With trips to Washington DC, Colombia and China, Liberal MP Scott Brison has been a man on the go. As his party’s international trade critic, Brison is charged with not only providing oversight to the government’s trade relationships, but also building bridges of his own for the eventuality of the Liberals forming a government.
The trip to Colombia has been especially pertinent as Parliament considers Bill C-23 — the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act. That bill is now in committee.
Free trade with Colombia is a fairly contentious issue, with many detractors pointing to Colombia’s human rights record coming out of its difficult history of civil war and a narco-economy. But Brison is the first to argue that Canada needs a trade relationship with Colombia in order to have a human rights relationship with them.
“I came back from that with the strong view that economic engagement can help fortify our human rights engagement there,” Brison says of his visit. “We can make a positive difference in the lives of people there.”
Brison talks about his meetings with both opponents and proponents of the free trade agreement, including union leaders, private sector company leaders and government officials including President Uribe. He also met with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, Christian Salazar.
“It’s a tremendously beautiful country which has been wracked by civil war and violence for 40 years, and has just in recent years turned a corner,” Brison says. “You can’t have a robust economy without security, so that was a big thing.”
Following his trip to Colombia, Brison visited China, where he met with the Canada-China Business Council, Canadian schools in Hong Kong, and later the World Economic Forum in Dalian. Brison is a member of the Forum’s Young Global Leaders.
Brison feels that it’s to Canada’s advantage if we consider educational offerings as a trade strategy, given that more than half of graduates from Canadian schools in China attend Canadian universities. Brison is also passionate about clean energy and green technology, and he points to the way that China is going green as a result of international pressure, domestic pressure from the country’s emerging middle class and recognizing the economic imperative of carbon pricing.
But as with Colombia, there are always questions raised about engaging China on human rights while there is a focus on trade.
“Canada had, under Mr Chrétien and Mr Martin, more influence on Chinese human rights than we do under Mr Harper, because Mr Harper has severely damaged our relations with China,” Brison says.
According to Brison, Harper has treated Canada’s relationship with China with contempt, and our relationship with India with neglect.
“We’re losing influence and we’ve lost business. Canada has the natural resources, the energy and the clean energy solutions that China needs. But to be able to build that trade relationship, to maintain that, we need to have good relations, and the Harper government is still fighting the Cold War when it comes to China.”
He also points to the successful way that former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau engaged China.
“Pierre Trudeau was no slouch on human rights, yet he was the first Western leader who established diplomatic ties with post-revolution China, and that’s because he understood that economic engagement fortifies human rights engagement,” Brison says.
While the Tories have attacked Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as “too international,” Brison says Conservatives should apologize for Harper “not being international enough.”
“[Harper] had absolutely no international experience before becoming Prime Minister — no understanding of world, no understanding of the complexities, or the challenges and opportunities facing Canada in the world, and no respect for multilateralism.”
Brison has also been making frequent trips to Washington, DC to meet with members of the Obama administration.
“We met with some very visionary individuals, but I fear that the Obama administration is expending so much political capital on health care and Afghanistan that it’s less willing to expend political capital on trade liberalization, and the world needs trade liberalization leadership from the US and we’re not getting it,” Brison says.
Despite his criticism of Harper’s poor international relations, Brison says Canada is still well-positioned to build stronger trade links.
“I think that Canada — our multiculturalism is not just a successful policy — it’s an economic advantage. I believe very strongly that you need to harness the entrepreneurial leadership of our multicultural communities to build natural bridges to the fastest growing economies in the world.”
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