Sask. canola farmers 'collateral damage' in Canada-China dispute, says former diplomat

An expert on Canada-China relations says a recent move by China to stop canola seed export from a major Canadian agriculture company is "ridiculous and completely unjustified."

China halted canola shipments from a major Canadian supplier

Canada exports almost five million tonnes of canola to China every year. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Charles Burton says a recent move by China to stop canola seed export from a major Canadian agriculture company is "ridiculous and completely unjustified."

A Chinese customs document dated March 1 says the country has cancelled Winnipeg-based agricultural handler Richardson International's registration, which means the company is forbidden to export canola seed to China.

The decision could have serious consequences for Saskatchewan farmers as China is the province's top customer for canola seed, accounting for about $2 billion in trade.

In the past, China has wanted to limit the amount of "dockage" — material such as weeds, stems and other seeds —  it allows in Canadian canola to help fight the spread of a fungal crop disease known as blackleg.

Burton, a professor of Canada-China Relations at Brock University and a former diplomat to China, says the move is politically motivated.

Huawei CFO arrested

Political tensions have been rising between Canada and China since Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Chinese technology firm Huawei, was arrested in Canada.

The arrest came at the request of U.S. tax authorities and was made as Wanzhou was boarding a flight in Vancouver.

Burton told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition that China is trying to get Wanzhou released before she is extradited to the U.S.

"She has, possibly, information about Huawei's connection to security and intelligence apparatus and in China that would be very damaging to China's interests if it became known," Burton said.

"Our farmers seem to be the collateral damage in a geo-strategic struggle between China and the west over intelligence and security matters."

No possible benefit for China or Canada

Burton recommends farmers lobby government officials to get tougher with China, which will "pressure the regime to recognize that this kind of arbitrary action to damage the interests of Saskatchewan canola producers is not something which is acceptable in the relationship."

Burton said the move has no possible benefit for China or Canada and will not lead to the release of Wanzhou.

"This matter is just ridiculous and completely unjustified," he said.

"The damage to Saskatchewan farming families is just not something that our government should take lying down."

Burton said Canada should address the "parking of [China's] enormous assets into Canadian real estate," as a means of countering China's decision, 

"There are laws about this that we should be enforcing."

He said Canada in general needs to change the way it approaches its political and trade relationship with China.

"I think we ought to stand up for our Saskatchewan farmers," he said

Gov't response

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Dave Marit, who is also a canola producer, said canceling canola seed shipments from Richardson Industries could have a "huge implication" on the provincial economy.

"China is a big market and a big player," Marit said. "Hopefully we can come to some [resolution] and some conclusion to this real quickly," he told reporters after question period on Tuesday.

Marit said he has talked with his federal counterpart, Marie-Claude Bibeau, and she told him resolving the issue is a priority.

In a statement to CBC News, Bibeau said the government, "will work with China to resolve this issue as quickly as possible."

The statement said the federal government is "closely monitoring the situation and any potential impact on Canada's agricultural trading relationship with China. We are in regular contact with industry stakeholders regarding this matter, and we will keep them informed as additional information becomes available."

Premier Scott Moe told reporters his government is reaching out to the Canadian ambassador's office in China, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Richardson International on top of discussions with the federal government.


Cory Coleman is a journalist for CBC Saskatchewan.

With files from CBC Radio's The Morning Edition, Pete Evans and Michelle Ghoussoub


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