Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Going beyond clichés to foster understanding: An interview with Graeme C. Clark, Canadian ambassador to Mexico

Mexico News Daily co-owners Travis and Tamanna Bembenek share below their interview with Canadian Ambassador to Mexico Graeme C. Clark, as part of MND’s “Canada in Focus” series, which highlights connections between the two countries as they celebrate 80 years of diplomatic relations.

Ambassador Clark became Canada’s ambassador to Mexico in 2020, having previously served as ambassador to Peru and Bolivia, the Organization of American States and as deputy head of mission in France.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a little about yourself. What’s your role here in Mexico?

My role as ambassador is to cultivate the bilateral relationship on all fronts and to bring it to a new level. The focus is on understanding each other’s reality, and my aim has been to go beyond the clichés and look to our real shared interests. Canada’s relationship with Mexico as our partner and neighbor in North America is characterized by great depth and breadth. Mexico is one of Canada’s most important economic relationships and is Canada’s third most important commercial partner. Our two countries are united in our desire to promote gender equality and Indigenous peoples’ rights, to advance democracy and the rule of law, to fight climate change, and to strengthen international peace and security. In this complex and ever-changing world, we cannot overemphasize the importance we place on our relationship with Mexico as a continental partner in the world’s most prosperous region.

Canada and Mexico recently commemorated 80 years of diplomatic relations. Given these longstanding ties, what priorities does Canada have in advancing bilateral relations with Mexico? What is the Embassy doing to bolster cooperation?

As you mentioned, this year Canada and Mexico are commemorating the 80th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, which began on January 29, 1944. In addition, 2024 marks 20 and 50 years since the launch of the Canada-Mexico Partnership (CMP) and the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), respectively, and 30 years since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994.

Canada is committed to enhancing and expanding relations with Mexico, both bilaterally and within the region of North America. Our most immediate priority this year is to establish new relationships and update our networks to work with the incoming administration in Mexico, building new alliances and redefining our common goals within our shared values.

As part of our 80th anniversary celebrations, we just inaugurated a photo exhibit in the Senate, and we are looking forward to a wonderful retrospective of the works of Canadian surrealist artist Alan Glass in Bellas Artes later this year.

In addition, we have constant projects and a very busy schedule of visits at all levels and constant dialogue, including the meeting between President-elect Sheinbaum and the [Canadian] Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly, on June 26, and the visit of the parliamentary secretary for international development on July 1-3, as well as constant engagement on topics including academic collaboration, trade, the environment, migration, human rights and security.

What is your vision for the Mexico-Canada relationship three years from now? Are there any areas of cooperation or growth that you anticipate will become more significant?

Of course, we’re opening a new chapter with a new administration in Mexico as of Oct. 1, and with a new administration there’s always hope, there are new opportunities that Canada and Mexico can explore together. We also have in the pipeline the review of the CUSMA/T-MEC [also known as USMCA] between the three countries. That’s something that we have to work on bilaterally with Mexico and, of course, trilaterally with the U.S. There’s clearly going to be an emphasis on the environment, renewable energy and climate change, and that’s something we look forward to working on.

Thinking strategically, what I find interesting about the relationship is that there’s so much more to scope out in terms of building that bilateral dynamic. We have so much in common, so many shared interests, so many shared values, and we must continue to work on building that relationship and mutual understanding between the two countries, whether it’s in three years’ time or in thirty years’ time. Canada and Mexico will share the North American space with the United States, and we have to find a way to manage that as effectively as possible to the benefit of Mexicans, Canadians and Americans.

A large number of Canadian companies operate in Mexico across various sectors, driving economic growth and development. What impacts do these companies have in key industries such as automotive, renewable energy, agriculture and mining?

Canada is Mexico’s third largest foreign investor after the U.S. and Spain, with Canadian direct investment stock in Mexico valued at US $56 billion since 1999.

The positive impact that Canadian companies have in Mexico is spread across several sectors, such as mining, energy and automotive, to name a few. Canadian investment in Mexico creates over 85,000 formal jobs and contributes to an important economic spillover in the regions where they are investing. For example, in the mining sector, Canadian companies are the largest foreign investors in Mexico, representing 70% of all foreign companies operating. In energy, our companies have invested more than US $10.3 billion. In the automotive industry, there are over 60 Canadian auto-parts companies operating in Mexico, with over 130 plants in 14 states.

There are great opportunities in areas where we find an overlap between the leading-edge expertise and capabilities from the Canadian private sector and emerging and fast-growing industries in Mexico. This could include areas such as electromobility, renewable energies, life sciences, clean-tech, etc.

When I reflect on Canadian investment in Mexico, what I’m most proud of is how critical Canada’s investment footprint is for supporting Mexican economic growth and trade with the world. One Canadian company, TC Energia, has struck a strategic alliance with the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) to bring gas and spur economic development to the southeast of Mexico. Canadian Pacific Kansas City continues to grow and support Mexico in moving its exports throughout the country and northward into the United States and Canada. And our pension funds have made strategic investments in Mexico’s road infrastructure.

Given the nearshoring trend, how are Canadian companies’ attitudes toward Mexico evolving? Are there any notable shifts in their strategies for investment and operations here?

The North America region is the economic block that has most benefited from the current supercycle of foreign direct investment. All three of our economies are bringing in record levels of investment.

In addition, it is almost impossible to reflect on the Mexican economy over these years without mentioning the increased flows of foreign direct investment (FDI) that nearshoring is bringing into the country, and into the North American region. This has been an important element for the economic stability that Mexico is currently experiencing and a key element to continue promoting our integration in the region.

As we continue to see sustained levels of investment flowing from Canada into Mexico, and rather than a shift of strategy from Canadian companies, it demonstrates the continuous interest Canadian companies and investors have in the Mexican market. Since the entry into force of CUSMA in 2020, Canada has positioned between the 2nd and 3rd most important investors in Mexico each year. Last year, Canada positioned itself as the 3rd largest investor in 2023 with an investment of US $3.47 billion, accounting for 10% of Mexico´s total FDI.

Through ensuring that there is a level playing field for investors, regulatory and legal certainty, and providing enhanced stability, Mexico will be well-placed to continue to benefit from increased investment. Strategic investments in energy infrastructure, particularly in the expansion of renewables, will allow global manufacturing firms to meet their ESG goals and grow in Mexico.

Lastly, but definitely not less important, it will be critical to ensure the new incoming investment has the potential to add value to the already strong and interconnected supply chains of North America and give space for the participation of SMEs [small and midsize enterprises] and unrepresented groups.

What is the current situation around CUSMA (T-MEC)? What do you expect of its joint review in 2026?

July 1, 2024, will mark the fourth anniversary of the entry into force of the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), or T-MEC as it is known in Mexico, an agreement that has been one of the foundational pillars of the economic relationship for the North American region. This agreement looks to preserve key elements of the long-lasting trading relationship, which flourished with the entry into force of our previous agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, whilst incorporating new and updated provisions that seek to address 21st-century trade issues and promote opportunities for the nearly half a billion people who call North America home. It has also served as an important cornerstone in strengthening conditions for North America’s workforce.

This agreement also represents a key element for the bilateral trade relationship between Canada and Mexico, which in 2023 reached $54 billion CAD. This means that for Canada, Mexico remains our third most important trading partner and our top export destination in Latin America. CUSMA has been a mechanism to strengthen our economic ties with Mexico, but also to address any concerns both parties may have.

As part of the commitments reached under CUSMA, Mexico, the US, and Canada agreed to have a joint review, which will take place on or by July 1, 2026. This process, which is not a renegotiation, will be an opportunity to ensure CUSMA remains fit for purpose and continues to strengthen our region’s competitiveness and resilience. Between now and the 2026 joint review of the agreement, we will face a busy political calendar with national elections in the three countries. This period will also be an opportunity to progress on full implementation of the agreement, as highlighted by ministers at the fourth meeting of the CUSMA Free Trade Commission in May.

In what ways has cultural exchange between Mexico and Canada strengthened bilateral ties, and are there any upcoming initiatives or events to further promote cultural understanding?

In the past three years, as we were going through and out of the pandemic, we put a certain emphasis on uplifting Canadian Indigenous art and artists.

A major initiative for us came at the request of President López Obrador in 2021, when he asked our prime minister to contribute to the celebration of 200 years of the consummation of Mexico’s independence in partnership with the state of Oaxaca. For three weeks between September and October 2021, we presented audio and audiovisual art of various Canadian and Mexican artists from Oaxaca in the city of Oaxaca, such as virtual reality experience, music, murals and a movie cycle, among other things.

In 2022, we also brought two throat singers from Nunavut, who performed in Mexico City to audiences that were amazed by this very particular form of singing.

Earlier this year (2024), we partnered with the Carleton University Choir to bring a group of young singers to perform in Mexico City, Tlaxcala and Puebla to highlight Canadian musical talent but also to provide music masterclasses to a vulnerable community in Tlaxcala, where most children who benefited were Indigenous.

These are only a few examples of what we have done in recent years and will continue to do, fostering relationships between Canadian and Mexican artists and our communities, and collaborating with local authorities and the Mexican federal government in some instances as well.

At the end of this year, we will be working with the Mexican Ministry of Culture to show the art of late Canadian-Mexican artist Alan Glass in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, inaugurating at the end of October. This will be a perfect example of how our countries, our peoples, can foster ties that go far beyond commercial trade or tourism.

This year, you will be completing five years in Mexico.  Can you comment on the aspects of Mexican culture that you will miss when you go back home?

Well, really, I don’t want to go home. I’ve been so happy here. I say sincerely that this has been the high point of my diplomatic career. Serving here, in a country so important to Canada, a country that I’ve always loved, whose food, people and culture have engaged me and complemented me personally and professionally, has been wonderful.

So, as we say in French, it will be an au revoir, till we meet again. I came to Mexico often before I was named ambassador, as a tourist and as an official, and I hope to continue coming to Mexico in the future so that the tastes, the smells and the sites will remain familiar and sharp in my mind.

So yes, of course I will miss Mexico, as one misses any posting as one moves on in one’s diplomatic career. It’s always a painful moment to have to leave an assignment that one has loved. But what’s wonderful about Mexico for Canadians is of course that it’s only a four hour and a half flight away, and I look forward to taking those flights so that I can renew my engagement with this country.

Lastly, what is your favorite Mexican food? Our staff and readers would love to know.

It strikes me that the best thing about Mexican food is a series of small things. So you go to a restaurant and you don’t order just a plato fuerte, you order all sorts of small things to begin your meal, perhaps a little plate of ceviche, or perhaps some sopes, a taco, a wonderful guacamole. Even the different salsas that you find in the center of the table give the experience of a single dish so much nuance and variety. So, to me, the attraction of Mexican food is that variety and multiplicity that exists at the outset of a meal and that can sometimes be a meal in itself.

Travis Bembenek is the CEO of Mexico News Daily and has been living, working or playing in Mexico for over 27 years. Tamanna Bembenek was born in India, studied and worked in the U.S. and now lives in Mexico with her husband, Travis. Together, they are the co-owners of Mexico News Daily.

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