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Human rights on the table in any Canada-China free trade deal: McCallum

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum speaks during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. McCallum, Canada's newly arrived ambassador to China, says human rights and labour standards will form part of any potential free trade agreement between the two countries.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

John McCallum, Canada's new ambassador to China, says human rights and labour standards will form part of any potential free trade agreement between the two countries.

Formal trade negotiations have yet to begin and Ottawa is conducting a round of exploratory consultations. But if Canada and China do enter into talks, Canada wants a "progressive" deal that would include chapters on both those areas, McCallum said Wednesday.

McCallum said he has seen lots of enthusiasm in Canada for a deal with China and he is keen to pursue deeper economic ties when, and if, the time comes, but not at the expense of human rights.

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"We have to do this with our eyes open," he said in a telephone interview from Beijing. "We know that in many areas, China and Canada have different views of the world, different priorities, different laws.

"There are huge gains for Canadians if we're successful. We also have responsibility on the human rights side. We do both."

The opposition has raised red flags about the talks, pointing to recent comments from the Chinese government that human rights and limits on investment by state-owned enterprises should not be part of the trade discussion.

McCallum brushed aside a warning by former World Bank chief and U.S. trade czar Robert Zoellick that Canada shouldn't get too close to China if it wants to stay on the good side of the Trump administration in Washington.

At a recent event in Washington, Zoellick raised concerns about the timing of Canada-China trade talks in light of some well-documented anti-China sentiment from President Donald Trump and some of this top trade officials.

McCallum noted that the Trump administration does not yet have its Chinese ambassador in place and it remains to be seen how Washington will actually engage with Beijing.

"But whatever the American position is, the Canadian position has been defined clearly by our prime minister and it's my job to put that into effect."

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeated his position when asked Wednesday about Zoellick's comments.

"Canadians expect me as prime minister to grow our economy and defend our jobs while, at the same time, standing up for our values and principles and those are two things that I will always do," said Trudeau.

McCallum said that even before there is discussion of a trade deal, there is much that Canada and China can accomplish economically, including increasing tourism — which he says will translate into more Canadian jobs — and making progress together on climate change.

He hasn't been subjected to much of Beijing's infamous smog in his first 12 days on the ground, but McCallum knows the Chinese are serious about improving their air quality.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is expected to travel to China in the near future to pursue Canada's ambitions for potentially lucrative clean technology co-operation, he said.

McCallum is also anxious to get a high-level economic dialogue started in China, some time in the next three months. That would see Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne going to China to co-chair a discussion with China's vice-premier.

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But Canada is competing for attention in what is a packed Chinese agenda, McCallum said, including this fall's Communist party meeting, known as the 19th National Congress.

The meetings are held every five years to set China's key policies. While Premier Xi Jinping is expected to retain the party's — and the country's leadership — other new faces will likely join the ruling elite.

McCallum said he'll be watching closely, including signs about where the country might be headed on human rights.

"The more we can establish good ties, the more they will listen to us in other areas. I am cautiously optimistic that as we deepen our relationship, they will listen to us more in general than they may have in the past."

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