Stephen Toope

While the school calendar is telling us it’s fall, in Toronto we’ve been enjoying the last hot-and-steamy days of this hot-and-steamiest of summers. But I suspect some of us are already thinking ahead to frigid February and dreaming of a winter escape to the sun – perhaps a beach in Mexico?

Tempting as that thought may be, Mexico has been on my mind for other reasons. According to StatsCan, at 1.6 million visitors per year (2013 numbers), Mexico is the second largest travel destination for Canadians, lagging the US by far, but surprisingly ahead of the UK and France. Yet I find few Canadians thinking strategically about this very important relationship.

What do we think of when we think about Mexico? Sun, sand and surf? Drugs and violence? Donald Trump’s assertions that Mexicans are rapists and criminals who will conveniently contain themselves within a border wall they pay for if he is elected? A bizarre meeting between the unpopular Mexican leader and this US presidential hopeful that has served only to further damage President Peña Nieto’s reputation – and led to the sacking of his finance minister who organized it?

In my view, what happens in Mexico matters to Canadians much more than most of us realize. It has become the centre of attention of our largest trading partner – for good or ill. In the past decade, total US merchandise trade with Canada has grown by 19 per cent, while its trade with Mexico has risen by 68 per cent. Some predict Mexico will overtake Canada as a US trade partner within the next 20 years. All such predictions could be moot if the anti-free-trade “Fortress America” rhetoric we’re hearing in the US prevails. But I sense we’re an afterthought for Americans these days. They are more preoccupied with their southern border than the northern. We need to pay more attention to our ties with that southern neighbour.

We have many concerns in common and can learn from each other. While unpopular, the current Mexican government has been dynamic on many fronts – particularly energy. The “three amigos” summit in June produced a clean energy partnership that could have great promise. All of us on this continent have a shared interest in lowering carbon emissions, in ensuring border security while encouraging trade and movement of people, in cultural exchange.

In the run-up to NAFTA several decades ago, Canada had strong ties with Mexico. Student and faculty exchanges enriched academic institutions in both countries. It’s a shame that economic, cultural and social relationships have weakened over time. At the Munk School, we believe in building bridges rather than walls. One project in Guadalajara saw Munk School Master of Global Affairs students proposing ways that the Jalisco state’s government could better support a Silicon-Valley-type startup ecosystem. Our Global Justice Lab is collaborating with justice officials and police departments in Mexico City on identifying what matters for community safety and how to know if progress is being achieved. On Wednesday, Dr. Denise Dresser – political analyst, writer, professor, Knight of the French Legion of Honor for her defense of freedom of expression and human rights, named by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful women in Mexico – will talk about her country’s future at a Munk School lecture.

The Canadian government has announced that it will rescind visa requirements for visitors from Mexico later this year. This is a good start at re-establishing relationships. Let’s think hard and creatively about how we build from here.

September 19, 2016