Troubled Waters in the Mexico-Canada Relationship


In important ways, the story of Mexico and Canada is a different one than the saga of the United States and Mexico. For decades, thousands of Canadian "snowbirds" have passed winters in tropical Mexican resorts, contributing to the tourism economy. In funky Acapulco, the Quebec dialect of French is the second language heard on the streets during the winter months. Registering a 20% leap in numbers over 2007, more than an estimated 1.4 million Canadians visited Mexico last year.

In turn, about 270,000 Mexicans visited Canada in 2008. Besides tourists, Mexicans entering Canada included 17,000 seasonal farm workers, 4,000 other temporary workers, and 3,000 students, according to figures provided by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). The 2006 Canadian census reported 61,505 people of Mexican origin residing in Canada.

Until very recently, Mexicans traveled to Canada unhindered by the type of entry requirements needed to visit the United States. But the world changed July 13 when the Canadian government announced that within 48 hours Mexicans would need visas to enter the Commonwealth. Not surprisingly, an announcement that seemed to come out of the blue quickly led to scenes of chaos outside the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City.

According to a CIC statement, a flood of phony political asylum requests from Mexican nationals—tripling in number from 2005 to 2008 to 9,400—spurred the Canadian decision.

"The sheer volume of these claims is undermining our ability to help people fleeing real prosecution," said Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney.

According to Kenney’s office, Mexico was the number one source country of refugee claims, accounting for 25% of all requests received.

And for 2009, political asylum claims from Mexican nationals were outpacing 2008′s record number, already hitting 6,815 by the end of July, Kenney later told Maclean’s magazine.

Mexican federal officials declared they were surprised by the visa rule, but a story later published in the Mexico City daily La Jornada contended that the Calderon administration was well aware of a pending Canadian policy shift and unsuccessfully attempted to lobby Ottawa to change its mind.

According to CIC spokeswoman Kelli Fraser, Canada gauges a country’s profile to decide whether or not to impose a visa requirement. Test criteria include socio-economic factors, immigration issues, travel documents, safety and security issues, border management, human rights, and bilateral relations.

"Mexico does not meet all the criteria for a visa exemption," Fraser said in an email. "We will assess these criteria in making any future decision regarding the visa requirement."

For the past three years, Canada has witnessed an increase in immigration violations by Mexican nationals, including not possessing correct travel documents and overstaying visits, Fraser added in another message.

"Visa exempt countries are aware that if they do not satisfy the conditions of Canada’s exemption, the requirement for a visa may be re-imposed," she said.

Condemnation of the visa requirement crackled across Mexico. The Calderon administration slapped a similar rule on Canadian diplomats and functionaries, but it stopped short of requiring visas of all Canadians due to tourism considerations.

Enacted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, the visa policy was opposed by important Canadian political actors. The Quebec provincial government, for instance, criticized the new rule as an affront to a NAFTA partner. The opposition New Democratic Party also blasted the policy.

"Mexicans spend over $300 million a year in Canada, and yet this government chose the height of tourist season to impose new rules on Mexican visitors," said New Democrat spokesman Brian Masse.

At the Guadalajara summit of North American leaders this month, Mexican President Felipe Calderon acknowledged the visa rule had upset relations between his country and Canada, but added that the episode would not impact broader (economic) ties. Calderon expressed confidence that a bilateral working group formed to examine the visa issue would find a long-term solution. For now, Ottawa is sticking to its guns.

While many observers concurred that economically-motivated migrants from Mexico and other countries were falsely employing political arguments to obtain Canadian residency, and helping to clog an already back-logged Canadian immigration system, the fact remains that Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) accepted nearly 1,000 claims of political asylum last year from a supposedly stable, democratic country. Gays fleeing homophobia, activists threatened in Oaxaca, and veterans of the 1999 Mexico City student strike are among Mexicans who have found refuge in Canada. A new group of refugees is looming from people escaping regions of Mexico torn by narco-violence.

Immigrant and refugee advocates worry new Canadian policies could violate both the Canadian constitution and international agreements. "It seems to be a strategy to block access as much as possible to the refugee determination system," Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees was quoted in Maclean’s.

Ship over Troubled Waters
The visa flap was the latest one to rock the Canada-Mexico boat during the last three years. In early 2007, after the murders of three Canadian tourists and the unrelated, controversial prosecution of Canadian Brenda Martin for allegedly being part of a business fraud scheme based in Mexico, calls for a tourist boycott of the country were sounded in Canada. The same year, Mauricio Guerrero, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Canada, was quoted in the Mexican press denouncing the mistreatment of Mexican citizens deported from Canada, whose number grew sharply after 2003 to reach 11,000 in the period from 2004 to 2007.

Alleging that Mexican deportees were handcuffed and sometimes deprived of medical services, Guerrero said the Mexican government had filed official complaints with Ottawa over an issue that "could affect relations between the two countries."

Previously passing without much fanfare, diplomatic appointments have sometimes become a point of controversy in the bilateral relationship. Both Mexican and Canadian human rights and feminist groups protested the appointment of Francisco Barrio as Mexico’s ambassador to Canada earlier this year. Barrio was the governor of the state of Chihuahua when the mass murders of young women were first publicized in Ciudad Juarez in 1993. Barrio’s administration was widely condemned for bungling and even covering up the femicide investigations, and for ignoring recommendations issued by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission in 1998.

This year’s visa episode also thrust other thorny matters in the Mexico-Canada relationship back into the spotlight. For the past couple years, local opposition to Canadian-run mining operations has been mounting in different Mexican states. In San Luis Potosi, for example, residents are waging a campaign against the Cerro San Pedro open pit gold and silver mine operated by New Gold, Inc. Challenging New Gold’s claims that it is a "responsible mining company," opponents accuse the firm of damaging a historic church and nearby homes, drying up precious water supplies, and threatening aquifers with contamination.

The Montreal-based Commission for Environment Cooperation (the environmental side commission of NAFTA) recently declined to open an investigation into the controversial mine, but the Cerro San Pedro conflict was aired this year in the Mexican Congress and a company stockholders’ meeting in Toronto, where Canadian cops roughed up Mexican legislator Armando Barreiro, according to Inter Press News Service (IPS).

Of 677 foreign mining operations in Mexico, 70% are now controlled by Canadians, the news agency recently reported. "It’s really sad that open pit mining is in vogue," Hector Barri, an attorney for Cerro San Pedro opponents, told IPS. "Canada has realized that it can control Mexico with these investments."

In southern Mexico, the anti-mining REMA Chiapas network denounced the August 17 kidnapping of Mariano Abarca in the municipality of Chicomuselo. According to a statement by the group, Abarca was seized by armed men and whisked off to whereabouts unknown. The environmental activist was involved in preparing a national summit of non-governmental organizations set for August 29 and 30 in Chiapas that will discuss Canadian mining activities in Mexico, including projects in Chiapas, San Luis Potosi, and other regions.

REMA contended that Mexico was undergoing a "catastrophic epidemic" of mining, similar to but even more damaging than the colonial surge of mines from 1600 to1700.

The Canadian conquest of Mexico’s mining sector is part of a capital expansion in the Americas and beyond. In August, the pro-free trade Harper government concluded a new deal with Panama. The agreement adds the strategic Central American country to a list of other nations with which Canada maintains free trade accords, including Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Peru.

After the visa controversy erupted, La Jornada ran a series of articles that explored the unequal economic relationship that’s evolved between Canada and Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. A "colonial logic" underlies Mexico’s $12.5 billion trade deficit with Canada, editorialized La Jornada.

The Canadian visa imposition, editorialized the newspaper, was a rude reminder of an economic dependency that’s resulted in the "loss of political autonomy and sovereignty" for Mexico.

The Immigrant/Guest Worker Question
Increasingly, an essential ingredient of the Canada-Mexico relationship involves immigration. While older Canadians retire in sunny Mexico, younger Mexicans scramble to the frosty north to make a living—legally or illegally. The new Mexican migration comes at a time when Canada has embarked on an internally controversial immigration policy shift away from promoting citizenship and family reunification to emphasizing the employment of temporary foreign workers. Fueled in part by the development of Alberta’s oil sands and the preparations for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, demand for guest workers is booming.

Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program has several components, virtually all of them attractive to Mexicans. Since 1974, Canada has allowed Mexican agricultural workers to legally enter the country under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). Similar to the old Bracero Program of contract labor between the United States and Mexico, Mexican workers are given temporary contracts with individual employers.

Called a "pillar" of the Mexico-Canada relationship by the Calderon administration, the program is expected to enroll another 17,000 workers in 2009, according to the Canadian government. Mexican farm workers will labor in tobacco fields, truck farms, fruit orchards, and greenhouses in almost all Canadian provinces this year.

The SAWP is just one stream of Canada’s expanding temporary foreign worker program, which utilizes about 90,000 workers of different nationalities every year, according to official numbers. New programs for Mexican workers are planned for the construction and tourism industries.

In Mexico, professional labor brokers have opened up offices to place Mexican citizens in Canadian jobs. Tomas Vasquez, a partner in the Canadian Immigration Technical Resource Network (CITRN) company’s year-old Aguascalientes office, said in an interview that demand exists for lawyers, mechanical engineers, nurses, paramedics, and computer engineers. Vasquez’s company charges successful applicants $3,000 for job placement services. The Aguascalientes office receives 100-200 visitors per month and successfully places 20 applicants a trimester, Vasquez said, adding that plans are in the works to expand CITRN in other Mexican cities.

"It’s a little easier to get permits in Canada than in the United States if you do the paperwork," the employment recruiter said. According to Vasquez, successful applicants must meet several preconditions, including no history of deportations from the United States; no criminal record; basic mastery of English or French; and professional career experience. Mexicans are typically paid half the salary of Canada-born workers, Vasquez added.

Despite the visa brouhaha, Vasquez viewed Canada’s demographic tendencies as favorable to Mexican immigration over the long-term. "I think it can get to the same level of immigration as in the United States," he quipped. "There is no native labor force in Canada."

Like the United States, however, Canada is seeking to strictly control the foreign labor flow. The Harper administration’s decision to require visas of Mexican (and Czech) citizens this summer is part of a larger policy aimed at not only limiting refugee requests but of extending the temporary status of foreigners desiring permanent Canadian residency as well. Canadian researcher Salimah Valiani found that only 50% of workers who entered Canada during 2003-2005 under the Live-in Caretaker Program became permanent residents under lengthier requirements by 2007.

Moreover, the mainly Filipina domestic house workers were often subjected to physical, wage, and other types of abuses common in the Middle East and Gulf states, Valiani contended. The isolated workers are not allowed to unionize, and official enforcement of labor standards is spotty, according to the researcher. In recent years, similar abuses of Mexican male workers in the SAWP have been reported.

Concluded Valiani: "The pressing question for all residents of Canada is: do we want a society striving for pluralism and people-oriented development, or a conflicted society like the USA, increasingly dependent on the use of migrant workers coupled with intensifying xenophobia."

On the refugee question, Canada’s Conservatives have long opposed the 1985 Supreme Court Singh decision that declared the country’s Charter of Rights applied to all people on Canadian soil, whether there legally or not. The decision is credited for leading to the creation of the relatively independent Immigration and Refugee Board.

Only days after the Mexican-Czech visa controversies erupted, the Harper government issued additional rules that barred foreign nationals from several conflict-ridden nations from applying for refugee status in Canada if they had first gone to the United States. The countries included Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zimbabwe. The new Canadian policy also reopened the doors to deportations for people from Burundi, Liberia, and Rwanda.

Despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s reassertion during the Guadalajara summit that the U.S. immigration system was broken, Immigration Minister Kenney justified the new refugee rules on the grounds that applicants from the affected countries had already had a chance to claim refugee status "in a safe, democratic country."

Canada’s crackdown on immigrants has external as well as internal imperatives. While Canadian and U.S. foreign policies have historically been very close, critics take the Conservative government to task for what they consider a new low of subordination to U.S. interests since the advent of the U.S. War on Terror, with Ottawa adopting the role of the northern sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.

As Prime Minister Harper remarked in Guadalajara this month: "I have repeated this: There does not exist a threat to the United States that is not a threat to Canada. That’s why Canada has supported the United States, the free trade agreement, and many other things in which we have cooperated."

Enamored by free markets and foreign investors, and constrained by economic dependency, the Calderon administration is unlikely to press the Canadian government too hard on contentious immigration, economic, and environmental questions. But given the burgeoning contradictions in the bilateral relationship, many other Mexicans, long accustomed to beholding the mellow face of the Canadian snowbird, could begin seeing more than just a passing resemblance to the voracious, imperial eagle that’s long roosted on Mexico’s most immediate northern border.


Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America, and an analyst for the Americas Program at
www.americaspolicy.org.

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