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Justin Trudeau: ‘This Is Canada’s Moment to Lead’

October 15, 2018, 8:14 PM UTC

With a twinkle in his eye (and a floral pattern on his socks), Canada prime minister Justin Trudeau opened the 2018 Fortune Global Forum in Toronto by making a powerful, full-throated case for his country’s economy.

The lowest unemployment rate in 40 years. The fastest growing wages in a decade. The lowest debt-to-GDP ratio among G7 nations. Delivering remarks in French and English, Trudeau offered flurry of statistics in a bid to convince the audience of CEOs before him—including the top executives of Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, and SAP—that his government was worth betting on.

“We’re the only G7 country with a free trade deal with every other G7 country,” he said. “This is Canada’s moment to lead, and we’re making it easy for you to lead with us.”

Is that because the U.S. under President Donald Trump has been, well, less than easy to work with as it pertains to international relations? In conversation with Fortune president Alan Murray, Trudeau was circumspect in his words for his neighbor to the south in the wake of negotiations for the USMCA, as in United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, the North American trade agreement meant to replace NAFTA.

“The U.S. is going through, as it does from time to time, a bit of a protectionist phase,” Trudeau said, staring off into the distance. “I think what people remember is where we’ll end up…people have different styles in their approach.” The minister added that Canada’s approach was intentionally “constructive,” “thoughtful,” and “patient,” inferring that the U.S. strategy was not.

Whatever the case, “There should be rules in the global economy,” Trudeau said. The world needs trade rules that can be “trusted” and “abided by both countries and investors,” he added. (Including China. “China is the world’s second-largest economy and growing and will remain an important place to do business,” Trudeau said. He downplayed the real geopolitical challenges with China, adding that Canada plans to be “thoughtful” about engaging the nation.)

But what about the tribalism creeping across the globe? Isn’t that a problem for business? Trudeau wasn’t terribly flustered by the prospect. “In three years, Canada was able to close a free trade deal with Europe…and moved forward on saving NAFTA,” making progress at a time “when trade deals aren’t in fashion anymore,” he said. Why? Because Canada understands what’s motivating individual citizens.

“Trade creates growth. But trade in itself won’t do anything to make sure that the benefits of that growth accrue to everyone,” Trudeau said. Lots of people feel those benefits have passed them by. “We are thinking about the shared benefits of trade” and not just what benefits a company or a country, he said.

“We know what happens” each time there’s an industrial revolution, Trudeau said, and most experts believe we’re currently living through the fourth. “There is a transition time when a whole lot of people get disrupted out of their jobs” until new jobs are created, he said. “You can either drag your heels and try to hold out with the current model…or dive into it.”

Trudeau also spent a few minutes discussing other issues. On the subject of diversity, women in the workplace, and the gender makeup of his cabinet (it’s 50-50), Trudeau said: “It’s not just about leadership and showing that it can be done. It’s actually really, really smart to have a more diverse board or cabinet in your organization.” He added: “You’re trying to get people to think outside the box and they don’t even realize they’re in the same box.”

And on the subject of Saudi Arabia and its ongoing crisis with regard to the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who Turkish officials believe was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Trudeau said, eliciting some applause: “Canada will always be very firm—and we’ll try to be polite because it’s not just a cliché—about standing up for human rights around the world.”

For more coverage of the Fortune Global Forum, click here.