Skip to main content

Muchas gracias, Rob Ford. Toronto's big enchilada has put Canada on the map in Mexico, where Canada usually struggles to gain attention. In Mexico, honest politicians try to stop drugs; the Toronto mayor uses them.

That's news in Mexico, as Mr. Ford's fabrications, drug use and drinking binges have been in many countries. At least temporarily, the mayor's behaviour replaces another "ugly Canadian" story that's become a staple in Mexico.

In 2009, attempting to stop a surge of bogus refugee claims from Mexico, the Harper government slapped visas on all Mexicans wishing to visit Canada. It was a classic case of shooting yourself in the foot, and the shooting goes on.

The government could have worked with Mexican authorities to deter the bogus refugees – economic migrants, really. Instead, it imposed the visas. And not just any old visas, but ones requiring long and complicated forms, with astonishingly detailed family and financial information.

Claimants often said they were fleeing violence, and, indeed, parts of Mexico are plagued with drug-related violence. But that is not a legitimate Geneva Convention rule. If it were, people would be using that claim from dozens of countries around the world, including (in this hemisphere) Venezuela, Brazil and some of the Central American countries where murder rates are higher than in Mexico. Nor were Mexicans' claims about discrimination against gays credible, in a country with gay pride parades and openly gay politicians.

The people who came claiming refugee status were economic migrants, people seeking better lives. When they heard how easy it was to enter Canada and get caught up in the refugee-determination system, they told friends and the surge was on.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper candidly and correctly explained that Canada itself was to blame for the situation that led to the insulting visas. The previous refugee-determination system was so cumbersome and, pursuant to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, gave anyone claiming refugee status the rights afforded Canadian citizens or legal residents the moment they stuck a toe on Canadian soil, followed by so many appeals, that they could remain here for years.

The word got out in some Mexican villages and states that Canada was an easy mark. So people came, inventing all sorts of reasons for being refugees, none of which had any resonance inside the Geneva Convention. And, sure enough, refugee advocates here took up their cause, as they do for just about anyone who shows up in Canada claiming refugee status, plausibly or not.

The visas stopped the surge, all right, but at far too high a cost.

The number of Mexicans visiting Canada for tourism or business plunged, way beyond what the Canadian government had predicted. Tour operators in Canada lost business. One of the two large Mexican airlines stopped flying to Canada. Air Canada lost passengers coming to Canada or changing planes in Canada for Europe or Asia.

The visas necessitated additional bureaucracy to administer them, with attendant costs. The delays in processing caused some Mexicans – we can't estimate how many – to say to heck with it. They travelled elsewhere instead. At a time when trade and general relations among the three NAFTA partners – Mexico, the United States and Canada – were supposed to be deepening, the visas sent a very negative message.

It's the same message Canada sends to other Latin American countries with which it has free-trade agreements – Chile, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica – and to Brazil, with which Canada is trying to intensify relations. The Canadian message seems to be: Trade with us, let our companies invest more easily in your countries, but if you want to come here, we have a nasty surprise for you. Enter Europe without a visa; enter Canada and you'll need one.

Naturally, those countries don't impose visas on Canadians since Canadians won't be claiming bogus refugee status there. Instead, they just charge Canadian visitors the cash equivalent of the visas their nationals must secure for the privilege of entering Canada.

The Harper government has identified improved relations with many Latin American countries as a priority, but the visas suggest otherwise. To its credit, the government has streamlined the refugee-determination process. A new electronic tracking system at the border is supposed to become operational in 2014 or 2015.

Mr. Harper will be in Mexico for two days in February. Then and there, he should announce the end of the visas.