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Trade minister says tour of Canada with Southeast Asian leaders marks progress

TORONTO - Federal Trade Minister Ed Fast took leaders from Southeast Asia on a tour through parts of Canada this week, a move intended to build the foundation for a stronger trade relationship with the region.

The minister wrapped up the "road show" tour on Thursday, which he called a step towards strengthening partnerships that would boost the existing $17 billion of trade already made between the 10 countries and Canada.

Ministers and senior officials from the Asian nations spent time meeting with Canadian executives in various sectors, including financial services, innovation, heath services and energy in Vancouver, Toronto and Niagara Falls, Ont.

The tour didn't conclude with any promise of major investment, whether it was signals of possible free trade negotiations or a supply deal with a Canadian company. The only tangible sign of unity was a photo opportunity Fast staged with the leaders, linking hands in a chain across the stage for the cameras.

Fast said he believes the tour was a success in improving the relationship between Southeast Asia and Canada, one that languished under past governments.

"We've just scratched the surface of the potential that's there," he said in a speech. "We should have been there many years ago, but I can tell you our government is committed to doing this right."

Southeast Asia, a region that includes countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, has a combined population of roughly 600 million people.

Fast said trade with these countries has consistently grown over the past decade, with bilateral trade rising seven per cent last year, while Canadian exports to the region increased by 10 per cent.

Several Canadian companies have already secured agreements that will solidify their presence in the region, including Open Text (TSX:OTC), which will manage technology behind the ASEAN information management systems.

Sun Life Financial (TSX:SLF), Canada's third biggest insurer, is putting a higher priority on growing its operations in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, to capitalize on the growth of the middle class.

Manulife Financial Corp. (TSX:MLF) opened an office in Myanmar last month to tap into the growing region, where business has been in an upswing after a change in leadership signalled a major shift in social and economic reforms. Fast plans to visit Myanmar in August.

However, major trade and investment agreements have long been a point of contention for the federal government, after delays in ratification have left deals with both Europe and China sidelined.

In testimony before the Commons trade committee last week, Fast said a comprehensive trade deal in principle with the European Union and a foreign investment deal with China are not stalled, but rather tied up in complex matters.

He said the trade agreement with Europe was complicated due to the translation of at least "1,000 pages'' of legal text.

"It takes a lot of work," Fast said at the trade event on Thursday.

"That work is ongoing, it's progressing satisfactorily and I'm confident this legal text will soon be finalized and will be available for the public to review."

The deal with China has been delayed by ongoing litigation by the Hupacasath First Nation in B.C., which wants to block the deal. The Federal Court ruled against the Hupacasath last August, but the band of about 300 has since appealed.

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