The North American Leaders’ Summit (NALS) being held at the end of June in Ottawa marks a symbolic beginning and an end of an era in North America. It’s the first visit by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and the final visit of US President Obama to Canada.

It may also mark the end of these meetings, or at least the point when historians note their permanent decline and the end of the idea of a larger vision for North America beyond NAFTA.

The annual NALS — created with much fanfare, hope and ambition — has become a biennial annoyance that the leaders, their bureaucracies and political staff seem to increasingly dread.

In 2010, when it was Canada’s turn to host the meeting, it was first postponed and then cancelled. The 2011 summit was postponed and there was no summit in 2013. Meanwhile, the NAFTA of the South, the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico), held video summits instead of cancelling meetings when scheduling conflicts arose. In North America that sense of urgency and purpose no longer exists.

Given tensions between Mexico and Canada’s previous government over the imposition of visas for Mexicans travelling to Canada, it was hard to imagine this summit ever taking place in Canada without a change of government in Ottawa. Promises by a new government to lift the visa requirement or at least take the issue seriously allowed Mexico to save face and to save the day on this summit.

Several factors are driving the countries apart; two of those are critical for Canada.

The first is demographics. As Canada is becoming more Asian in composition, the US is becoming more Hispanic, with roughly two-thirds of this cohort of Mexican origin. There are now more Mexicans in the US than there are Canadians in Canada, and this is having a drastic impact on the balance of power between Canada and Mexico in Washington.

There are now more Mexicans in the US than there are Canadians in Canada.

In the US, there are now more majority-Hispanic congressional districts than African-American ones, including in New York, New Jersey and Illinois. If a member of Congress from one of these districts is going to take a trip across a border, it’s almost certainly the southern border, to have campaign-worthy photo ops in places known to voters back home. And the pressure to make these visits will only intensify as every month, close to 60,000 US-born Latinos turn 18 and become eligible to vote. Canada is the largest foreign trade partner for most US states and will remain important. But trade partners do not swing elections, voters do; and in this regard Mexico is more important for US elected officials than Canada.

With so many people with ties to Mexico, that country has 51 consulates in the US versus only 12 for Canada. In Texas, the difference in consulates is 11:1, in California it’s 5:1. Mexico has more representation in more northern border states than Canada does. The Mexican Foreign Ministry also has almost 2,500 Mexican hometown associations registered by its division charged with diaspora relations, which has staff in every Mexican consulate in the US. Mexico has such an effective ground game to influence the US, representatives almost literally greet members of Congress every weekend at the airport when they return home from Washington.

This illustrates why former president George W. Bush made Mexico his first foreign visit. Given demographic trends, that precedent will likely become the norm.

A second reason for the continental drift has been lack of interest from the private sector, academia and other actors. Most notably, despite 20 years of NAFTA and the advantages it confers, Canadian business has not come close to fully taking up the available business and trade opportunities in Mexico. Figure 1, on Canadian exports, illustrates what is repeated anecdotally: the Canadian business community is fixated on China and other parts of Asia. The Canadian private sector, especially in western Canada, shows much less interest in Mexico, even though it has both a booming middle class and a trade agreement with Canada. With rare exceptions, like the trimodal shipping hub CentrePort Canada in Winnipeg, efforts to raise interest in opportunities in Mexico have been largely futile.

Dade fig

Even the recent opening of Mexico’s energy sector to private investment has not produced a response from the Canadian private sector that is concomitant with the opportunity. Multiple visits by senior Mexican energy officials to Alberta, including by the country’s energy minister, have not been reciprocated by provincial ministers or premiers from Canada’s oil-producing provinces. Western premiers visit China instead.

Mexico, too, has shown little interest in Canada. With the exception of Grupo Bimbo purchasing Canada Bread, there are few examples of significant Mexican investment in Canada.

There are few business ties, minimal student and academic exchanges, and no public policy research or advocacy organizations focused on Mexico. That country is out of sight, out of mind in Canada; by comparison, a plethora of business associations and think tanks are focused on Asia.


This rise of the importance of Mexico in the US coupled with lack of interest in Mexico in Canada brings three major challenges to Canada’s traditional thinking about its engagement in North America.

First, the idea of a larger North American project beyond NAFTA, as championed by the late foreign policy expert and presidential adviser Robert Pastor, is dead. This failure comes in spite of 20 years and countless summits, think tank reports and working groups. This is now the era of “small ball” for North America. Instead of broad ideas, engagement is succeeding on very focused, ad hoc and idiosyncratic issues of convergence between the countries. The attempts to construct a hemispheric response to global warming are a good example.

Instead of broad ideas, engagement is succeeding on very focused, ad hoc and idiosyncratic issues of convergence between the countries.

There are also a handful of issues where Canadian and Mexican interests converge and cooperation can move the US. One example is the joint effort to have the Americans rescind country-of-origin labelling for meat. But success in working with Mexico on these issues will require coming to terms with the shift in the balance of power. Canada will have to make a better case for why Mexico should bother returning phone calls from Ottawa seeking help in Washington. Irritants such as the imposition of visas on Mexicans take on more strategic considerations beyond the short-term domestic policy calculus applied by the previous government in Ottawa.

There is anecdotal evidence that this cooperation is happening between foreign ministries and consulates. A rethinking and reordering of Canadian engagement around the shift of power would help formalize this cooperation and give it a more lasting and less idiosyncratic foundation. It would also help to bring along the rest of Canada. In the mid-2000s Foreign Affairs created a series of initiatives to strengthen Canada’s engagement in the US. A revival of these initiatives, including Hispanet, which was focused on understanding and systematically working with the US Hispanic population and its leadership, is needed more now. Also, reversing the decline in the number of Canadian consulates in the US under the previous government can help.

But work also needs to be done in Canada. In the case of country-of-origin labelling, an issue of critical importance to western Canada, the silence from provincial governments in acknowledging Mexico’s assistance was deafening. Such a needless snub could be costly the next time Canada seeks help from Mexico. The silence also does nothing to explain to Canadian ranchers or voters the value of Mexico’s intervention on our behalf. The ensuing lack of domestic political understanding of the value of Canadian policy toward Mexico simply reinforces a negative feedback loop of continued disengagement.

We run to Mexico for help with “Buy American” campaigns, country-of -origin labelling and agricultural inspection fees, then remain silent on issues important to Mexico, such as speaking out in opposition to Donald Trump. We must do more for Mexico if Canada is going to have any hope of keeping Mexico as an ally in Washington.

We must do more for Mexico if Canada is going to have any hope of keeping Mexico as an ally in Washington.

Finally, there are a set of issues where Canada and Mexico have parallel but not necessarily convergent interests. Border infrastructure is a good example. Canada and Mexico face similar frustrations over getting US states to fund border infrastructure and getting Congress to fund customs and border facilities. A permanent border financing and planning facility or an independent border infrastructure bank would go a long way to addressing these issues.

A trilateral institution might seem to be the logical solution, but disparities in funding needs, security and other issues make the idea unappealing to Canada and Mexico. For the Americans, however, setting up, funding and managing two separate institutions that would essentially do the same thing is a non-starter. Getting the Americans to consider an initiative to address border infrastructure will be difficult; getting them to consider two such initiatives would be impossible. In the future, Canada will have to reconcile itself to getting what it needs out of the US through compromising not only with the Americans but also with the Mexicans.

With such divisions, it’s no wonder interest in a biennial leaders’ summit is fading. There is some irony though in the possibility that the NALS in Ottawa will be one of the most productive. The three leaders are on the same page politically and ideologically on issues important to the U.S. president. And this U.S. president, at the end of his term, is willing and able to use executive authority to bypass Congress on a significant range of issues, (as an aside, a new softwood lumber agreement with Canada is a good example of what the President can do without congress).

The potential for success at this summit flowing from initiatives and deal-making by the leaders themselves would normally have analysts and the press thinking aloud about a renewal of broader cooperation in North America. But in this case that optimism will likely not survive the swearing in of a new U.S. president and will completely vanish if the next NALS cannot be scheduled, or it if is replaced by an annual Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) summit. The TPP is the type of initiative that will require the attention and presence of a U.S. president; the NAFTA a 20 year-old agreement that has reached its limits and functions well enough on its own, does not.

Canada will try to get what it can from a U.S. president willing and able to make deals to bolster his legacy, but we shouldn’t look for much beyond this summit.

Photo: CP Images / Bullit Marquez, Pool

This article is part of the North American Relations special feature.


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous rĂ©agir Ă  cet article ? Joignez-vous aux dĂ©bats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Carlo Dade
Carlo Dade is the director of the Trade & Investment Centre at the Canada West Foundation.

Vous pouvez reproduire cet article d’Options politiques en ligne ou dans un pĂ©riodique imprimĂ©, sous licence Creative Commons Attribution.

Creative Commons License