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Taking the Initiative: Canada and Mexico at a crossroads

Agustín Barrios Gómez

In 1991 a forward-looking Mexican president, Carlos Salinas, decided to stake his country’s geographical right to belong to North America by asking for a bespoke free trade agreement. The Americans were pleasantly surprised; the Canadians were bewildered at first, but under the leadership of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, quickly got on board. Three decades later the Canada-Mexico relationship has taken shape but its potential remains largely untapped.

Americans are very much aware that Mexico is a part of their continent: nearly 30 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans live in the U.S. (80 per cent either as U.S. citizens or legal residents) and there are nearly 300 million land border crossings through 47 points of entry every year. But are Canadians aware? Mexican immigration to Canada, although relatively small, is growing and overwhelmingly consists of middle class professionals —the asylum debate notwithstanding— while the population of Canadian retirees and snowbirds in Mexico is larger, but footloose. On an economic level, Canada-Mexico trade stood roughly at US$26 billion according to Mexican government 2008 statistics. They have mutually become top trading partners.

Is Mexico in North America then a U.S. eccentricity to be tolerated, or can Mexico —home of over 2,000 Canadian companies and a like-minded country committed to multilateralism and democracy— be considered a strategic partner? It is up to us to decide.

Worryingly, there is no solid ground for this debate to take place since generally speaking, Mexicans know little about Canada and Canadians are just as uninformed about Mexico. This creates the very real danger that policy decisions could be made in a vacuum and create situations that could undermine a promising relationship.

This lack of knowledge has damaging consequences. Mexicans are upset because of the (surprisingly onerous) visa requirements that were imposed on them last year by the Canadian government, which was also detrimental to the Canadian tourism industry. It is perceived in Mexico that some Canadians are trying to distance themselves from the trilateral negotiating table, disregarding the benefits of co-operating with the 13th-largest economy in the world and the third-largest U.S. trading partner when dealing with the superpower.

The Canada-Mexico Initiative was created to raise awareness of the extent of the bilateral relationship and to offer pragmatic solutions to make the most of its potential. Its co-chairs, the Hon. William Graham and Sen. Rosario Green, are both former cabinet ministers and are pushing for the relationship to be seen as important as it is for both countries. The two renowned institutions that house the Initiative, the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) and the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI), are working hard to make sure that their vision is made a reality.

A complementary relationship

In the 2010 edition of Competitive Alternatives: Guide to International Business Location, KPMG ranked Mexico and Canada first and second, respectively, among a group of 10 leading economies, after assessing factors including, among others, taxes, labour costs, price of real estate and education. This is not lost on cutting-edge companies such as Bombardier and Goldcorp, and the Mexican auto parts manufacturing companies that are investing in Canada. It is not lost either on the tens of thousands of Canadians with second homes in Mexico and neither is it by the thousands of Mexican professionals who have decided to pursue their career further North by taking advantage of Canada’s points system immigration laws designed to attract human capital.

But for our promise to be fully realized, our policy community has to put the proverbial elephant to bed. Mexicans need to understand that the world does not end at the 49th parallel and understand the fact that Canada-Mexico trade has grown faster (in percentage terms) than either U.S.-Canada trade or U.S.-Mexico trade since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Mexicans would benefit from seeking out their Canadian counterparts at the G20 and the NAFTA negotiating table with mutually beneficial proposals. Canadians and Mexicans need to find an appropriate mechanism to allow people not representing a security threat to travel hassle-free.

Canadians would benefit from putting to rest the old argument about “going it alone” with the U.S., realizing that Americans will always negotiate according to what they perceive to be in their national interest. Sometimes they will talk to Canada alone; sometimes they will only consult Mexico. Often they will sit with both countries to see how they can better deal with shared issues. As the larger partner on friendly terms with both, it is the Americans who will decide whether the table has two or three chairs. Whether we take advantage of the opportunities presented to us to negotiate together with the U.S. is up to us.

Further, the world is getting more competitive and we need the full, co-ordinated strength of 440 million North Americans pushing their comparative advantages to keep improving our standard of living. Best of all, unlike our competitors in other parts of the world, the three countries are liberal democracies with shared values.

Ask any Canadian snowbird in Puerto Vallarta or Mexican skier in Whistler: we like each other. Now let’s make the effort to find out how well we can get along for the benefit of both countries.blue square

Agustín Barrios Gómez is a Mexican journalist with degrees in public policy from Georgetown University and the Madrid Law School. He is Co-director of the Canada-Mexico Initiative and a member of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Initiative or of COMEXI.

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