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Tory leadership candidate Maxime Bernier favours free-trade deal with China

Last Updated Jul 19, 2016 at 6:20 am PST

Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier speaks with the media about trade with China during a news conference Monday July 18, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – Signing a free-trade deal with China would allow Canada to increase its exports by $7.7 billion a year, Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier said Monday.

Such an agreement would also provide Canada the opportunity to raise the issue of human rights with the Asian giant, he said.

“Although there is no easy answer to solve these problems with a magic wand, neither a disengagement from or a weak engagement toward China will give Canadians a credible voice to talk about reform or progress on these matters,” he told a news conference.

Canada would benefit from “closer attention” from China if their economies were linked, although he acknowledged China would remain a “sovereign” country.

Since announcing his bid to replace Stephen Harper, Bernier has angered farmers by coming out in favour of ditching the supply management system that currently governs milk, eggs and poultry.

He has also endorsed the privatization of Canada Post while opposing federal aid to Bombardier Inc. (TSX:BBD.B).

Bernier, 53, believes his various positions will help him in his fundraising drive, which is off to a slow start and sees him still need to collect the second payment of $25,000 required to stay in the leadership race.

“We officially began our (financing) campaign at the beginning of July,” he said. “The campaign focused on activity on social media, on taking firm conservative stances…I believe I am the only candidate who has a plan for the prosperity of this country.”

The other hopefuls so far are Kellie Leitch, Michael Chong, Tony Clement and Deepak Obhrai. The leader will be chosen next May.

Bernier, whose reputation in Quebec is that of a staunch federalist, recalled in an interview Sunday how he previously served as an adviser to Bernard Landry when the future Parti Quebecois premier was finance minister under Lucien Bouchard in the 1990s.

“It is thanks to Quebecers that Canada is what it is right now,” he said on Radio-Canada’s “Deja dimanche!” program.

“It was founded in French, by Quebecers. So, I am a very nationalist Quebecer.”

On Monday, he elaborated on what he meant.

“Being a nationalist is being a Quebecer who wants the Canadian Constitution to be respected,” he said.

“Being nationalist is knowing and believing that the Quebec government and provinces have specific powers and that they must be able to assume those responsibilities without having the federal government meddle in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.”