Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne will make a full-court press for trade in China next week as she seeks to expand her province's sluggish economy and wean it off its long-standing dependence on the American market.
The trip unfolds against a backdrop of heightened tension in Sino-Canadian relations. Ottawa and Beijing have accused each other of espionage in recent months, while China continues to grapple with lingering pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. And Ms. Wynne, who is making her first overseas trip as Premier, is pledging not to shy away from raising thorny human-rights issues during her visit.
"I absolutely support peoples' right to freedom of speech and the right to gather peacefully. I've said that to Chinese representatives here, I will say that in China," she said in an interview at her Queen's Park office.
Ms. Wynne will begin her trip in Nanjing and Shanghai, before heading to Beijing to meet up with Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard and Robert Ghiz of Prince Edward Island. Between them, they will bring more than 200 Canadian entrepreneurs, academics and others in a wide-ranging effort to drum up business .
Mr. Ghiz contends such an ostentatious exercise in partnership-building is the best path to democracy. "When it comes to what's happening in Hong Kong, if we want to influence decision-making over there, having relationships is extremely important. … it's much easier to discuss difficult issues if you're discussing them among friends."
Their positions roughly line up with Ottawa's, where Foreign Minister John Baird has come down on the side of the protesters.
But Fang Li, China's consul general in Toronto, said politicians' time is better spent talking about trade, leaving Chinese internal politics alone.
"Hong Kong is an internal affair of China – just like Canadian internal affairs, such as Quebec independence. China would never say, 'We support the Quebec peoples' independence, we support the requests of First Nations,'" he told The Globe and Mail. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to China next month for the APEC summit, Mr. Fang said, he should use "this very precious visit to talk about something more important than just Hong Kong."
Jacques Daoust, Quebec's Economy Minister, said Hong Kong is an internal matter. "We expect to be respected for who we are, we do the same for them."
Ms. Wynne may have the most riding on the trip. While China is Ontario's second-largest trading partner, it accounts for just 1.4 per cent of the province's exports, compared to 80 per cent for the United States. And as Ontario's manufacturing sector has suffered, the province must diversify its trade relationships.
"We need to be more aggressive," Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid said. "Historically, we tied ourselves to that American economy.… we became a little complacent and relied a little too heavily on it."
The province is hoping to push its high-tech sector – particularly companies building clean-water and clean-air technologies that China can use as part of its efforts to clean up pollution.
Mr. Fang suggested the two countries also work together on the Ring of Fire, a large chromite deposit north of Thunder Bay. China could use the minerals, he said, if Ontario can get the necessary rail line built to haul the ore out of the Ring's remote location.
He also suggested Ontario look at building high-speed rail using Chinese technology. The province could benefit from such a system in the densely populated Windsor-Toronto-Ottawa corridor, which extends into Quebec. Ms. Wynne's government has talked about building high-speed rail as part of its massive infrastructure push, but it is still in the preliminary stages.
"I believe that Ontario is the most important for China among the provinces of Canada," Mr. Fang said, pointing to 6-per-cent annual growth in trade in recent years. "But I believe the Ontario provincial government should work harder to promote those kind of relationships."
Ms. Wynne said she is also "optimistic" China and Canada will reach a deal to make Toronto a trading hub for China's currency, the renminbi, though any decision would only be announced during Mr. Harper's visit to Beijing.
PEI, for its part, is looking to keep growing its exports of lobsters, oysters and mussels as it feeds the appetites of increasingly affluent Chinese. And Quebec is pushing its aerospace sector and trying to get more Chinese investment in its plans to develop more mining in the province's north.
To Ms. Wynne, successfully pulling off an economic shift will depend in part on Canadian firms breaking out of their comfort zones. "Companies in the United States assume that they are going to have a global reach," she said. "I think in Canada, we're more modest. And we have to stop being so modest."