Senators are warning Trade Minister Mary Ng that Ottawa may be falling behind its peers in establishing deeper trade ties with Africa.

"We're not in some of the geographies we need to be," Ontario Sen. Peter Harder told Ng during a Thursday meeting of the Senate foreign-affairs committee.

The committee has been studying for months whether Global Affairs Canada is responding to the country's diplomatic needs, hearing from current and former staff of the department as well as business and advocacy groups.

Ng appeared before the committee to take questions from senators, who raised concerns that the United States has been doing more to start trade talks with an African group that spans most of the continent.

Quebec Sen. Amina Gerba, who originally hails from Cameroon, asked about the previous day's announcement that U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai had signed a memorandum with the African Continental Free Trade Area secretariat, which is establishing a massive free-trade zone.

The deal commits the Americans to having regular talks with African leaders as they put the new trade zone into force and work toward signing an eventual trade agreement with Washington.

Gerba asked Ng whether her team is working on closer economic ties with Africa, and whether she envisions Canada signing a free-trade deal with the bloc.

Ng said Canadian development work has likely helped pave the way for African countries to create the trade bloc, and she noted side deals Ottawa has signed with specific countries around foreign investment.

But Ng didn't confirm whether or not she sees a trade deal coming together in the future.

#Canada is losing ground and falling behind #US. on #trade with #Africa, senators say. #CDNPoli

"We absolutely have aspirations to deepen our (trade) relationship with Africa," she said, arguing that it would build on past trade missions and Canada's recent efforts to build closer ties with the African Union and between chambers of commerce.

"The dynamic opportunity in Africa is a very exciting one," Ng said. "We are doing the work by enabling businesses."

But Harder noted that Ottawa has an anemic diplomatic presence on the continent, with many of Canada's ambassadors cross-appointed to multiple countries at the same time.

Canada has less than half the number of diplomatic missions in Africa that the United States has, and Harder suggested Ottawa should beef up its presence, even if that's not through new embassies and high commissions.

Last month, the Liberals launched a long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy, which called for closer trade, aid and military ties within that region to counterbalance the rise of China.

When asked how that plan will be put into force, Ng said bureaucrats are still sorting it out.

"That planning for execution work is very much being planned right now," she said. "The capacity uplift that is part of the strategy is actually about people, and the kind of resources we will need in the region."

Liberal MP Rob Oliphant has been tasked with drawing up an Africa strategy due next year, although its drafting has solicited far less attention.

The senators told Ng that they would like Global Affairs Canada to be much nimbler in its ability to find and hire Canadians with expertise in key languages and corporate experience, including for trade tasks.

The committee's chair, Sen. Peter Boehm, asked if Ottawa could replicate a U.S. effort to reduce the time it takes to hire State Department staff to six months.

"It’s certainly very difficult here, at Global Affairs, because it can take years for someone to join," the Ontario senator said, pointing out that the average age of a Canadian diplomat is 47.

Others, such as B.C. Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, said Canada could tap into the knowledge of Canadians living abroad, not just to leverage their networks and help Canadian businesses tap into trade opportunities, but also to better understand their needs around taxes, pensions and keeping up ties with Canada.

"Canadian chambers of commerce in the Asia-Pacific (region), generally they feel they’re underutilized by the trade commissioner service, and the foreign service more generally," he said.

Ng said she would consider the recommendations.

Her Thursday appearance came a day after the ethics commissioner found she had broken federal conflict-of-interest rules when she did not recuse herself from a contract her office awarded to the firm of one of her friends.

Senators did not question Ng about the ruling and instead stuck to the topic of foreign affairs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2022.

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