02/18/2014 05:12 EST | Updated 02/18/2014 06:59 EST

Canada Aims To Repair Visa Rift During Harper's Mexico Visit

OTTAWA — Will a few days in Mexico City be enough time for Stephen Harper to thaw years of frosty relations between Canada and Mexico?

The prime minister and his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, held one-on-one meetings at the National Palace in Mexico City on Tuesday during Harper’s first official visit to the country. Over lunch, the two were expected to discuss ways they could repair the rift in their relationship.

Relations between Canada and Mexico soured in 2009 after Ottawa slapped a visa requirement on Mexican visitors. Ottawa said the visas were needed to deal with thousands of bogus asylum claims. But the country’s residents and its business leaders say they have felt Ottawa’s cold shoulder ever since.

Carlo Dade, the director of the Centre for Trade & Investment Policy at the Canada West Foundation, said Mexico has been trying to reach out to Canada for two or three years to convince officials of the advantages of working together.

“The problem is, [Canadian officials] haven’t responded,” he told The Huffington Post Canada.

There are natural areas of co-operation. The two countries would benefit from working together to counter protectionist tendencies in the United States, Dade suggested. Both Mexico and Canada have been affected by U.S. trade rules such as county-of-origin labelling. The new regulation requires Canadian and Mexican cattle to carry a different label than U.S.-born cattle, even if they are all processed in the United States.

But Ottawa ignored Mexico City, he said.

Some analysts suggest it was because the Conservative government continued to see Mexico as an under-developed country with drug cartels and security problems.

It could also have been because, as Dade suggested, the Conservative movement was solely focused on matters of defence or those involving the U.S.

Or perhaps, he said, it was because “there is no short-term political gain in it for the government” since Mexico-Canada relations are not high on the list of concerns for Canadian voters.

Whatever the reason, the Conservatives showed little interest in engaging with Mexico, a country whose economy is booming, and which is on the verge of becoming an energy superpower, with the added benefit of a large middle class.

Economic reforms in Mexico have drawn the attention of the Chinese, the British and the Americans, said Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and senior strategic advisor with McKenna, Long & Aldridge LLP.

“Everybody is actively wooing Mexico.”

Everyone, that is, but Canada.

The relationship is so poor that Mexican Ambassador Francisco Suárez Dávila recently described it as having lost “dynamism.”

“It has become stagnant,” Suárez Dávila told a university audience.

Last year, when Peña Nieto was in Ottawa just after his election, he suggested bringing a Team Mexico to Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, Robertson said. Canada and Mexico share overlapping interests in the energy, aerospace, auto and infrastructure sectors.

But with the visa issue dominating and souring relations, Suárez Dávila recently suggested that the visit might not go ahead if restrictions aren’t lifted.

During a press conference on Sunday, the ambassador said that officials at every level had pressed the visa issue with Canada and that many Canadian business leaders supported Mexico’s case.

“I want to emphasize: We have done our job,” he said. “We have no indication from the Canadian government on a solution…. We are willing to work constructively to solve this complex problem. We are doing our homework. The answer lies elsewhere.”

A top official with the Mexican foreign ministry, insisting on anonymity, said his government does not expect the visa issue to be settled today or tomorrow.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Harper and Peña Nieto sealed an agreement to expand air travel between the two countries and renewed their long-standing “joint action plan” to foster economic growth, security, immigration and trade.

The expanded air-access agreement could be a precursor to the Conservative government’s eventually lifting the visa restriction. Observers expect Ottawa will demonstrate willingness to work on the visa issue by suggesting a new trusted traveller program, modelled on Canada’s NEXUS program with the United States. Frequent travellers from Mexico would be vetted and given priority cards to avoid lengthy visa delays. That announcement is expected Wednesday when the North American Leaders’ Summit begins and the two meet with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Peter McKenna, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, said that it’s a good first step but that more needs to be done.

“We’re missing an opportunity there,” McKenna said. “It’s counterproductive.”

Warm relations could also help unlock doors in Latin America – a region Harper once claimed as a foreign policy focus.

Mexico is already an important energy ally to the United States and could surpass Canada as the Americans’ largest trading partner in the next decade or so, he said.

“We really have to get away from treating Mexico like a third-rate country. It’s not. It’s a major economic player, and it’s about time Canada realizes that.”

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