Restoring Canada’s troubled relationship with China is no easy task

A consumer boycott? : “We can’t let a bully push us because that’s what China has been trying to do.”

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With feelings of bitterness nowhere near sagging between Canada and China, there have been calls for a tougher approach to a country that imprisoned Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig for more than 1000 days.


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Turn down the next Olympics?

Avoid products made in China?

“Consumer-led boycotts are a bit difficult to do,” said Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

“It’s not impossible, but I’m a bit skeptical.”

A source of the ex-diplomat’s skepticism? The enormous scale of two-way trade between Canada and China.

According to Statistics Canada, imports from China were worth $ 52 billion in 2020.

Exports last year reached $ 32 billion.

And they both keep growing.

After the United States, China is Canada’s second most important trading partner.

“Chinese inputs, whether consumer or industrial, I think most Canadian industries would have some kind of input from Chinese products.” Houlden said. “If it closed all that, it would be hugely inflationary and very difficult to execute.”


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But why not a boycott ?, asks a critical voice.

“Boycotting Chinese products is something to be reckoned with,” said Fareed Khan of the Rohyinga Human Rights Network, who has openly criticized China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority and the continued 15-year detention of Huseyin Celil. of Mississauga.

“Buying Chinese products; By pursuing trade and trade agreements with China, we are actually creating the problem that we now have to deal with, ”Khan said.

“The boycott is a legitimate form of foreign policy and an expression of discontent with the way China does things,” Khan said. “And it hurts where it matters most, which is in your pocket.”

But international pockets seem to be inextricably linked.


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Among Canada’s largest exports to China are canola seeds and wood pulp, commercial staples that help prop up and power Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Even a significant portion of Nova Scotia’s fishery products end up as exports to China.

The same goes for Quebec pork.

“It is difficult to imagine that we would be in a position where we would decide not to trade with China, given that many Canadians depend on that relationship,” said Houlden, who for 22 years focused on Chinese affairs within the foreign service.

Managing that relationship is now the responsibility of new Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, who was sworn in this week.

“I will have the opportunity to meet the best experts on China in the world, especially from the Canadian perspective, since very soon I will meet with the Canadian diplomatic corps,” he said within hours of his swearing-in.


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“I can tell you, although we are under no illusions. Our eyes will be wide open. “

But with those eyes as wide as our business ties, Houlden says the minister has a lot of work ahead of her.

“There are some aspects of self-interest on both sides that will at least keep part of the relationship moving, even if the damage will take years to repair.”

Khan said politically “Canada has to be careful. Canada cannot be an appeaser. And we can’t allow a bully to push us because that’s what China has been trying to do. “

With less than 100 days to go to the Beijing Winter Olympics, there has been a public debate over whether Canada should skip the games.

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“The Olympic Games have to do with politics. The Olympic Games have historically been used to try to demonstrate or try to legitimize national ambitions ”. Khan said. “Hosting the Olympics and doing more trade with China has made them more bullies.”


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The Canadian Olympic Committee says officially: “In no way are we at the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee trying to minimize what is happening in China. But a boycott is not the answer, ”the committee’s executive director wrote earlier this year.

Boycotts don’t work. They only punish athletes who were prevented from going, those they had to compete against, and those who would have been inspired by them. “

Before the Olympic cauldron ignites in February, what will ignite are the peak holiday shopping months, so important to retail results and jobs.

You can barely walk a meter down any retail aisle without passing products made in China or an endless variety that includes Chinese supplies.

Houlden recalls the 2008 American book “A Year Without ‘Made in China’” by Sara Buongiorni, whose family spent a year trying to avoid buying Chinese products.

“It was exceptionally difficult for them,” Houlden said.

What will remain a persistent difficulty is Canada’s relationship with China.

Diplomatically it is damaged.

“It is difficult to imagine that we will be in a worse position one or two years from now. It’s possible, ”Houlden said. “But what’s definitely not on the cards is a rubber band going back to where we were in November 2018.”



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