Why canola matters to all Canadians now



By Dr. Sylvain Charlebois

With the SNC Lavalin debacle and the subsequent resignation of Liberal politicians, here’s the score so far: two cabinet ministers, one MP, two senior bureaucrats, including the Clerk of the Privy Council Office, and it’s probably not over. The SNC Lavalin case refuses to go away and has been garnering global media attention for weeks. The case has made our political elite look like diplomatic juveniles. The Wanzhou case in Vancouver has made things much worse.

The arrest of Meng Wanzhou in December, Huawei’s VP and daughter of the company’s CEO, exposed Canada to vicious criticism. John McCallum, our former ambassador to China lost his job in January for being reckless with Chinese media by stating that a deal to release Wanzhou was imminent. But even though Trudeau has argued countless times that Wanzhou’s arrest had no underlying political intentions, most Canadians can appreciate how our government’s position can be difficult to believe.

So, we should not be surprised to see Beijing continuing to ramp up diplomatic pressures on Canada through its decision to stop buying Canadian canola seed. At first, it was affecting Canada’s largest exporter, Richardson. Now it’s affecting everyone. China’s decision to target canola is no coincidence. With canola, China is indeed our biggest customer abroad. But canola is the most Canadian commodity there is. It was invented here and is arguably one of Canada’s greatest accomplishments in biotechnology. In 1978, canola was given its name, by combining “Canada” and “ola”. It is one of the most well-known Canadian-engineered products in the world, certainly in the agriculture industry. It is a $27 billion industry and almost 250,000 jobs depend on canola. Over 43,000 farmers grow canola every year across the Prairies. More than 75% of canola produced in Canada is exported.

China’s message to Canada is brilliantly measured and maliciously effective. The entire globe knows China is having a diplomatic spat with Canada which has undoubtably affected our country’s reputation. This is not just about canola, but it is more so about Canada’s inability to network with other major markets.

But none of this should come as a surprise. For China, both foreign and trade policies are always intertwined. Trudeau is on record as saying that he knew Wanzhou was going to get arrested when she arrived in Vancouver. Some analysts suggest this situation could have been averted if someone in China had advised Ms. Wanzhou that she was not welcome in Canada, given the indictments against her. One phone call, one message, and all of this could have been circumvented. Diplomacy is about getting along and working with other countries, but it is also about avoiding embarrassing situations like this one.

More actions from Beijing are likely to come. In 2018, Canada exported $21.8 billion in merchandise to China last year, over half of which included agricultural products. Soybeans, pork, lobsters and beef could be next. Canada is learning how to deal with China’s other “great wall” as the country weaponizes market access. Guy St-Jacques, a former Canadian Ambassador to China, has suggested it is time to get tough and take off the white gloves.

Given the size of our economy and our diplomatic track-record under the current government, it’s difficult to see how any forceful measures by Ottawa can be taken seriously. We still do not have a new ambassador to China. Our best ally in this conundrum right now is Washington, another unfriendly place for us these days. Our relationship with the Americans isn’t what it was in 1985 when both President Reagan and Prime Minister Mulroney sang “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at the Quebec Shamrock Summit. What was largely forgotten about that famous summit is the fact that Americans at the time wanted to add duties to many Canadian imported products. The historic Summit mended relations between the two countries in the post-Trudeau/Nixon era. Diplomacy prevailed and further conversations led to a historical deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Things are certainly not the same these days and Americans won’t necessarily appreciate Ottawa’s assistance on the Wanzhou case.

Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe is running out of patience and still expects Ottawa to retaliate. Our newly-appointed agriculture minister, Marie-Claude Bibeau, is still banking on science-based practices to convince the Chinese, even though most know these efforts are likely in vain.

For Ottawa, the only thing left to do is to proceed with the extradition of Ms. Wanzhou and hope for the best. Meanwhile, Ottawa’s budget tabled last week had provisions for our dairy, poultry and egg sectors, affected by recently ratified trade agreements. Mr. Morneau may want to revisit his budget and reconsider how he intends to help other sectors negatively affected by trade. One thing is for sure, though:  the $75 billion target in agriculture and food exports we gave ourselves to reach by 2025 is now little more than a pipedream.

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