More than four decades after his father first began paving the way in the 1970s, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embarked on his first official visit to China recently, with both countries keen to forge ever-stronger economic ties.
Trudeau, travelling with wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and seven-year-old daughter Ella-Grace, said that he hopes the visit provides the opportunity to “reset” the relationship between the two countries.
China, the world’s new economic superpower, sees the dawn of a new Trudeau era in Canada as a “new opportunity” to strengthen ties between the two countries, Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui said.
Canada’s relationship with China under the Harper government was at times inconsistent, many experts say. Historically, Luo acknowledged China has had warmer connections with Canada’s Liberal-led governments.
Indeed, the Chinese consider the Jean Chrétien era of the 1990s as the “golden years” in their business dealings with Canada, he added.
Nor has the country forgotten how Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was among the first western leaders to recognize “new China” when he established diplomatic ties in 1970, later becoming the first Canadian PM to travel there in 1973.
The Liberal love-in, however, has at least one former Harper cabinet minister crying foul.
Gerry Ritz, a former agriculture minister and veteran of some 15 trips to the East Asian country, said he laughs out loud when he hears Trudeau describe a chill in Canada-China relations.
In an online poll conducted in June and July and commissioned by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, 46 per cent of respondents said they would support a free-trade agreement, compared with 36 per cent in a similar 2014 poll.
The exact same percentage of respondents opposed such a deal, although that’s down from 50 per cent in 2014.
Talks with China always call for an especially delicate form of diplomacy. Ritz offered Trudeau some advice when broaching China’s less-than-stellar human rights record: don’t do it in public.
“They take the criticism and recognize the fact they’re a global entity and that social networks as well as newscasts and so on like that — there’s a lot more coverage of everything that happens,” he said.
“They have to realize at some point they have to change the way they handle their own population and the way they handle outsiders trying to invest in that economy.
“They do take that as constructive criticism. They may not like it.”
The Conservatives made progress with China, Ritz added, and still held them to account on labour standards, the environment and human rights.
“We didn’t pick and choose,” he said. “We were very firm in our dealings with China.”
Trudeau and many business leaders argue that Canada has much to gain from closer economic ties with a rapidly growing economy and middle class in China, which is already Canada’s second-largest trading partner.