Canada falling behind U.S. on trade with Africa, senators say – National

Canada falling behind U.S. on trade with Africa, senators say – National

Senators warn Commerce Secretary Mary Ng that Ottawa could fall behind its peers in building deeper trade ties with Africa.

“We are not in some of the regions that we should be in,” Ontario Sen. Peter Harder, Ng, said during a Thursday session of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

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The committee has been investigating whether Global Affairs Canada is responding to the country’s diplomatic needs for months, and is hearing from current and former department staff, as well as business and interest groups.

Ng appeared before the committee to answer questions from senators who expressed concern the United States has done more to start trade talks with an African group that spans most of the continent.

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Quebec Senator Amina Gerba, originally from Cameroon, inquired after the previous day’s announcement that US Trade Representative Katherine Tai had signed a memorandum with the Secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area establishing a massive free trade area.

The deal commits the Americans to regular talks with African leaders as they enact the new trade zone and work toward signing an eventual trade deal with Washington.

Gerba asked Ng if her team was working on closer economic ties with Africa and if she envisioned Canada signing a free trade agreement with the bloc.

Ng said Canadian development work likely helped pave the way for African countries to create the trading bloc, noting side deals Ottawa has signed with certain countries related to foreign investment.

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But Ng did not confirm whether or not she sees a trade deal in the future.

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“We absolutely have an aspiration to deepen our (trade) ties with Africa,” she said, arguing that this would build on previous trade missions and Canada’s recent efforts to forge closer ties with the African Union and between chambers of commerce.

“The dynamic opportunity in Africa is very exciting,” said Ng. “We do the work by empowering companies.”

However, Harder noted that Ottawa has an anemic diplomatic presence on the continent, with many of Canada’s ambassadors being appointed to multiple countries at the same time.

Canada has less than half the diplomatic missions in Africa as the United States, and Harder suggested Ottawa should increase its presence, even if not through new embassies and high commissions.

Last month, liberals launched a long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy that called for closer trade, aid and military ties within the region to offset China’s rise.

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When asked how this plan would go into effect, Ng said bureaucrats were still in the process of sorting it out.

“This planning for the execution work is currently being planned very carefully,” she said. “The capacity increase that is part of the strategy is actually about people and the type of resources that we will need in the region.”

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Liberal MP Rob Oliphant has been tasked with drafting an Africa strategy due next year, although its drafting has attracted far less attention.

Senators told Ng that they would like Global Affairs Canada to have much more flexibility in finding and hiring Canadians with key language skills and business experience, including for trade roles.

The committee’s chairman, Senator Peter Boehm, asked whether Ottawa could replicate a US effort to reduce the time it takes to hire State Department employees to six months.

“It’s certainly very difficult here at Global Affairs because it can take years for someone to join,” the Ontario senator said, noting that the average age of a Canadian diplomat is 47.

Others, like BC Senator Yuen Pau Woo, said Canada can use the knowledge of Canadians living abroad not only to leverage their networks and help Canadian companies find trade opportunities, but also to address their needs in relation to on taxes, pensions and taxes to better understand relationships with Canada.

“Canadian chambers of commerce in Asia Pacific generally feel underutilized by the trade commissary service and field service in general,” he said.

Ng said she would consider the recommendations.

Her appearance on Thursday came a day after the ethics commissioner found she had violated federal rules on conflicts of interest by failing to back out of a contract her office awarded to a friend’s company.

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The senators did not question Ng on the verdict, instead sticking to the topic of foreign policy.

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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