07/20/2011 08:03 EDT | Updated 09/19/2011 05:12 EDT

Premiers Meeting: Targeting Asian Markets

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- VANCOUVER - The country's premiers want to ensure Canada seizes the economic opportunities associated with being a part of the Asia-Pacific but they sidestepped the issue of human rights Thursday morning.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark said while the premiers didn't discuss human rights specifically during the meeting of the Council of the Federation in Vancouver, they did discuss trade with the Asia-Pacific.

She said she believes Chinese human rights will improve as the Asian nation engages Western countries in trade.

"One of the advantages of being engaged in the economy of another country is often that engagement and exposure will lead to improved human rights," she said.

"I mean it's something we always have to be aware of, something we always have to be thinking about."

Clark and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach came into the annual gathering determined to put China — and its burgeoning marketplace — at the top of the agenda.

The B.C. premier says Asia has the fastest growing middle class, and 20 years from now it will account for 60 per cent of the world's middle class.

Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz agreed with Clark, saying human rights will improve as countries open up globally.

He said he raised human-rights issues during a recent trade mission to China.

But Ghiz said Canada is not perfect and must raise such issues politely.

Ghiz also elaborated on what the provinces can do to improve trade with China.

"From our perspective direct flights out of Toronto would definitely help with us," he said, adding that he realizes his island will not get that service.

Ghiz noted the Chinese are interested in his province's agricultural sector and on products like lobsters, oysters and mussels.

Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, who was forced to leave the meeting early because of fires in his province's north, said he's led three separate trade missions to China and countries like Canada need feet on the ground if they want to be included in trade.

"You've got to be there in order to assert yourself," he said. "There's an endless stream of visitors from around the world going to places like China, looking to secure greater economic ties.

"So we've got to be on the ground."

McGuinty said he wants the Council of the Federation to think about putting together a trade mission to China and India.

Such efforts, he added, work best when they are done with the federal government.

The three-day meeting wraps up Friday.

The governor of Washington state, Christine Gregoire, and the United States ambassador, Gary Doer, have been invited to attend.