Harper meets with business leaders in Brazil

Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent the second day of his trip to Brazil in the country's financial capital, Sao Paolo, meeting with business leaders in an effort to increase ties with Canada.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke to business leaders in Sao Paolo Tuesday morning during the second day of his Latin American tour. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent the second day of his trip to Brazil in the country's financial capital, meeting with business leaders in an effort to increase ties with Canada.

In a lunchtime speech in the country's financial centre, Sao Paulo, Harper said he wants Brazil and Canada to get "friendlier."

"Too much grass grows in the cracks on the road between our two great countries. It is time for increased ambition," the prime minister said. "That is why I am here today. For today, although Brazil is Canada's largest trading partner in South America, our two countries still did barely $6 billion in business last year, despite having combined GDPs of close to $4 trillion."

The $6-billion figure is a 40 per cent increase from the year before and two-way investment was up to $23 billion in 2010, but Harper described the numbers as "humble."

"Still, when you do the math, total merchandise trade is still little more than 1/10th of one per cent of our joint gross domestic product.… For two friendly countries, I think we could be friendlier than that," said Harper.

Earlier in the day Harper held a roundtable discussion with Canadian business representatives working in Brazil. About 400 Canadian companies are operating in the South American country with a thriving economy.

Harper commented on the turmoil in the markets, saying, "We put too much emphasis on this stuff." The prime minister said instead governments should concentrate on growing trade and creating jobs, which he said has been key to Canada's economic stability.

"It's way too easy to focus on the trillions that seem to have been made or lost from movements on markets. What really matters is what we're doing here … to focus on a clear, long-term strategy to create jobs and wealth," he told the roundtable.

John Baird Road

Canadian journalists travelling with Prime Minister Harper on his Latin American trade tour were on their way to a photo-op Tuesday in Sao Paulo when they spotted a familiar name on a street sign.

Rua John Baird. John Baird Road.

Canada's foreign affairs minister, John Baird, happens to be on the trip as well and officials from the Canadian mission said they planned to take him to see his namesake street.

They also explained that streets in Sao Paulo were often named after English railway engineers and likely one of them shared a name with the Canadian politician.

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When Harper was asked a day earlier about Standard and Poor's downgrade of the United States's credit rating that has sparked market turmoil since last week, he said he couldn't comment on a credit rating agency's decision except to say that they are right to give Canada good reviews.

Brazil's president on the other hand went much further and gave a blunt assessment of the decision, saying it was "rushed" and, "I would even say incorrect." 

In a statement after the roundtable meeting Tuesday, Harper said he was told about issues and opportunities facing Canadian businesses and stakeholders in a number of sectors including financial services, information and communication, mining, oil and gas, and education.

Brazil-Canada trade worth $5.9 billion

"I am here today to listen to and seek the views of senior Canadian business people so that our government can further support them as they build commercial relationships in Brazil," said Harper. "Increased opportunities in other markets, including Brazil, will translate into more jobs and a stronger economy for all Canadians."

Brazil is Canada's 10th-largest trading partner and exports of Canadian merchandise to Brazil totalled $2.6 billion in 2010, up 60 per cent from the year before. Imports were $3.3 billion.

Brazil has an economy worth about $2 trillion and Harper is eager to have Canada increase the trade relationship.

He arrived in Sao Paulo Monday night after spending the day in Brasilia where he met with the country's president Dilma Rousseff. The two leaders signed a number of minor agreements, including one on boosting air travel and tourism between Brazil and Canada.

They also announced the establishment of a new Brazil-Canada CEO forum that's meant to be a mechanism for the private sector to be involved in boosting trade and investment between the two countries and to serve as a forum for policy discussions on commercial relations. Six CEOs from each country will be invited to participate.

Harper announced Tuesday that Rick Waugh, president and CEO of Scotiabank, will be co-chair of the new forum.

He also said the government is opening three new visa application centres in Brazil to help make Canada more of a preferred destination for Brazilians to work and study. The new centres will be in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia.

After wrapping up his trip to Brazil, Harper is moving on to Colombia and will also visit Costa Rica and Honduras on his tour.

With files from Terry Milewski and The Canadian Press