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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Canada-Mexico relations merit more than forced smiles Add to ...

Before Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plane touched down in Canada after his recent trip to the Middle East, the Conservative Party’s fundraising campaign’s automated-calling machines were already contacting voters in heavily Jewish neighbourhoods.

The machines won’t be doing anything, however, after Mr. Harper returns from Mexico this week.

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In contrast to the retinue of more than 200 rabbis, evangelical Christian leaders, business people and other Canadian friends of Israel who accompanied Mr. Harper to Israel, only a corporal’s guard will be with him in Mexico.

The contrast could not be clearer. Total bilateral trade between Canada and Mexico is about $30-billion; with Israel, it’s about $1.4-billion. Mexico is Canada’s fifth-largest export market, Israel is Canada’s 44th. Two million Canadians visit Mexico each year. The government’s new trade strategy document identified Mexico as a priority market.

Far from being a priority, relations with Mexico are so rocky at the political level that both sides thought at least briefly of cancelling Mr. Harper’s trip that starts Monday night. Mexican attendees were miffed that the Canadian ambassador to Mexico did not attend a dinner in Mexico City last week at the conclusion of a conference celebrating the anniversary of the North American free-trade agreement.

What should be a year of satisfaction over 70 years of diplomatic relations between Mexico and Canada is clouded by disappointment in Mexico over what it considers a lack of Canadian attention, even respect.

When a very senior Mexican official visited Canada two weeks ago to prepare for the Harper trip, he left discouraged at the lack of serious interest from his Canadian counterparts. Moreover, whereas Mexico thinks it has proposed a series of important initiatives to deepen North American trade, the Canadian government does not push very hard to remove barriers.

Some of this Mexican disappointment might come from the asymmetrical relationship within North America. The Canadian government fears getting Canada-American relations tangled up in Mexican-American relations, which are very different in some important respects. And just as Canada is overwhelmingly interested in its relations with the United States, so is Mexico.

Mr. Harper’s office, as usual, worried about the optics of the trip. His officials were fearful the Mexicans would blurt out their disappointments, thereby spoiling the all-smiles image the Prime Minister’s Office wanted.

Canada’s imposition of visas on Mexicans in 2009 rankles the Mexican government very much. What the Harper organizers want from President Enrique Pena Nieto is a bland statement expressing understanding that the Canadians are working on removing the visas.

But Mr. Pena is an elected President with his own people to answer for. It would be entirely proper for him, as the country’s leader, to use strong language about Canada’s persistent refusal to lift the visas. That’s not the kind of language the Harper government wants, and they have been trying to persuade the Mexicans to tone things down.

Mexico has proposed a series of ways for Canada to phase out the visas but the Harper government has steadily avoided offering any commitments – unless Mr. Harper, through whom all policy foreign and domestic runs, surprises everyone and makes an announcement Monday in Mexico City.

The Harper government was actually more scared of something other than visas, an issue that counts for little among ordinary Canadians.

The Canadian cattle industry, the Alberta government and federal officials all know there are serious problems between Mexico and Canada over beef, including that questions have been asked about standards at some Western Canada meat plants and the blocking of Mexican beef exports to Canada due to lobbying by the Canadian industry. This little dirty secret is widely known in Canada, but it’s not one the industry and the governments want discussed publicly.

The Mexicans, much to the relief of the Harper government, have agreed to let this summit pass without making a stink about the beef issue, which had the potential to spoil the summit and send bad signals to other countries importing Canadian beef.

On the surface in Mexico, if all goes the way the Harper government wants, the leaders will smile, promise further intensification of relations and pronounce those relations excellent. The trouble is, they are not. What went on behind the scenes before the trip reinforced that fact.

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