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Stephen Harper is trying to repair frayed relations with Mexico despite his refusal to roll back new entry restrictions for its citizens, emerging from a meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon last night to say it's Canada's dysfunctional refugee system that made him do it.

Blaming Canada for the move is Mr. Harper's attempt to soothe the feelings of an insulted NAFTA partner just before three-way talks start on a raft of other pressing issues, from the economy to trade.

"This is not the fault of the government of Mexico - let me be very clear about this," Mr. Harper told reporters, explaining his decision last month to clamp down on bogus refugee claims from Mexico by requiring Mexicans to get visas before entering Canada. "This is a problem in Canadian refugee law which encourages bogus claims."

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He and Mr. Calderon met for 40 minutes yesterday evening just before they joined U.S. President Barack Obama for the start of the two-day North American Leaders' Summit in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The normally chummy goodwill of these summits - known as Three Amigos get-togethers - has been strained by Ottawa's sudden visa clampdown.

Mexico has taken the less-than-neighbourly move as an affront and countered by slapping visa requirements on Canadian diplomats.

Mindful of the need to address this recent low in relations, the Harper government yesterday unveiled some modest police-training aid to help Mexican authorities as they wage a bloody and protracted battle against homegrown drug lords.

Just as Mr. Harper's plane touched down in Guadalajara - and only hours before he met with Mr. Calderon - the Tories announced Ottawa will deploy more Mounties to help train Mexican police on everything from fighting money laundering to intelligence gathering.

The drug war is a subject dear to Mr. Calderon's heart. Mexico has been plagued with rising drug-related violence in recent years, as rival cartels battle for control of smuggling and distribution routes. About 6,000 people died in drug-related violence in Mexico in 2008, nearly double the 3,042 killed a year earlier.

Mr. Harper insisted the visa obligation for Mexicans will remain in place until Canada's refugee system is fixed, calling on opposition parties to join his party in reforming Canada's refugee system to discourage bogus claimants.

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"The visas will stay as long as the problem exists," he said.

"Parliament should be seized with this issue [and]I hope our Parliament will take advantage of the attention that's been brought on this issue to deal with this problem," Mr. Harper said.

"Because we have many legitimate refugee claimants ... but we are spending an enormous amount of money on bogus refugee claims in a system that encourages those claims. And this can't continue this way."

Mexico had grown to become the biggest source of refugee claimants in Canada, with claims nearly tripling since 2005 to 9,500 in 2008.

Despite the backlash from Mexico, the Harper government says it's pleased with the result of its new visa crackdown on Mexicans.

The number of refugee claims for Mexican nationals at Canadian ports of entry has slowed to a trickle, according to Mr. Harper's office.

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There were 225 claims in the two weeks leading up to the clampdown, and there have only been 17 since, the Prime Minister's Office said last week.

Canada played down the notion that this has amounted to a rejection of Mexican visitors, noting that as of July 31 its Mexico City embassy has issued more than 15,000 visas and the acceptance rate for that office was about 90 per cent.

Despite Ottawa's unwillingness to repeal the visa policy any time soon, it's unlikely Mexico would respond in kind. Slapping the same obligations on Canadians vacationing in Mexico would only further hurt the country's tourist industry, already coping with the impact of the global recession.

The annual Three Amigos meeting, now in its fifth year, is showing signs of fading in importance. Missing from this year's agenda is the Security and Prosperity Partnership, adopted to advance economic and security integration. Senior North American business executives, invited in the past two years to help steer discussions, are also absent.

The NAFTA leaders will use the talks in Guadalajara to prepare for the September Group-of-20 economic summit, to discuss a feared fall resurgence of the swine flu virus, and how to fight climate change in a way that doesn't leave them offside with the United States.

Mr. Obama is hoping to build a common front with Canada and Mexico, as all countries prepare for a key climate change abatement meeting in Copenhagen in December, where they will try to find a successor agreement to the Kyoto accord.

While he made efforts to stand in solidarity yesterday with Mr. Calderon's war on the drug cartels, the amount Canada is allocating is small.

Ottawa announced yesterday that Canada is tapping a $15-million fund set aside in the 2009 budget - but not spent - to allocate more than $400,000 for training aimed at more than 330 Mexican police officers and their commanders.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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