06/29/2016 11:05 EDT | Updated 06/29/2016 11:59 EDT

Trudeau Needs To Stand Up To 'Good Friend' Mexico

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (L) walks with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 28, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

I have made no secret of my respect for our new prime minister, especially after the disdain I held for his predecessor.

That's why it can be tough at times to watch -- as good Canadian jobs are lost to Mexico, a place of horrible human rights abuses -- while Justin Trudeau publicly talks about being such good friends with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

"It's hard to believe that more than six years have passed since we last welcomed a Mexican president on a state visit. I'm sure that everyone in this room will agree when I say that six years is too long to wait for visits between friends," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a state dinner Monday for Pena Nieto.

I have no doubt that he and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who attended the dinner and met with Pena Nieto earlier in the day, are raising more difficult issues in private, while being the kind of polite Canadian hosts the world has come to respect.

For many Canadians, including those who rallied outside the dinner, we expect no less.

Working people in Canada and the U.S. want to see their leaders stand up to Mexico.

"This is the propaganda campaign of Mexico. It's fabulous. They're really very, very good. I don't know who could be a friend of Pena Nieto," activist Marta Sanchez told the CBC at a rally outside the dinner.

Sanchez, who points to reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others to back up her work to help the families of 120,000 missing migrant workers, said such meetings should be a chance to push Mexico hard on improving its human rights record.

In the days ahead of the summit, U.S. President Barack Obama's White House was talking up a green energy deal with Mexico and describing North America as a "single unit."

It's that kind of talk that gives politicians like Donald Trump such a boost, with their own anti-Mexico rantings playing into the fears of ordinary people who have seen jobs lost to Mexico along with opportunities for their children. Working people in Canada and the U.S. want to see their leaders stand up to Mexico.

Trudeau and Obama would do well to talk to Sanchez and other activists to get a real sense of what a terrible place Mexico is for working people, and how those conditions make it such an attractive place for big companies to move jobs.

The first job of our leaders must be to create and defend good jobs in Canada. Since the financial crisis, Mexico has eight new auto assembly plants with thousands of jobs, while Canada has closed two.

Good friends don't steal jobs. Good friends don't abuse the rights of their own citizens.

Make no mistake; there is a direct connection between the human rights abuses in Mexico and the jobs moving there. No company will admit that, of course, but when workers must risk their lives to stand up for themselves, it tends to keep costs down -- as do lax environmental laws and a grinding poverty that keeps desperate workers from demanding more.

Unifor, through its Social Justice Fund, works with many groups across Mexico to improve the lives of working people, including educating workers about their rights and how to defend them, capacity building for union organizers in manufacturing plants and helping to improve the safety of Mexican journalists.

With Mexico, the issue isn't simply about having the right laws in place, but actually implementing those laws and making a true commitment to protect the rights of workers.

In the border town of Tijuana, for instance, some 95 per cent of workers at the area's maquiladora plants are unionized, but stuck in unions with strong ties to their employers. These so-called "ghost unions" collude with employers to thwart the rights of their own members.

These are the kinds of things Trudeau and Obama need to be talking to Pena Nieto about. Good friends don't steal jobs. Good friends don't abuse the rights of their own citizens. And good friends don't allow their own land to be polluted as a way to keep corporate costs down.

That's the message Pena Nieto needs to hear.

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