SHERBROOKE, Que. — Justin Trudeau acknowledged Friday that Canadians are anxious about the upheavals occurring around the globe — with Canada recently seeming to have become the world's favourite punching bag.
The prime minister insisted the best way to allay those fears is to stick to his government's plan for improving the lot of middle-class Canadians.
But those anxieties could make it more difficult for the Trudeau Liberals to keep the focus on domestic concerns as they navigate their way through an election year.
Indeed, international events obscured the upbeat economic message Trudeau had hoped would come out of a three-day cabinet retreat — in the midst of which tensions with China escalated and a Canadian mining executive was killed in Burkina Faso.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau took time out of the final day of the cabinet retreat Friday to meet with the mother and sister of Edith Blais, a Quebec woman who has herself been missing in Burkina Faso for over a month.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was dispatched to respond to China's ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, who on Thursday threatened repercussions if Chinese telecom giant Huawei is banned from participating in development of Canada's 5G mobile network.
"We are determined to stand our ground on the basis of what is right for Canada," Goodale said Friday.
Canadian security agencies are still reviewing the security and technical issues surrounding Huawei's potential involvement in the next-generation network for smart phones and other wireless communication devices. Goodale couldn't say when Canada's review would be completed but a well-placed source said a decision is still months away.
The United States, Australia and New Zealand have already barred Huawei from participating in 5G, citing national-security concerns. And German officials said Thursday they are considering banning it as well.
The U.S. is pushing Canada to do the same, warning that the Chinese government could use Huawei technology built into other countries' networks to conduct espionage or cyberattacks.
Relations with China have been spiralling downward since Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in early December at the behest of the U.S., which wants her extradited on fraud charges related to American sanctions against Iran. The Chinese ambassador called her arrest a politically motivated "backstabbing" of a friend.
China has since detained two Canadians, including a former diplomat, accusing them of being threats to Chinese security. And earlier this week, China abruptly handed a death sentence to a third Canadian, previously convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
China has warned Canada to back off its efforts to enlist allies around the globe to condemn China's treatment of the three Canadians. Trudeau's office has been pointedly releasing summaries of his phone calls with leader after leader, in which they talk about the importance of the rule of law and share concerns about international norms and judicial independence. Friday, the secretary-general of the United Nations joined the list.
Goodale wouldn't say whether he thought China has been trying to push around Canada any more than it does other countries, but acknowledged that global politics is a challenge these days.
"This is a tough and turbulent world and we need to make sure that we are making all of our decisions in a way that will benefit this country," he said. "It's a tough decision-making process but you can't shrink from the challenges. They're there and you have to face them and make the very best decisions you can."
On Thursday, Freeland mused that Canada is living through "probably the most turbulent moment in terms of the rules-based international order since the Second World War. This turbulence is affecting a lot of countries and we should not imagine that we can be immune."
In addition to escalating tensions with China, Canada is embroiled in a diplomatic feud with Saudi Arabia — touched off by a tweet from Freeland last summer calling for the release of Canadian-connected dissidents — and has recently been subjected to fake news in Russia about Nazi-loving Ukrainians running the Canadian government.
Even U.S. President Donald Trump has piled on periodically, calling Trudeau weak and dishonest in the midst of free trade negotiations last year and continuing to turn a deaf ear to Trudeau's pleas to lift crippling tariffs imposed on Canadian steel and aluminum.
Canada could also be economically sideswiped by other international events, such as the chaos engulfing the British government over efforts to extricate the United Kingdom from the European Union and the U.S. trade war with China.
Asked Friday about all that global turmoil and its impact on his election strategy, Trudeau pointed to his government's economic record as the best antidote: relatively strong economic growth, more than 800,000 new jobs created, lowest jobless rate in 40 years, and so on, all of which Trudeau credited to his government's investments in the middle class and infrastructure.
While other countries withdraw into protectionist shells, Trudeau said his government has also successfully pursued progressive trade deals that "have allayed some of the very real anxieties people are feeling out there."
That said, Trudeau added: "But people are feeling anxious about what's going on in the world, about what the future might bring for their kids and grandkids.
"And that's why our responsibility as a team is to ... focus on the real, tangible, concrete solutions that we're going to be able to bring together."
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press