POLITICS

Jobs, not human rights, focus of trade mission as premiers wrap Chinese trip

10/30/2014 11:19 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST
BEIJING, China - Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said he never once mentioned the issue of human rights with Chinese officials on a trade mission with two other Canadian premiers to the Asian country.

Couillard had said upon arriving in Shanghai earlier this week he didn't intend to lecture his hosts about human rights and that it was prudent to tread lightly on the topic.

On Thursday, he admitted he never raised the delicate issue — one that often follows Canadian leaders when they visit the economic powerhouse.

"I did not (address the issue of human rights), I came here for investment and employment," Couillard told a news conference alongside Ontario's Kathleen Wynne and Prince Edward Island's Robert Ghiz.

Couillard said his goal was to promote jobs and investment and that there will be other opportunities to discuss human rights.

The premiers headed a 240-member delegation that included business and education representatives.

Commercial delegations from New Brunswick and Manitoba also took part in the trip.

This trip saw the three premiers meet with several high-ranking officials in a country that is Canada's second largest trading partner. In 2013, Canadian exports to China totalled $20.5 billion, while imports stood at $52.7 billion.

Wynne, who was on her first international trade mission as premier, lauded what she called a successful trip that saw various new partnerships between Chinese and Canadian stakeholders.

"China is obviously a priority market for Ontario and so we will continue to build on the foundations that have been established," Wynne said.

"In Ontario, we have a great story to tell when it comes to attracting international investments: we have talent, we have the infrastructure, the dynamic business climate that companies around the world are looking for."

Couillard said the mission's success was a direct result of having a continuous presence in China.

"This doesn't happen overnight," Couillard said.

"We are physically present in Beijing since 1998 or 1999 and we've been coming to China for the last 30 years and we know that it takes time and it takes good quality of human relations as well between us and our Chinese partners."

Couillard said Chinese partners also better understand the Canadian political dynamic — that they must work with provinces on a number of issues including natural resources.

Ghiz, the current chair of the Council of Federation, said the Canada-China relationship needs to continue to be nurtured.

"Our relations seem good but it's about continuously doing it," said Ghiz, who was on his third trade mission.

"Whether it's the federal government or the provinces, both need to continue to build on this relationship."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was expected to be in China next month for the APEC leaders' meeting in Beijing, but has cancelled in order to be in Ottawa on Remembrance Day.

A spokesman said earlier this week that Harper's travel to Beijing was in flux and he couldn't say whether a possible prime ministerial visit to China was being scrubbed entirely.

Couillard became visibly irritated when asked later whether he abdicated his responsibilities by failing to discuss the rights issue, accusing reporters of trying to create a headline out of the response.

"We had events here to meet partners to create jobs in Quebec, that's the purpose of this mission," Couillard said. "We did exactly what we said we would do. There will be other occasions."

For her part, Wynne said she was able to convey to a Chinese official her opinions about people being able to express themselves freely.

"I did have the opportunity with the (communist) party secretary in Jiangsu to talk about what I have said consistently about many of these issues: that I support and will always support people's freedom of speech ... and people's ability to gather peacefully," Wynne said.