Justin Trudeau says Canadian critical minerals are more expensive than China’s because ‘we don’t use slave labour’

Justin Trudeau says Canadian critical minerals are more expensive than China’s because ‘we don’t use slave labour’

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged Canada’s critical minerals to drive the clean energy revolution will be more expensive but said democracies should commit to trading with like-minded countries that share their values — not with countries like China that use “slave labour.”

Speaking in New York to the Council on Foreign Relations, Trudeau said modern trade agreements don’t need to “single out or punish bad actors” like China but should enshrine environmental and labour standards that would exclude authoritarian regimes, such as Beijing’s Communist rulers as acceptable partners.

Trudeau said the pandemic demonstrated that “resilience, redundancy and reliability in our supply chains, particularly for something that is going to be so core to our future, is going to be really important.”

“And if we’re being honest,” said Trudeau, “lithium produced in Canada is going to be more expensive because we don’t use slave labour.”

Trudeau insisted Canada can compete with countries like China, which he had earlier called “an increasingly disruptive global power.” He acknowledged that China made “very strategic choices” over the past decades that resulted in “all the lithium in the world used in all of our cellphones, all our electric vehicles, comes through China, not necessarily mined in China, but processed in China.”

Still, he pointed to the decision by German automaking giant Volkswagen to chose Canada over other North American jurisdictions he said were prepared to spend a lot more money for its giant new electric vehicle battery plant.

Trudeau argued VW made the decision not only because his government promised up to $13 billion in tax credits and subsidies, but because of Canada’s education, health care, child care and immigration programs. He said VW and other companies like Stellantis and Rio Tinto are drawn by Canada’s commitment to work “in partnership with Indigenous Peoples, paying fair living wages and expecting security and safety standards.”

In his prepared remarks, Trudeau used the term “forced labour,” saying globalized trade brought prosperity to many Western democracies at a price to populations in countries that were the source of low-priced goods and cheap labour.

International Labour Organization conventions identify forced labour as a violation of human rights, saying it is sometimes called “modern slavery.”

Canada and the U.S. have condemned the Chinese government’s use of forced labour camps in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, where the mainly Muslim Uyghur population has faced “repressive surveillance, mass arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment, forced labour, and mass transfers of forced labourers from Xinjiang to provinces across China.”

Former Canadian ambassador Guy Saint-Jacques said Trudeau’s use of the word “slave labour” is “appropriate. China has a history of using detainees to work in factories with no remuneration and with quotas to meet.”

Yet even as he touted Canada as a reliable stable supplier, Trudeau shrugged off this week’s shutdown of Canada’s only rare earth mineral processing facility, Vital Metals in Saskatchewan, where the prime minister himself had visited just months ago, saying there will be “bumps in the road” like Vital Metals.

The Liberal government also clearly signalled this week that it is carefully watching an unsolicited takeover bid of Vancouver-based Teck Resources, Canada’s largest diversified mining company in which China Investment Corp. holds about 10 per cent of class B voting shares, by Swiss commodities giant Glencore Plc.

The Opposition Conservatives want Ottawa to block any such takeover, using foreign investment review powers that protect assets key to Canada’s national security.

Questioned by Richard Haas, a former U.S. diplomat and head of the Council on Foreign Relations, Trudeau insisted that “ignoring China is not an option for anyone. But being strategic and thoughtful and firm and clear on how we engage with it is the path forward for all of us.”

Asked if his willingness to challenge China extends to Canada being prepared to oppose any Chinese government aggression against Taiwan, a democratic self-governing island that China regards as a province, Trudeau was guarded in his response.

He said while there is no change in Canada’s “one China” policy, “We will continue to stand for the principles of the rules-based order in international law.”

Under fire this week in the Commons by Conservatives for swanning around with global elites in New York amid a public sector strike, Trudeau later told reporters he came to participate in “significant” conversations about economic growth and security but did not point to any specific conversation that necessitated his trip.

Tonda MacCharles is Ottawa Bureau Chief and a senior reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

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