Nova Scotia

Tory Leader Tim Houston says N.S. premier should call off China trip

Nova Scotia Tory Leader Tim Houston doesn’t think Premier Stephen McNeil should be travelling to China at a time when two Canadian citizens are being detained by that government and unrest plays out in the streets of Hong Kong.

Premier Stephen McNeil says a function of doing business abroad is promoting democracy

Tory Leader Tim Houston says the premier must draw a line when it comes to trips to China. (Pat Callaghan/CBC)

Nova Scotia's Tory leader doesn't think Premier Stephen McNeil should be travelling to China at a time when two Canadian citizens are being detained by that government and unrest plays out in the streets of Hong Kong.

"The premier is definitely sending the wrong message," Tim Houston told reporters at Province House on Tuesday.

"I wish the premier would send a message that we care about Canadians, we care about their safety worldwide and we respect people's rights."

While no date has been set yet for what would be McNeil's eighth trip to China, he told reporters Tuesday his hope is the trip will happen in early November, depending on when the fall legislative session ends.

But Houston said he shouldn't bother, even if it risks damaging the province's lucrative fishery.

Booming exports to China

In the first six months of this year, lobster exports to China from Nova Scotia totalled $227 million, a 144 per cent increase from the same time period the year before. The almost insatiable demand for seafood from that country has meant it's been years since the industry has seen a downturn in what historically has been a cyclical business.

According to the premier's office, total exports to China in 2018 were $793 million, with seafood the top commodity at more than $520 million.

Still, Houston said some things are more important.

"I think you have to draw a line somewhere," he said. "Exports are important to our province, growing our economy is important to our province, but so is respecting human beings and standing up for Canadians."

McNeil said he's concerned not only with what he's seeing in Hong Kong, but with violence he sees in other parts of the world. But he said it's important to keep going back to keep ties between the province and China strong and boost economic development that largely benefits rural Nova Scotia.

Premier Stephen McNeil says trips to China are a chance to pursue economic development, while also showcasing Canada's democracy. (CBC)

The premier said he doesn't see it as a matter of choosing business over human rights.

"I would say to you that isolation and protectionism has never worked," he said. "If it had worked, Cuba would be a very different place than it was in the 60s when the U.S. severed ties."

McNeil said promoting this country's democracy is a function of doing business abroad. The same is true for why it's beneficial to bring more international students here to study, he said, so they can be exposed to how Canada operates.

"I think what you're seeing in Hong Kong is a part of China that has seen a level of opening up," he said. "Those young people have seen what democracy is for them and they don't want to change, they don't want to go back."

The premier acknowledged China is an important market for the province's fishery, but he said efforts to diversify exports, particularly to various parts of Europe, continue in an effort to guard Nova Scotia from any potential disruptions from a trading partner.

"We need to make sure that we're not reliant on one particular market," he said.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill says the premier 'has an obligation not to keep his mouth shut' about what's happening in China. (Pat Callaghan/CBC)

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said if McNeil is going to keep making the trips, he must also make sure to take advantage of the opportunity for the greater good.

"If the premier is going to be in China at this time, in the context of these international situations and concerns, I think he has an obligation not to keep his mouth shut about the matters that are before us," he said.

Detained Canadian citizens

China continues to hold Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig on what are widely believed to be arbitrary grounds in response to this country's arrest last year of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

The situation has led to a cooling of relations between Ottawa and China, and McNeil is the only Canadian politician who has continued to have an uninterrupted relationship with the county.

As he has previously, McNeil said it's for the federal government to take the lead on questions of human rights and conflict.

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About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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