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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is greeted by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto as he arrives at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico on Tuesday, Feb.18, 2014. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is greeted by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto as he arrives at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico on Tuesday, Feb.18, 2014. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harper stands firm on Mexico visa restrictions on eve of trilateral talks with U.S. Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he has no plans to lift the controversial visa restrictions for Mexican travellers and took issue with the trade imbalance between Canada and Mexico, setting a chilly tone ahead of trilateral talks with the United States.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto publicly raised the question of the travel restrictions, forcing the Prime Minister to make it clear that Ottawa has no plans to change the rules.

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The President’s comments brought an undercurrent of tension to the fore as the two leaders concluded an afternoon of bilateral talks in Mexico City on Tuesday. They will be joined by U.S. President Barack Obama in Toluca on Wednesday for a trilateral summit that is expected to focus on trade, energy and security issues in North America.

Before entering a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Pena Nieto, Mr. Harper warned that more should be done to correct an imbalance in trade and investment flows between Canada and Mexico. He said that while the North American free-trade agreement has contributed to tremendous growth for both Canada and Mexico, there continues to be a “very unbalanced” trade and investment relationship between the two countries.

In 2013, Canada imported about $26.7-billion from Mexico and exported about $5.4-billion to Mexico, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Tensions could grow as Wednesday’s meeting will give Mr. Harper another opportunity to press Mr. Obama on Canada’s bid for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would move oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Senior U.S. officials have made it clear during a background briefing last week that Canada should not expect an answer on the project during Wednesday’s meeting.

Mr. Harper said on Tuesday that he would raise the issue with Mr. Obama on Wednesday in the same manner he had previously. “I will raise the issue in private and my message will be obviously very similar to the message I deliver in public.”

In another sign of tension with Mexico, it was revealed Tuesday that Mexican officials inspected six Canadian slaughterhouses four months ago, but Ottawa won’t say why the inspections occurred.

Standing in Mexico’s National Palace, Mr. Harper and Mr. Pena Nieto unveiled a series of deals, including one aimed at increasing the number of flights between Canada and Mexico and another to boost co-operation on defence. However, the package of new agreements was not enough to soothe long-running tensions over visas, a growing thorn in Mexican-Canadian relations that remained unresolved on Tuesday.

The Mexican government has been pressing Canada to lift a 2009 requirement for Mexican citizens to obtain visas before they can travel. The rule was put into place to reduce the number of Mexicans claiming refugee status in Canada, but those who want to see it lifted say changes to Canada’s refugee laws mean it is no longer necessary.

Both leaders were initially expected to take questions from reporters after their one-on-one meeting, but a last-minute note from the Prime Minister’s Office indicated Mr. Pena Nieto had decided not to take questions after all.

Instead, Mr. Pena Nieto raised the issue of visas during his brief statement about the new co-operation deals between Canada and Mexico. He said he appreciated Mr. Harper’s willingness to continue a dialogue on visas, adding that Mexico would continue to work to have the requirement eventually lifted.

Mr. Harper did not address visas in his statement. When asked by reporters about Mr. Pena Nieto’s comments, he made it clear that Canada has no intention of changing the rules, noting that decisions about visas are a sovereign matter and are not a question to be negotiated with other countries.

Mr. Harper said Canada has been clear about the criteria that would lead to a visa requirement being imposed, which he said included concerns about security and illegal migration. “And the criteria are absolutely clear that under the current circumstances we should have a visa with Mexico.”

Mr. Harper is scheduled to stop at TransCanada Corporation’s offices in Mexico City on Wednesday, ahead of his talks with Mr. Pena Nieto and Mr. Obama. The three leaders are expected to discuss trade deals, including ways to revamp the 20-year-old NAFTA and current negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership, a wider trade agreement.

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