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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, introduces Chinese Premier Li Keqiang after speaking to a business luncheon on Sept. 23, 2016 in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang ended his visit to Canada with a strong pitch for free trade and closer ties to Canada while skirting the most contentious human-rights and rule-of-law issues still standing in the way of a deep alliance.

Mr. Li's speech to a Montreal business crowd lauded dozens of bilateral agreements and business announcements that have accompanied his four-day visit to Canada – the first of its kind by a top Chinese official in six years. Deals were reached on canola and beef trade disputes, on the construction of a nuclear reactor by SNC-Lavalin and a new Montreal-Shanghai route for Air Canada, to name a few examples.

Mr. Li avoided more controversial issues that have dominated the week, such as unauthorized Chinese law-enforcement efforts on Canadian soil. Even as Mr. Li spoke, a state-owned broadcaster reported that Chinese officials on Thursday coaxed a fugitive to return home to face justice.

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He also avoided the contentious topic of an extradition treaty between Canada, which has no death penalty, and China, where thousands of executions take place each year for crimes ranging from fraud to murder.

Mr. Li did acknowledge that a big priority for his Canada trip – laying the groundwork for free trade – does face major hurdles. China has no free-trade agreement with any G7 country and only a small number of other developed countries. He said China has prosecuted a million cases of intellectual-property violations but still has work to do to reinforce the rule of law.

"When you negotiate a free-trade agreement between a developing country and a developed one, it puts greater pressure on the developing one," Mr. Li said. "We have to streamline administration and bring order to the market for a level playing field for all market players. We have to give business leaders a sound and stable expectation for just and equal treatment under rule of law."

In brief remarks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed Mr. Li's enthusiasm for closer ties. "Over the last decade, relations have been unfocused, inconsistent. My government is committed to changing that. We will bring stability and regularity back to the table," he said.

Jean Charest, a former Quebec premier and staunch free-trade advocate who attended the event, said he was taken aback by the pace of free-trade talks and Canada-China rapprochement. "I'm stunned by the quickness with which it is unfolding," he said.

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Mr. Charest, who helped kick off free-trade talks that led to an agreement between Canada and the European Union, said China looks to the United States, where both candidates in the presidential campaign have spent time attacking the country, and sees an alternative in Canada.

"Whoever is elected in the United States, it's safe to say the relationship with China is going to be tougher," Mr. Charest said. "China sees Canada as a counterpoint to the United States, both in trade and the broader relationship."

Still, Mr. Charest cautioned that big obstacles stand in the way of deepening ties. "There are issues specific to Canada. Reciprocity. Rule of law. But China is unavoidable. The weight of that country in the world economy … Canada needs to structure that relationship."

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