When he sat in the premier's chair, Stephen McNeil travelled to China eight times on missions aimed at boosting trade and travel between Nova Scotia and one of the world's largest economies.
It appears Iain Rankin is ready to follow suit once restrictions on international travel are lifted, despite the Chinese government's continued detention of two Canadians, its crackdown on pro-Democracy advocates in Hong Kong, and other long-standing accusations of human rights violations.
"That market is critically important for our economy here, for our overall well-being," Rankin told reporters.
Other McNeil government cabinet ministers were frequent fliers, too, including Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell, who continues to handle that portfolio.
"I've heard first-hand from people, from companies, the unlocked investment and the amount of exports that have increased with minister Colwell joining those missions and the premier, so I would be interested in looking at anything I can do to help boost our exports," said Rankin.
Trade valued at $1B
According to Nova Scotia government figures, trade between China and Nova Scotia grew in value to $1 billion in 2019 from $197 million in 2013. Seafood alone, primarily lobster, accounted for $727 million of that. The pandemic and travel-related disruptions reduced seafood exports to $576 million last year.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he was deeply concerned about the Chinese government's actions, especially its continued detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. He said Rankin should reconsider the relationship before resuming the missions.
"I am not comfortable to think that the premier doesn't find the arbitrary detention of Canadian citizens enough reason to give a basic re-evaluative consideration to a trading relationship," said Burrill.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston suggested the governing Liberals have been too focused on this single commercial relationship.
"It's a big world, there's lots of markets for our products," said Houston.
"I think in terms of just protecting Nova Scotians, respecting human rights, it's time now to make sure we have other markets for our products."
'Dialogue is important'
As far as China's human rights record, Rankin said that was primarily an issue for the federal government, but he did suggest Nova Scotia might have a role, too.
"I believe with any case of international concern that dialogue is important," he said.
McNeil took a similar stance when questioned by reporters before his last trip to China in November 2019.
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