Veteran federal minister pushes stronger Asian-market focus

Pierre Pettigrew takes over as Asia Pacific Foundation board chairman at a challenging time

Pierre Pettigrew speaks at the office of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada on July 26, 2019 | Photo: Chuck Chiang

When it comes to Canada’s foreign policy and strategy in engaging other countries – especially in the field of business and trade – there are few officials as seasoned as Pierre Pettigrew.

The veteran Liberal politician who sat for a decade in Parliament was never too far from the international relations file during his time in Ottawa, serving as foreign affairs minister from 2004 to 2006 under Paul Martin. Pettigrew also spent five years (1999-2003) as international trade minister under Jean Chrétien, as well as holding portfolios in areas like international co-operation and la Francophonie.

Since then, the former federal minister has held a mix of private-sector and public responsibilities, but again, never far from the field of foreign relations and trade. He has been an international executive adviseor for Deloitte Canada since 2006 and, more recently, completed duties as the special envoy (named by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) for the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Pettigrew also regularly acts as an arbitrator at the World Trade Organization in Geneva.

Starting this summer, he takes on his latest post, one with a Vancouver bent, having been appointed chairman of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada board on July 9. On a visit to B.C. late last month, Pettigrew sat down with Business in Vancouver to discuss his new role at a time when Canada is facing a rapidly chilling relationship with China, a short window of opening trading with Japan through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and exploring new potential market links with places like India and Southeast Asia.

Q: You are coming into the post during a time when Canada is facing enormous challenges when it comes to its relationships across the Pacific. What’s the priority at the foundation, in your view?

A: We clearly have to improve our understanding of Asia in the next five, 10 years. It is a region that is very clearly on the rise.

We’ve already secured our access to the European market through CETA. That is a market where Canadian businesses traditionally feel very comfortable, and of course we have to maintain what we have while increasing our engagement within these new [free-trade] conditions. But we cannot maintain our current standard of living, our productivity, our competitiveness and our economy as a whole if we don’t significantly improve our relationships across Asia.

Q: What role can the Asia Pacific Foundation play, being primarily a research organization?

A: It’s about connecting with the right people. Yes, the foundation does research, but we also have to connect people.

I think the Asia-Pacific continues to pose a challenge for Canadians because of the lack of familiarity. Canada was always considering itself more as an Atlantic country, but it changed when prime minister Pierre Trudeau opened up immigration to a much wider geography than just Europe. We’ve changed in our own demography since opening up to Asia countries; today, we have many, many people from Asia who have become Canadians across the country.

But despite those diasporas, we still have to better understand how Asia functions. We simply do not have the same familiarity in terms of trade and business with Asia, even if we have integrated into our society many representatives from Asian countries.

There is still a lot of work to do, and the foundation is at the heart of the research and, more importantly, understanding.

Q: How do you go about that process? What’s the foundation’s priority under your watch?

A: Last night, I was having dinner with prominent Vancouverites, and they knew well about the work of the foundation. But when I sit in Montreal or Toronto, I don’t think I find the same familiarity. So I think what I really like to bring in my role with the foundation is to help it reach out to larger audiences.

I’m an eastern Canadian; I was born in Quebec and now live in Toronto. And I think the foundation does realize it needs to reach Canadians from coast to coast to coast, because the Pacific, while it has obviously been very important for the West Coast of Canada for a long time, has become something that all Canadians are very sensitive to.

In order to do that, we’ve just had a dry run of our webinar presentation process, of experts holding presentations via video to audiences anywhere in the country. So we are experimenting with new methods of connecting and how that is going. I would really like to increase the outreach of the foundation. It has been doing wonderful work, but it’s not known enough, this extraordinary wealth of understanding of Asia that we have, and, just as important, the contacts that we have.

Q: Your most prominent portfolios have been trade-related. Do you see the foundation’s work moving in the same direction?

A: I was international trade minister for five years, but I was also foreign minister, and in the latter role, I engaged quite a lot with a number of countries. But I was with international trade longer than I was foreign minister, so it may bring me some added perspective in terms of trade and the economy.

And yes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did appoint me special envoy on the Canada-European Union trade agreement, and I’m very pleased that we got that signed. It takes care of securing Canadian business access at a time when protectionism is rising around the world, so it’s very reassuring to know that we will have access to that European market, and it allows us to focus, now that the [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement] is awaiting ratification by U.S. Congress, on Asia-Pacific.

These trade issues have interesting links. Certainly, the CPTPP … supported our work in the United States-Canada-Mexico arrangement, because many of the elements of what we sometimes call “NAFTA 2.0” were actually negotiated with the Americans during the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] talks, before the Trump administration decided to pull out. The timing of this [new position at the foundation] comes at a time where I feel Canada’s attention is really moving towards the Asia-Pacific region; I see it at my own business endeavour with clients, with people having more and more interest. And it’s a very complex continent; it’s very diversified, and I want to bring what I’ve seen to the foundation.

Trade, certainly, has always been a passion of mine, both in my private-sector practice and public-sector life. So I will certainly bring that element to the foundation. But foreign policy and diplomacy also have to be key to our thinking.