Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on Canada's small-and-medium sized businesses to embrace globalization and help deepen what he termed the "Canada-China friendship" by exploring the market potential of selling to its half-billion increasingly spend-happy consumers.
At a flashy Toronto conference hosted by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Inc., Trudeau took the stage in front of some 3,600 Canadian business owners to urge them to "think big, think beyond our borders" as "much of the world is looking inwards, closing off, going protectionist every now and then."
"Canada remains open and optimistic about the role we can play in the world... The world is going to realize that 'No, no, we need to be engaged and open'," he said during a fireside chat with Alibaba's chief executive Jack Ma. "But if they are taking a lot longer to do that, then we have an advantage right now here in Canada."
Trudeau's comments come as Ottawa hosts the latest round of North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation talks amid increasingly protectionist sentiment coming from Canada's largest trade partner, the U.S.
Canada's chief NAFTA negotiator said Monday that solid progress is being made at the NAFTA talks, but it's too soon to tell if a deal can be reached by the year-end deadline set by the United States.
Meanwhile, the Trudeau government has been actively trying to develop closer ties with China and has been pursuing a potential bilateral trade deal.
"As we are in exploratory talks with China, we are highlighting the values that are important - not just to us as a government, but as Canadians," Trudeau said Monday.
The Prime Minister's commentary throughout the day's events, during which both Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne also took the stage, hit on a similar theme - globalization and inclusiveness and their role in positioning Canada for the long term.
Ma echoed Trudeau's pro-free trade sentiments, even as his country experiences rising trade tensions with the U.S. In his keynote on Monday - in a format evoking that of Apple Inc., although Ma was dressed in a white shirt and blue tie rather than the black t-shirt often donned by Silicon Valley CEOS - he questioned the logic of trying to stop the flow of trade across geographical borders.
"In the future there will not be made in Canada, made in America, made in China. Most of the products will be made in the internet," he said.
He said that Chinese consumers have a growing appetite for Canadian products - helped by the country's diverse population.
"You have 1.5 million Chinese community (in Canada)... these are the ambassadors of your products."
Ma and Trudeau appeared to have a rapport as they bantered on stage and toured the conference together, stopping at booths of Canadian companies which sell goods from shoes to cranberry juice, in China.
At Citadella group, a maple syrup company that is selling its product in China, Trudeau and Ma had a shot of the sweet liquid.
"This is how we start our day in Canada, with a glass of maple syrup," Trudeau said, drawing laughter.
Trudeau and Ma have met several times before, including at the Alibaba campus in Hangzhou, China, where the technology giant was founded, in September 2016. Trudeau, who was on an official visit to China, joined Ma to announce the launch of a Canadian "pavilion" on its Tmall platform, a virtual shopping mall of sorts where brands can market to Alibaba consumers.
Canadian brands already using Alibaba to sell to Chinese customers include Ocean Spray Cranberries, Clearwater Seafood and Jamieson Vitamins.
Alibaba hosted a similar U.S.-focused event in Detroit in June as it actively expands outside China.