increase our own participation.

Last week’s failed referendum on a peace pact in Colombia will oblige renewed efforts to end the more than half century conflict that has displaced 6.7 million Colombian citizens. Canada and Mexico should pursue the talks begun earlier this year on a possible joint peacekeeping role.

Can we also help Mexico with its southern frontier problems as a result of the continuing turmoil in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador?

Both governments need to pick shared initiatives on which we can achieve tangible results. Success will develop more trust and create a better basis for a shared approach when dealing with the new U.S. administration.

Over the years, the Canada-Mexico story has resembled a spasmodic series of tango-like bursts of intensity followed by long siestas. This time, let’s keep the dance going and put the emphasis on our people-to-people ties.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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