Harper arrives at Summit of Americas meeting

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has arrived in Colombia to attend the Summit of the Americas, where the war on drugs and trade issues are expected to dominate the talks.
Colombian special forces troops take position on the roof of a building in Cartagena in preparations for the sixth Summit of the Americas. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has arrived in Colombia to attend the Summit of the Americas, where the war on drugs and trade issues are expected to dominate talks.

Harper met with nine Canadian business executives at a hotel boardroom on Friday shortly after arriving in Cartagena. They included Scotiabank president Rick Waugh; former Conservative cabinet minister Jim Prentice, now executive vice-president of CIBC; and former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, now CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

"I'm looking forward to chatting with you all about what Canadian industry is doing here in the Americas," Harper said. "This has been an area of tremendous growth in Canadian trade and investment activity since our government has taken office."

Upon Harper's arrival, the government announced that Canada had reached its first ever air transport agreement with Colombia, as well as Open Skies-type agreements with Honduras, Nicaragua, Curacao and Saint Maarten.

According to the Canadian government, the Open Skies-type agreements with Honduras and Nicaragua will provide airlines with flexibility in terms of routes, frequency of service and pricing, which will support increased trade and tourism.

Talks among the leaders are expected to shift to other areas, in particular, the war on drugs.

A number of heads of state from Latin America have been calling for the legalization or decriminalization of certain drugs, such as marijuana, in order to undercut drug cartels' profit margins and better control the trade.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, host of the conference that will bring together 34 leaders from the Western Hemisphere, said the issue needs to be debated.

"Colombia has suffered for years from this scourge. Organized crime has an ever greater hold on Central America," Santos said after arriving in Cartagena, according to Reuters. "We need to take the bull by the horns and start a debate, just to see if there's a better alternative to attack it."

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has said the terrible drug violence plaguing his country affects everyone in the hemisphere and has urged other leaders to come up with "market alternatives" to the war on drugs.

But U.S. President Barack Obama, who will also attend the summit, and Harper have so far signalled they are opposed to any moves to relax their drug laws.

Canada's farmers in crosshairs

On the issue of trade, Harper will be looking for support for entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a nine-country tariff-free bridge between the Western Hemisphere and Asia.

Canada's supply-management system, which protects certain Canadian farmers from international competition, has been an impediment to joining, in particular with the U.S.

Trade Minister Ed Fast said Canada is willing to discuss everything — including its supply-management system — when it sits down with other countries. Fast underlined, however, that Canada's Conservative government has promised egg, dairy and poultry farmers that it will protect their interests.

But he also suggested that all the states involved — including the United States and New Zealand — would have their own sticking points to hash out.

"We're prepared to discuss everything at the negotiating table, and every partner brings certain sensitive areas to the table which they defend aggressively, and at the end of the day they make a decision on whether to sign on to an agreement, whether they see the trade interests of their country being moved forward in a substantive way," Fast said in an interview from Lima, Peru.

Harper's director of communications, Andrew MacDougall, told reporters Thursday that the government wasn't interested in negotiating away items before it even arrived at the table for discussion.

This year's Summit of the Americas is the sixth such meeting of national leaders, with a summit held every three to four years since 1994. Canada hosted the 2001 summit in Quebec City. 

With files from Terry Milewski, James Fitz-Morris and The Canadian Press