Premier Stephen McNeil’s decision to be in China on Remembrance Day as part of a 15-day trade mission to Asia is being questioned by opposition members.
But the premier downplayed his scheduled absence on Nov. 11, saying he intends to pay his respects while abroad, “promoting and building a more vibrant economy here at home.”
“We’ll certainly mark Canadians who paid the ultimate sacrifice and those who continue to serve our country on Remembrance Day,” said McNeil on Thursday, a day before he was scheduled to depart for China with a delegation of government and tourism representatives.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the premier ought to be at a Nova Scotia cenotaph on the hallowed day. Both Burrill and Tory MLA Allan MacMaster said the timing is also ill-advised because the country, notorious for human rights abuses, has been holding captive two Canadian citizens on espionage allegations for almost a year.
"I think it’s ironic that he will be away in a country where there are stories of human rights abuses at a time of year when we are remembering Canadians who sacrificed their lives to help people in other parts of the world who were being oppressed by similar human rights abuses," said MacMaster.
But McNeil said isolation and protectionism have never worked, and the best option for progress is for democratic countries to work with nations that are not.
McNeil predicted the subject of the Canadian detainees will be on the agenda when he meets with Ma Xingrui, governor of China's Guangdong province, but he didn't offer specifics.
Meetings with various Chinese governments are aimed at bolstering trade and investment in transportation, tourism, culture and education.
Nova Scotia has seen a steady rise in exports to China in recent years, bolstered by a lucrative demand for lobsters. Exports totalled $793 million in 2018, up from $197 milliion in 2013. In that five-year period, 3,500 Chinese students have studied at Nova Scotia universities.
The contingent will also make stops in Japan and South Korea, where exports have climbed to $94 million and $108 million respectively.
McNeil said one of his objectives is to establish a twice a year airline charter service from Halifax to China while working toward offering a permanent direct route between the two countries. "This is also about providing an opportunity for lobster fishermen, farmers and blueberry growers, ensuring we get the best value for those products, so that money goes back into our communities," said McNeil.
But both Burrill and MacMaster questioned the importance of McNeil’s eighth trip to Asia, suggesting that the premier has little impact influencing trade to those countries.
"I think for some time the premier has been exaggerating his importance on this front," said Burrill. "I think it’s pretty clear that there will be Chinese students in our excellent schools and there will be Chinese consumers for our excellent lobster without Stephen McNeil going back and fourth to China every second weekend."