Val Litwin and François-Philippe Champagne
Credit: Jeff Chan

BC Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Val Litwin (left) greets François-Philippe Champagne, federal minister of international trade

On a recent visit to Vancouver, François-Philippe Champagne was coy about his government’s next move

For Beijing, it was worth a try. During an August 28 lunch at the Vancouver Club, hosted by the BC Chamber of Commerce, the federal minister of international trade talked up the export opportunities for businesses in B.C. and across the country. François-Philippe Champagne focused his remarks on the Asia Pacific, which he called “probably the next big market for Canada.”

Champagne reminded the crowd that last year, the Trudeau government launched exploratory talks with China about a potential free-trade agreement. “Let me reassure you, ladies and gentlemen, we’re doing that with our eyes wide open,” he said. “We’re doing it on our own timetable, and making sure that we have Canadian interests at heart at every single step.” The federal government is also consulting with other countries that have free-trade deals with China, Champagne added. “So anyone who is suggesting that Canada is going there like a bunch of Boy Scouts—we know what we’re doing.”

The Chinese government wasn’t going to waste this chance to probe a Canadian cabinet minister. In a Q&A after Champagne’s speech, Kong Weiwei, acting consul-general with the Chinese consulate in Vancouver, put Champagne on the spot. “Our two countries have conducted three rounds of exploratory talks on a potential bilateral FTA,” said Kong, who didn’t give his name. “Can you share with us your government’s next arrangements based on these talks?”

A former corporate lawyer from ex-prime minister Jean Chrétien’s hometown of Shawinigan, Quebec, Champagne took the request in stride. “We’re going to continue to engage,” he said, stressing that there’s “no clear timetable” for the number of rounds needed to seal a deal that works for both sides. Champagne thanked Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang for showing so much interest in Canada during their meetings. “And I think you see also the value of trading with Canada,” he said to Kong. “I see that in your smile. So you’ll report that back to Beijing.”