A Conversation on Canada-Asia Relations

By Woo, Yuen Pau | International Journal, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

A Conversation on Canada-Asia Relations


Woo, Yuen Pau, International Journal


On 30 March 2009, the president and CEO ofthe Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, Yuen Pau Woo, met with four distinguished Canadians for a conversation on Canada-Asia relations. The panel consisted of the Honourable Jack Austin, retired senator and president of the Canada China Business Council (1993-2000); Donald Campbell, former ambassador to Japan (1993-97) and deputy minister of foreign affairs and international trade (1997-2000); the Right Honourable Joe Clark, Canada's 16th prime minister; and Wendy Dobson, director ofthe Institute for International Business at the University of Toronto and former associate deputy minister of finance. Also present were Jill Price, executive director ofthe Asia Pacific Foundation and Ryan Touhey, co-guest editor of this issue of International Journal.

Woo: Thank you for agreeing to be part of this distinguished panel. I'd like to hear your reflections on Canada-Asia relations in the last 25 years, as well as your views on the current situation and the challenges that lie ahead. Let me begin with a broad-brush question: how would you characterize the Canada- Asia relationship in the last quarter century?

Dobson: When we talk about the last 25 years, there's been some activity, but one of the remarkable features in Canada is the absence of continued highlevel discussion about our relationship with Asia.

Campbell: The role of government has not been coherent or strategic. The role of business has been spotty and unsustained. The role of media has been zero. The role of academia has been specialized. The role of civil society has not been sustained either. That's one of the biggest issues we have with Canada and Asia.

Clark: There's a reason for that. A similar situation applied to Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world where "old Canada" didn't come from. The exception has been Europe where there is a plethora of connections that loomed very large in our actual behaviour and in our historic memory. Those natural connections multiplied and intensified in the Canada-US relationship but that wasn't the case in any dominant way in Latin America. It was the case in sporadic ways and on occasional issues in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. That's the larger condemnation of the reach of Canadian foreign policy.

Woo: And yet, we've always described ourselves as a country bounded by the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. Our motto after all is "a mari usque ad mare" - from sea to sea.

Austin: I don't put much weight on an imagery created in an imperial tradition where the British empire circled the world and the sun shone somewhere on the British empire all the time. The Canadian image of the Pacific Ocean was as a boundary, not a pathway.

I agree with Don's summary of Canadian attitudes. If you go back historically and look at Canada's view of Asia, it was to dismiss the region, at least in comparison with the Euro-American world. Canada sent a few missionaries over there. In their view, Asians weren't really civilized and had a corrupt economy. Canada's focus was on domestic nation-building, and its relationship with the US and the British empire. Asia was of no consequence. Our problem today is "how do we change the paradigm totally?" Now Canadians are not negative about Asia; they're just not aware of their own self-interest in terms of what's going on in Asia.

Campbell: I offer a different take on the idea of "sea to sea." Along with other Canadians, I saw building the railroad to British Columbia as nationbuilding. It's interesting that the then-chairman of Canadian Pacific Railway was not at the ceremony of the last spike that has been immortalized in photographs. Instead he was off in London buying ships to the "Orient." The posts of the CPR at that time indicate that the company and people in business saw the railway as the "road to the Orient" and not as a transCanada project as such. It was the original Pacific gateway. …

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