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Canada failing to forge ties with emerging power Turkey

Turkey is suddenly a player in many of the world's major events, and Canada hasn't yet found a way to come to grips with it.

Ottawa's relationship with Turkey has been lukewarm because of a pointed dispute over history, and marginal mutual interest. But the country, which has been on the edge of our radar, is moving front and centre.

Stephen Harper's government wants trade with growing emerging markets, and Turkey is one such economy, despite the slowdown in Europe. It's an obvious next step if Canada completes a free trade deal with the EU.

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And Turkey is an emerging regional power on the front lines of global politics in areas where Canada sees itself as having an interest, but few levers.

Turkey's tough approach with neighbouring Syria's crackdown on opposition has weight. It issued tough condemnations, and now sanctions, and was influential is pressing the Arab League to pressure Damascus. After Canada and other Western nations imposed new sanctions over Iran's nuclear program, Tehran responded to speculation about Israeli or U.S. military strikes with threats to retaliate against Turkey, a NATO ally.

And as the Arab Spring led in the West to hope of democracy and fear of Islamists taking power, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, popular from Cairo to Tripoli, stressed secular democracy can go with Islam.

Turkey's not a perfect democratic ally. "There are warts, no question about it. There are journalists in jail," said Carleton University international relations professor Fen Hampson. But Canada doesn't only need ties to countries that think just like it does. "Boy-scout friendships aside, for a country like Canada, which sees itself as having foreign-policy interests in that region, we need a mature relationship with Turkey," he said.

But Ottawa's relations with Turkey are sputtering. Turkish ambassador Rafet Akgunay described them as not terrible, but not great. "For the time being, if I said that relations are going in the right direction, I would be lying," he said.

There have been steps. Ottawa slightly increased the number of Toronto-Istanbul flights. There's some consultation on Syria and Libya. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has met his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, at international conferences. "We have tried to co-operate. But the co-operation level is not as it should be," Mr. Akgunay said.

The "stumbling block" is a Canadian government declaration that the mass killings of Armenians near the end of the Ottoman Empire, which by some estimates killed 1.5 million, was a genocide. Turkey considers that an insult, insisting hundreds of thousands of deaths came in strife in which many Muslims also died, and it was not a plot to extinguish Armenians.

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The genocide statement was adopted in a 2004 Commons resolution, and Mr. Harper's government endorsed it in 2006. Tension had eased in 2010, but was renewed when Mr. Harper repeated the genocide statements in 2011, Mr. Akgunay said.

Turkey won't convince Mr. Harper's government to backtrack. Mr. Akgunay suggests softening signals could ease tensions. "Diplomacy is a way of using words," he said. Prof. Hampson suggests the compromise to leave it on the record, and move on.

There are other avenues. Turkey's growing economy hasn't featured in Mr. Harper's push for trade with emerging-market countries. There were exploratory talks about free trade in 2010, but none in 2011. But there's an obvious logic for moving ahead. Turkey has a customs union with the EU, so if Canada strikes a deal with the EU, it would smooth matters for all sides.

There is business potential, according to the Burak Aktas, Export Development Canada representative in Istanbul. Canada sells goods such as newsprint, pulp and scrap steel, but Canadian engineering firms have plans to build major hospitals, highways, and power plants, he said. "Turkey is far away, but there are opportunities here now."

In economics and politics, after years when Turkey seemed a far away concern, Canada now needs to get closer.

Campbell Clark writes on foreign affairs

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