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[Letter from Mexico] Ugly Canadians
[Opinion] A personal chronicle of a diplomatic crisis worsening each day
Michael Werbowski (minou)     Print Article 
Published 2009-07-20 11:52 (KST)   
This article is lightly edited.  <Editor's Note>
On Bastille Day, I went to see the pathetic situation at the Canadian embassy. Two week earlier on Canada Day July 1, all seemed quite normal. Still, I was not invited to partake on this festive occasion, in the fresh succulent Atlantic lobster flown in from Halifax, at a cost of about CAD$ 50 a piece to the taxpayer.

Yet in view of the current dreadful state of bilateral relations between Canada and Mexico, being invited to the "French house" in the Mexican capital, to celebrate their national day instead, was quite fine with me. Anyhow on Tuesday, the super-scoop that Ottawa was to slap visas on all Mexican visitors to Canada as of Wednesday July 15, took us all by surprise. Even my very astute and well connected Mexican media colleagues were surprised by this shocker.

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When I arrived by taxi around 1 p.m. to the Canadian embassy, it was a dismal scene, similar to those I've seen outside the Canadian embassies in Sophia or Bucharest during post-Community Europe. Outside the embassy, gates leading to paradise were guarded by well dressed goons. There was absolute confusion and chaos or a mini sort of hell. Angry, irate frustrated crowds unable to get their visas in time for their flights out, with looks of exasperation greeted me. "Are you Canadian?" one woman asked me anxiously. I replied positively with a hint of hesitation and quickly flashed my old press card, issued some time ago in the Great White North by a "pure wool" semi-sober Quebecer, who still runs the provincial journalists' guild and who after years still can barely pronounce or even spell a foreign sounding name like my own.

There I was in this no man's land. I felt like a persona non grata among the angry throng of Mexicans. I could not gain access to the embassy either; the main entrance was blocked by the fuming and frustrated locals, who if provoked to the slightest degree, looked as if they might turn into a raging mob and lynch me. Mexicans or those-so-called North American "amigos", Canada's NAFTA partners, were now being shunned, rejected, spurned by incompetent bureaucrats and politicians fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment. The Mexicans who welcomed me here many times, were now being ignominiously treated by Ottawa's finest diplomats with utter and scandalous contempt and disrespect.

They were humiliated and portrayed publicly like lepers, or worse. It reminded me of those thousands of temporary Mexican migrant agricultural workers who toil and sweat in the fields and farms of Ontario and Quebec. They are exploited shamelessly and silently by their unscrupulous employers in the North. And then they are often forcibly returned to Mexico, sometimes sick or dying from cancer due to overexposure to deadly pesticides during their indentured stay in Canada.

Among the frustrated crowd outside the Canadian embassy, I spoke to an elderly couple, who told me they came to do the paperwork for their children who live in Monterrey. I looked around for some Canadian colleagues. But there were none to be seen. This important news story would surely get big news coverage, if it were a diplomatic dispute between the French, or the Chinese or even the Czechs who also have been slapped in the face with a visa by Ottawa.

Perhaps in the Canadian case, it was deemed unimportant by newspaper and media editors in Toronto or Montreal to cover this highly embarrassing imbroglio. Or perhaps it was yet another example in the long list of Canada's dysfunctional immigration and refugee policies and thus, lacked newsworthiness.

But then, there was always the convenient official excuse that Ottawa could come up with whenever it wanted a total news blackout or a cover-up: those dreaded budget cuts. Indeed, there was hardly any coverage from Mexico or Latin America for that matter, since Ottawa cut funding to the national broadcaster, CBC/Radio Canada, forcing it to shut down its last remaining regional bureau. And perhaps with good reason, since Canadians wouldn't be able to see, just how reviled they are in Mexico and in the rest of Latin America.

Chaos Under the Maple Leaf

I was told by hopeful travelers that the apparently underfunded and understaffed Canadian consulates in Mexico were unable to issue the prized visas for the thousands for Mexicans. The procedure can only be done in Mexico City. This fact enraged the Mexicans even more. As for appearances, the embassy here, reminded me of a building which looked ominously like the Ministry of Information in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein, I visited back in 1990. It resembled some above ground bunker; a dark brown rectangular monolith resembling an Albert Speer copycat. It was one of the ugliest Canadian embassies I have ever seen, unlike the more stylish and elegant ones in Paris or Moscow or Washington. Inside, I imagined the compound paper pushers frantically running around, overwhelmed by a backlog of visa applications.

Outside, I saw what appeared to me to be young embassy employees, who mumbled something in semi-literate Spanish or barely understandable English to the distraught Mexican students, or retired couples waiting for permission to enter Canada as tourists or temporary visitors. The red and white maple leaf flag which usual fluttered above such foreign representations, was oddly absent. It was as if the flag were taken down from its mast and folded or even discarded in haste and shame, perhaps at nighttime as not to attract any attention, before the new visa restrictions were made public. By contrast, the nearby Australian embassy had its flag flying high. Despite the fact that Canberra had already imposed visas on Mexicans, before the Canadians, the embassy from "down under" was almost quite calm as if business were being conducted in the usual manner inside.

Canadian Gringos in Mexico

My own situation here is tenuous. My Canadian passport had expired in June and Air Canada canceled my flight back in May due to the influenza pandemic and I was unable to leave the country back then. Hence, I may be already contaminated with the deadly virus and I may be stranded here, but thankfully, on a still valid tourist visa. In this context of rapidly deteriorating relations, I am almost considered as an outcast by the locals, from an enemy nation, stuck in a country, which my own government has branded to almost be a pariah state, or as integral and key member of the H1N1 human virus "axis of evil", which exports deadly ailments through its migrating citizens.

Luckily, I still have a Canadian citizenship card and a Medicare card which proves that I am from the land of cute and cuddly seals, that federally funded hunters bludgeon to death each spring. I am from the land of the "maple syrup" as it is referred to so fondly and sweetly here. But alas, the bitter fact is that I am also from the land of "tar sands" in Alberta. A place transformed by big oil with the help of Ottawa, into a huge open air toxic sludge filled cesspool. I am also from the land of a reactionary right wing conservative government which sees political gain from imposing visas on evermore undesirable peoples coming to Canada to apparently take advantage of its very liberal refugee policies and overly generous welfare policies.

Canada's Open Door Policy Comes to an End

For all the years I have lived and traveled abroad which about half my lifetime, it always struck me how Canada portrayed itself in the world: 'a multicultural paradise on earth'. Unlike old xenophobic Europe or imperialist America, Canada was seen as a kindly and gentle place open to the miserable masses seeking peace. In search of a "good news" story, I would at times visit those recruitment fairs which advertised their services on huge display placards on the streets of Mexico City or in the local publications. The events were held at the "World Trade Centre", such as the one in Mexico City held each year, or in a big posh hotel conference halls. There were "information sessions" on how to come to Canada. Many Mexicans were willing to shell out a handsome amount to these scam artists and charlatans who offer expert immigration advice on how to obtain the necessary immigration papers and landed immigrant status.

The reality of course once you arrive, is quite different from the pep talks many get at this semi official (sponsored at times by the Canadian embassy) orientation sessions. Many of those potential migrants or recruits to Canada with their university degrees and marketable skills in hand, would often find themselves unemployed or unemployable, six months later and several thousand dollars poorer. In November 2008, I sat in a Montreal convention centre as part of the Bouchard Taylor commission (which was supposed to lessen frictions between newly arrived immigrants and old time residents resentful of the influx in hard economic times). I listened intently to the bitter tales of woe and complaints of new Canadians, who came from the Middle East or Africa but who could not get a decent job or ever practice the profession they studied in their country of origin. These were indeed heartbreaking tales.

Canada's Dirty Little Secret is Big News in Mexico

Perhaps it's the timing. But Canada is getting much bad press here lately. Splattered on the front page of the influential daily La Jornada this week, was a well documented and scathing article about Canadian mining activities in this country. The headline denounced the fact that more than 70 percent of all mining operations are owned and operated by Canada-based firms, that sytemcatilly destroy the local land, poison the water supply with harmful chemicals (using cyanide and mercury to extract ore, gold and silver) and destroying local communities. This is old news. I have been covering this for years, but finally it became front page material.

Canada has been plundering and fleecing Mexico of its mineral wealth since NAFTA was signed in 1994. Of course not all can be blamed on Canada. It was done with the active knowledge and complicity of Mexican government officials. But having spent years investigating and campaigning against Canadian mining operations abroad, I found it odd it and rather coincidental that the media had suddenly obtained official government documents and other such information just as the Canada Mexico diplomatic tiff worsened. Local government officials, it seems, have declared war on Canada in the Mexican media.

The Tiff Becomes a Full Blown Crisis

This week Mexico imposed visa restrictions on Canadian functionaries travelling to this country. The tit-for-tat visa war goes on. The ugly Canadian perhaps had better keep a low profile in Mexico from now on. Thankfully, I have dual nationality and an EU passport from a country that maintains excellent ties with Mexico. My advice to the Canadian tourists coming here to enjoy a cheap brew and get a suntan, or dig a big hole in the ground looking for gold, is to remove the Canadian flags sewn to their backpacks or those attached to their baggage.

Being Canadian abroad especially in Mexico is nothing to cheer or gloat about these days. My advice to fellow Canadian is just to stay invisible, if you can, until this crisis passes over, just like the Canadian embassy officials are doing so far with little success. In the mean while, I will pretend to be an American. But then, that's very easy for Canadians abroad.

©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Werbowski

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