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Canada and Mexico strengthen sub-national diplomacy
Photo credit and copyright: Government of Alberta
Due largely to the economic association enjoyed through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), over time the Canadian and Mexican national governments have deepened co-operation to address issues of education exchange, environmental protection, governance and public security. This bilateral engagement is enhanced, and in some cases driven, by an emerging set of relationships between the federal countries’ provincial and state governments. Largely unmanaged and often unmentioned, these dealings among sub-national actors could be the key to developing a more profound and lasting bilateral relationship.
While Canada does not maintain a registry of international commitments between Canadian provinces and their Mexican counterparts, the Mexican Foreign Ministry has documented 23 mutual co-operation declarations signed between 1998 and 2009. This is a conservative figure as Mexican states have been providing this information on a voluntary basis. Areas of co-operation are related primarily to trade, followed by agriculture, forestry and environmental management. Mexico’s registry reveals that there has been a significant increase in state-provincial engagement since 2006, led by a small number of constituent units: the provinces of Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, and the states of Campeche, the Federal District, Jalisco, Nuevo León and Veracruz. Moreover, there are more than 200 agreements registered between Canadian and Mexican universities, facilitating the movement of faculty and students between the two countries. As education falls under the jurisdiction of Canada’s provinces, it provides an important area of sub-national exchange.
In addition to bilateral ties, Canadian provinces and Mexican states collaborate through continental associations, particularly in the priority policy areas of climate change and public security. Mexico’s six northern border states as well as Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan are observers on the U.S. state-led Western Climate Initiative (WCI), while the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec are full partners. As Canada and the U.S. have yet to fully articulate their national climate change strategies —let alone a continental vision that reconciles Mexico’s preference for a Green Fund with the Canada-U.S. apparent commitment to cap and trade— the WCI has already provided an unparalleled opportunity for states and provinces to lead the way in designing a de facto regional greenhouse gas reduction strategy focused on cap and trade, green technology development and broader environmental governance.
Addressing the threats to public safety in Mexico is one of the most important governance challenges faced by Mexico at all levels of government. The U.S., through the Mérida Initiative, has been Mexico’s primary partner in combating organized crime networks, but Canada has also provided assistance through training of mid-level and senior federal police executives from Mexico at a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) college. More direct provincial-state engagement on public security is illustrated by the 2009 letter of intent between British Columbia and Baja California that pledges co-operation in preventing cross-border criminal activities such as weapons trafficking, money laundering and child pornography. A network of trilateral experts and practitioners at the sub-national level that focuses on decentralization and co-ordination of public security policy is emerging. Managed largely by a small number of think-tanks and research institutes, this network includes representatives of state and provincial governments, and provides a space for sub-national actors to exchange practices of inter-governmental co-ordination and information sharing.
Challenges to deeper sub-national co-operation
Linguistic and cultural differences are clear obstacles to enhanced engagement between Canadian provinces and Mexican states. Canadian provinces, by design, often lack the capacity to manage complex inter-governmental foreign relations and in most cases rely on the federal government to perform this task. There is a trend within provincial governments to centralize the management of international commitments within their inter-governmental affairs department, but poor communication among provincial departments can sometimes result in a lack of follow-up to meet agreed-upon timelines. In Mexico, the high turnover among state-level civil servants presents continuous challenges, and it is not unusual for international commitments to be abandoned or de-prioritized by new administrations.
Enhanced co-operation is also limited by differences in institutional design and jurisdiction. For example, public security in Canada is a shared federal-provincial jurisdiction whereby law enforcement is a provincial responsibility, and urban areas can be authorized to maintain their own police force. In practice, law enforcement is managed through contracts between the provinces and the RCMP, so only Newfoundland, Ontario and Quebec maintain their own provincial police forces. In contrast, Mexico’s state and municipal police forces are numerous and have considerable jurisdictional authority. Given the differences between these realities, potential sub-national co-operation is limited. Yet, provinces could support some policing reform in Mexico as exemplified by the recent proposals to incorporate municipal police forces into state law enforcement bodies in Mexico, a reform that can certainly be informed by the experiences of Ontario and Quebec in creating amalgamated regional police forces.
There are several measures that state and provincial governments can adopt to help develop exchanges between their public officials. Firstly, provinces should commit to providing Spanish language programs in their public schools; in the long term, language capacity will be essential to bridging the geographical and cultural distance between the two countries. As well, heads of government, legislators and senior officials could meet regularly, either on the margins of regional meetings or in bilateral visits. Both Mexico and Canada have national associations of sub-national leaders (National Council of Governors and Council of the Federation, respectively) and these associations could be better utilized to facilitate contact between states and provinces. Strategic departmental secondments between governments would not only yield benefits in specific areas of technical co-operation (e.g. forestry management, pest control in agriculture, police training, etc.) but would foster greater understanding of culture and ways of conducting business in general.
There is no question that contact between Canadian provinces and Mexican states will continue to increase, either through North American trilateral dealings or bilateral engagement. While national governments work to iron out diplomatic wrinkles and develop non-trade areas of bilateral co-operation, sub-national governments are forming equally important relationships that will underpin the larger North American partnership.
David Parks is a consultant on governance issues related to North American integration and has managed the Mexico program at the Forum of Federations since 2001. He can be reached at email@example.com.