Culture & Conversation

NAFTA’s cultural legacy

Barack Obama, Enrique Peña Nieto and Stephen Harper: the three not-so-much amigos?

Barack Obama, Enrique Peña Nieto and Stephen Harper: the three not-so-much amigos?

NAFTA: A Cultural History, May 3, 2014

The North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 was supposed to bring Canada closer to its two nearest southern neighbours, but look where we are now: Stephen Harper, already on cool terms with Barack Obama, took the trouble to insult the U.S. president in New York by calling pipeline approval a “no-brainer.” Meanwhile, the Mexican president cancelled a planned visit to Ottawa following repeated snubs from Harper on the issue of visa-free travel.

Stephen Henighan, a Canadian writer and professor of Spanish at Guelph University, and Luis Alberto Urrea, a Mexican-born American writer and academic, together presented a remarkably spirited and articulate talk on NAFTA 20 years later.

Henighan noted that Canada was long aloof from Latin America and from the Spanish language, spoken by one-third of the combined populations of the three NAFTA countries, including 15% of Americans but only 1.5% of Canadians.

Earlier waves of immigration from Latin America starting in the 1970s were dominated by people of liberal or leftist leanings fleeing brutal military regimes, notably in Chile and Argentina. But now, Alberta is the biggest magnet, drawing a generally more conservative crowd, including anti-Chávez oil technicians from Venezuela and professionals from Mexico admitted under NAFTA regulations. By 2005, there were as many Mexicans as Chileans in Canada.

Latin America is again fading from view among policy-makers, absorbed in Canada’s current tilt towards Asia, Henighan lamented. This is reflected, among other things, in declining enrolments for university Spanish courses.

Urrea reflected on the U.S. corporate presence in Mexico, troubles along the U.S.-Mexico border and anti-immigration hysteria in Arizona under Tea Party influence. He mused that many people in the United States still do not see Mexico as part of North America.

The panel was masterfully moderated by Ingrid Bejerman, who quoted Carlos Fuentes’s variation of the old adage, “You cannot choose your neighbours, but you can choose your friends.”

The Blue Metropolis Festival runs until May 4th. Consult their website for more information.


Eric Hamovitch is a Montréal translator and co-author of Canada and the Global Economy (Lorimer).  He is also former Mexico City correspondant .


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