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Justin Trudeau heads to Liberia, Madagascar in 1st official visit to Africa

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Havana, Cuba on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. .
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Havana, Cuba on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. . Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is heading to Africa next week, his first visit to the continent since the Liberal government came to power last year.

“We want to strengthen relations with our African partners and advance issues such as the rights of women and girls, gender equality, health, and peace and security,” Trudeau said in a statement announcing the trip.

The trip will include a visit to Antananarivo, Madagascar, for the summit of la Francophonie, a global organization of French-speaking nations that chose former Governor General Michaelle Jean to be its first female secretary general in 2014.

“The French language and culture have played a defining role in shaping the bilingual, diverse country that is Canada today and I am proud to participate in the summit for the first time,” Trudeau said. “I look forward to building new ties with Francophone countries around the world and working closely to tackle the challenges we collectively face.”

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There, Canada is advancing a resolution – co-sponsored by Benin – on the fight against early and forced marriages.

That is part of a broader emphasis the Liberal government is putting on gender equality as part of its international development agenda.

Ontario, the province with the largest French-speaking population outside Quebec, has put in a bid to gain observer status at la Francophonie, an effort the federal government is supporting but the previous Conservative government refused to do.

That would give Canada – its second-largest contributor – four seats at the table. Quebec and New Brunswick have been full-fledged members of la Francophonie since the 1970s.

The trip to Africa will begin with a stop in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia – a West African country that was hit hard by the Ebola virus epidemic in recent years.

Trudeau will meet Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected head of state in Africa, and other advocates for gender equality to discuss the role that women play in securing and maintaining peace following civil conflict, as well as health, economic growth and sustainable development in that country and throughout the continent.

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Canada has a limited relationship with Liberia, but the government says it provided about $24 million in development assistance to the country in 2014-15.

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That included contributions to the Global Fund, which has provided access in Liberia to drugs for HIV and tuberculosis and mosquito nets to provide protection from malaria.

Canada also provided more than $130 million to help out with the Ebola crisis that affected Liberia, as well as Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The Canadian government lifted its ban on visas to people from Liberia after the country was declared free of Ebola in May 2015.