SAGUENAY, Que. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says breathing new life into Canada's relationship with China will allow his government bolster economic trade while pushing the east Asian country to do better on delicate issues like its record on human rights.
"What we need with China is to reset the relationship a little bit," Trudeau said Friday in Saguenay, Que., after wrapping up a Liberal caucus retreat in this picturesque region 210 kilometres north of Quebec City.
Trudeau is heading to China for an official visit next week, and is vowing to handle things differently than the previous Conservative government, which he characterized as having a "hot and cold" approach that got in the way of meaningful engagement.
He said he will broach how China can allow Canadian products and services greater access to its growing middle-class market, as well as thornier issues such as how the Chinese government can improve on human rights, governance and democracy.
China might want the rest of the world to see it has a friend in Canada, Trudeau suggested.
"Canada has earned a reputation as a country that stands up strongly and clearly for human rights, and working with Canada in a positive way will be very good for China to continue to demonstrate that it is serious about taking on the responsibilities that come with having an increasingly large footprint on the world stage."
Still, the economic file alone — over a looming trade irritant involving exports of canola — could end up posing its fair share of risks to the relationship.
Luo Zhaohui, China's ambassador in Ottawa, told The Canadian Press this week the Canadian government has been inflexible and "unfair" in its approach to talks that began seven years ago over Chinese concerns about rules for the make-up for canola shipments.
The issue is the amount of so-called "dockage," the term used to describe foreign material such as other plant and weed seeds, found in Canadian exports of canola to China.
Out of concerns about the spread of disease, the Chinese government has given Canada until Sept. 1 to reduce the level of dockage in its deliveries, but Canada has stood its ground, arguing scientific evidence shows the change will not affect the risks.
On Friday, a senior government official confirmed Trudeau intends to raise the canola dispute during his visit. The official said the government is tracking the issue, but offered no additional updates.
Asked about the concerns domestic producers might have about the dispute or the persistent question of foreign investment in the oilsands, Trudeau said any talk of further opening up Canada to the world must focus on creating jobs, growing the economy and ensuring our goods have access to foreign markets.
"These are the interests that we are going to be strongly and carefully balancing as we engage with the economic powerhouse that is China," he said.
The prime minister also made a pitch for foreign investment that characterized Canada as an oasis of calm when the insecurity of the developing world and the growing tide of protectionism in the U.S. and Europe poses increased risks for capital.
"What Canada offers to the world right now at a time when it is characterized by populism and anti-globalization is an approach that offers political, financial, economic, social stability, predictability and openness to globalization because of our extraordinarily diverse population," Trudeau said.
"That's a very different climate than what we see elsewhere around the world and that is one of the things that I don't have to push very hard when I meet with potential international investors."
— With files from Andy Blatchford in Ottawa
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Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press