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François-Philippe Champagne has things to say

Canada’s trade minister talks (and talks) to Paul Wells about his globe-trotting efforts to promote Canada, and why it matters now
Francois-Philippe Champagne responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Francois-Philippe Champagne responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Francois-Philippe Champagne responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

François-Philippe Champagne was talking. It’s his vocation. As Falstaff said, ’tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.

“You’ve seen the trade agenda we have and the—I call it the diversification imperative,” Canada’s minister of international trade said the other day in his office somewhere inside the ash-brown Sussex Drive ziggurat that houses Global Affairs Canada.

“I often say, trade, you have to look over decades. So obviously you have things which are happening now—CETA is there.” CETA is the shiny new trade deal between Canada and the European Union, negotiated while Stephen Harper was prime minister, consummated under Champagne’s predecessor Chrystia Freeland, finally due to come into force, most of it anyway, in September.

“But I just came back from Pacific Alliance in Colombia, what, two weeks ago?” The Pacific Alliance is a free-trade area, with ambitions to be more, that Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru formed in 2011. All four countries have Pacific Ocean waterfront. Canada became the first non-Latin American observer to the organization in 2012.

I looked all of this up later. Meanwhile, Champagne was still talking. “And this is about the future. This is about Canada being first again. We were the first non-regional observers, I would say. And now we wanted to be first again, in the first pack of associate members.

“Now Mercosur is coming up, as you know, which we’re looking at.” Mercosur is Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil, with Venezuela currently in the penalty box because bad things are happening there. “You know, those are big markets.” Champagne’s department has held consultations about seeking a free-trade agreement with Mercosur.

“I mean, when I look at the platform I say, there’s things in the immediate future, but there’s things where we need to position ourselves for decades to come. I can talk about China, I can talk about India, I can talk about our relationship with Japan for the Asia-Pacific.”

He sure could. He soon would. At this point in our interview, I had not actually asked a question. François-Philippe Champagne is 47 years old, comes off—in an agreeable way—as several years younger than that, and all I had to do to get him talking was to sit down.

“I see myself in two roles,” he said. “One is the trade agreements. But for me, you know, being a lawyer—this is all good, but it only makes sense when it comes real for people. Am I creating a job, am I creating an export, are we selling something to the world?”

I think this is where he segued to describing his second role: “I see my role as the chief marketing officer of Canada. Well, it’s about trade promotion. It’s really being there with—you know, we came back from the Le Bourget thing where we had, you know, 700 people, perhaps, at the reception.” Le Bourget is what one calls the Paris Air Show when one is either French or actually attending the Paris Air Show. Canadian government ministers have been a regular presence at the Paris Air Show for many years, because Canadian government ministers are forever either trying to buy aircraft or hoping to sell them, in whole or in parts.

Anyway there were 700 people at the reception. “Three hundred of them, my guess, would be SMEs from Canada in the aerospace sector.” SMEs are small- and medium-sized businesses. “Talking to their clients, making sure that we can make the introduction, following up with them, helping them, to say, ‘Call me if you need me to help you cross the finish lines.’ And engaging with them about, you know, where can we make a difference?”

This business of trade promotion is why it took nearly three months for Champagne to slow down long enough for me to talk to him. Or at least for me to record him while he talked. Or at least I choose to blame the trade promotion for the delay. It was in late April that Champagne’s communications director sent me an email after I had noted on Twitter that Champagne has become, by some distance, the Trudeau government’s champion frequent flyer.

“We should get you together with Minister Champagne soon,” the note said. Sure, I replied. How’s next Thursday? That was April.

A month later I got a note saying they hadn’t forgotten their offer, but that Champagne was “kind of all over the place.” This was June 1. At length Champagne’s office made an appointment for a June 23 interview. Then I got bigfooted by Justin Trudeau, who decided he needed Champagne to accompany him along the stretch of Quebec between Montreal and Quebec City for a series of happy happy crowd events on the eve of the St. Jean Baptiste holiday.

Champagne is the MP for St. Maurice—Champlain, which used to be Jean Chrétien’s riding. Jean Chrétien used to be the prime minister of Canada. There’s a persistent rumour that Champagne would like that job too. We didn’t discuss that during the interview. It wasn’t an easy conversation to steer. Anyway, Champagne is back in the riding a lot. “As you know, it’s larger than Belgium,” he said. I didn’t, but I checked and it’s true.

Anyway, he was still talking. “I mean, it’s obvious to me and you, but to be honest, many times I go around the world and I say, ‘Have you looked at that opportunity?’” He means any opportunity. Whichever opportunity comes to mind, that this entrepreneur and that foreign official might have overlooked, as he is flying around doing trade promotion.

“You know, I was in Saint John recently, I think a week ago in New Brunswick, and I visited the port. But this is DP World, who owns it.” DP World is Dubai Ports World, a global container-shipping superpower, and since January it’s been running the port at Saint John. “But DP World, I met the CEO in Dubai, like, three months ago. It’s kind of coming full circle, saying, ‘Well, what are your interests in Canada?’ Well, I saw them in Saint John, they’re upgrading, they bought two cranes, they’re looking at Prince Rupert.” Prince Rupert is on British Columbia’s west coast. DP World bought that port’s operating rights in 2015, and is on track to nearly triple its container capacity.

Champagne’s point was, generally, that he meets DP World executives a lot, I think. “So next time that I see him”—the company’s CEO —“we’re starting from a base where they had already made an investment in Canada.”

Champagne drew himself back for a brief pause. “My pitch, in many places—you know, I’ve been in the Middle East as well—is really about saying, you know, Canada today—and I come from business. So.”

Champagne changes subject in mid-sentence a lot. I learned to roll with it. He eventually gets to where he was going. He was talking about his pitch.

“Business needs three things: Stability, predictability and rule of law. I mean, without these three ingredients, wherever you go in the world, whichever region of the world, various degrees, but you need an element of these three to have investment.

“And even in the Middle East, I was saying, you know, Canada stands out as a beacon. As the world becomes less stable and less predictable, Canada stands out as a beacon of predictability, stability, rule of law.” He ticked these three off now, counting on his fingers, every time he mentioned them. “An inclusive nation, one which cherishes diversity, I mean, the prime minister —And you know, the response back was interesting. ‘Well, obviously we belong in Canada.’ They said, ‘Where would you put your money otherwise?’ So, I’m trying to project that everywhere I go.”

Perhaps you noticed that he mentioned he comes from business. This is true. Champagne studied law at the Université de Montréal, which is reasonably common among bright young up-and-comers from Quebec’s La Mauricie region; and then he studied law some more at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, which is less common. From there he worked his way up to become a vice-president at ABB, the Swiss engineering multinational, before moving to Amec Foster Wheeler, which is British and operates in similar sectors around the world.

So Champagne had a good career in global supply chains and multinational dealmaking before he finally decided to scratch his nagging political itch and moved home, eventually running in St. Maurice in the 2015 election. Swept into office in a caucus of rookies, he became parliamentary secretary to Bill Morneau, the finance minister. Morneau’s an energetic guy who speaks decent French, but he couldn’t be everywhere. Champagne decided he could. He started racking up the frequent-flyer points filling in for the minister at every Chamber of Commerce lunch and ribbon-cutting he could get to.

Many parliamentary secretaries, unsure of themselves in the hyper-charged partisan circus of Question Period, prefer to read their prepared answers to opposition questions on Fridays, when they are usually filling in for absent ministers. Champagne would pop up like a cork from a you-know-what-kind-of-bottle and launch into eager homilies, improvised in slightly Continental French or quite good English, about the fine work Morneau and indeed all Liberals were doing for Canada’s middle class.

When Chrystia Freeland was needed as Trudeau’s new foreign minister to oversee the government’s elaborate institutional response to the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, Champagne was a natural to replace her as trade minister.

Anyway he was still talking. I still hadn’t asked a question. “I was in Asia, and I was saying, you know, we’re becoming the bridge between the Pacific and the Atlantic. Very much a Pacific nation, you know. And for me, this is looking ahead, decades to come. We need to be engaging now to make sure. Just like CETA, when people thought of that a decade ago. You know, this is the right deal at the right time, but when they started that with Jean Charest, and the others who were there—I mean, who would have said that the decade after, this would be the gold standard now?”

So he’s trying to take a long-term view despite all the flying around, is what I think he was saying. “That’s why I’m engaging with Japan on, what are we going to do with that region of the world? That’s what we’re looking at with India.”

Champagne had been speaking for five minutes and 21 seconds. I decided to ask a question before I forgot how to do it. I went back to what Champagne calls his “diversification imperative.” How much can a country like Canada really diversify its trade, I asked, when the easiest thing for any company to do is to build a factory near the border and lob products into the U.S. midwest?

“Our geography commands that we will always be the largest trading partner with the U.S.,” Champagne said. “I think our geography, and our history, and everything commands. You know, you’ve heard that saying many times: It’s not that we sell to each other; [it’s that] we make things together.

“I was just in Cincinnati. And I was saying to the folks there: ‘It’s never been between Canada and the U.S. It’s us being more competitive. Make things together and sell to the world. That’s the real challenge. It’s never been between us.’ I mean, I was in Ohio, talking to state senators, state congressmen, city people, business people, and I was saying, ‘You know, about 40 per cent of your exports go to Canada.’ Like, Really? And I said, ‘Fifty per cent of your 40 per cent is intra-company trade. When you talk about “Hire American” and “Buy American,” hold on a minute. This is intra-company.’

“And they say, ‘Oh. Well, next time we hear that, we need to think.’ Then I went to see the vice-mayor of Cincinnati. I said, ‘You know in your city, 20 per cent of your export is to Canada.’ He’s like, ‘Really?’ So you drill it right down to people. And I was in Ohio, but greater Cincinnati is, like, Kentucky and Indiana.” This is true. Cincinnati is in southwest Ohio, on the border dividing three states. “So I was saying, in Indiana, it’s 200,000 jobs which depend on Canada. Kentucky, it’s 100,000.”

I had asked him about diversifying trade away from the United States, and he was talking about the virtues of integrated trade with the United States, but it was going so well I decided against jumping in. “Now they understand the nature of this relationship. And I always have that picture of a landing gear which looks like the United Nations of North America. It’s like 70 cities which have parts in this—is that Canadian or American? And that’s where I think you make a small difference.” By talking about it with city people and business people and the deputy mayor. As, indeed, every cabinet minister in the Trudeau government is being sent to do, as often as possible, across the U.S., but that’s another story.

“So to your question,” Champagne said, “I think that unique relationship will always exist. However, Paul, I would say, diversifying is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing.” Ah. He had pivoted to the question. “Look at Europe.” Once CETA is provisionally implemented in September, “we’ll open up a market, you know, 510 million people, $3.3 trillion of public procurement.

“You know, when I was in China recently, I was in front of the minister of commerce, and I said, ‘Minister.’ I said, ‘When you think about Canada, just think about a country, in 2017, which has preferential market access to about 1.1 billion consumers.’ He looked at me, and he asked the translator, ‘Do I get…?’” Champagne mimicked the Chinese minister’s befuddlement. Everyone knows Canada’s a tiny population, and now here was this trade lawyer from Shawinigan talking about 1.1 billion people. “I said, ‘Yeah. One point one billion. That’s Canada in 2017.” You get that number by adding the NAFTA market with the CETA market.  “He looked at me in a slightly different way. And I said, ‘That’s Canada today. We’re becoming this bridge between the Atlantic and the Pacific. And clearly, with the three elements of stability, predictability and the rule of law”—he ticked these elements off on his fingers again as he listed them—“when I’m in the Asia Pacific, obviously what I’m saying is that Canada is your gateway to North America and to Europe.”

The thing with all this travelling, all the anecdotes that begin with “I was just in…” is that it’s hard to tell how much of it is making a difference. Most business decisions, even across borders, are made between private citizens or privately-held companies that have often been discussing a deal for years before they make a decision. Champagne’s life in airport lounges may simply be the expression of hope, or the expenditure of nervous energy.

Or it could help turn all the distracted and largely benevolent attention Canada is getting around the world this year—partly because a telegenic prime minister runs its government, partly because Donald Trump doesn’t—into economic activity.

Champagne, unsurprisingly, tends to this latter view. “I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a trade minister in Canada. Because everyone wants to do trade with Canada. I think that people understand: as some countries are retreating and become less predictable, we play with our strength.” You don’t need to be a champion psychic to guess who “some countries” are in the minister’s parable.

“I was in Korea. I’m meeting with these guys who are 30-something. And they have this gaming company. Billionaires. So they say, ‘Mr. Champagne, we have studios in Vancouver and the U.S. You know what’s interesting? They said, you know why we’re in Canada?’

“I said, ‘I suspect because you find a good business.’

“He said, ‘I’ll tell you why. When we produce a game in Korea, we can only sell it in Korea. When we produce in the U.S. we can only sell it in the U.S. When we produce in Canada we can sell in North America and Europe, together.”

All this talk of Asia-Pacific destinations made me think of another question that’s been hovering in the air recently, the notion of free trade with China. Champagne had talked about immediate challenges and long-term goals. Where does China fit into that timeline?

“I think that it would certainly be between the mid- to long-term,” he said. “The first thing we need to do is to do our homework, which is consultation. Making sure that we do the pre-feasibility study. In my old work we used to call that pre-feasibility: whether there would be a net benefit, and in what sectors. Learning from others: Every time I meet the Australians, I try to learn from their experience. Tariffs came down. What about non-tariff barriers? So we have the benefit of doing it at our pace, with eyes wide open, very strategically, and say: this is the second-largest economy of the world, perhaps soon to become the first. We need to be at the table.”

So it doesn’t seem imminent, this business of a Canada-China trade deal, if indeed one can be negotiated.

In the meantime, François-Philippe Champagne is travelling. It’s just part of the job, he says. “Other countries do this pretty actively. I think, to be honest, we’re just catching up. People may say that I’m travelling, but I say I’m doing the essential work to promote Canada, in today’s world, in many markets.”

“But other nations are quite active. I go in markets to help our businesses, and sometimes they say, ‘Well, we’ve seen you, but we’ve seen the French, we’ve seen the Germans, we’ve seen the Americans.’ We need to be out there, if we want to help, and make sure that we benefit. Because opening trade agreements, for me, is key, but it’s an enabler. The next thing is getting there to make sure you sell something.”