OTTAWA -- Former foreign affairs minister John Baird is defending the Canadian health-care system following Donald Trump's assertion in the U.S. presidential debate that it's catastrophically bad.

The former Conservative cabinet minister also warned the world is heading into uncharted waters with the rise of American protectionism, which has spiked along with the rise in popularity of Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

In an interview Tuesday with Don Martin, host of CTV's Power Play, Baird said while there are challenges with the Canadian system, it works well.

"There's always the boogeyman that is the Canadian health-care system when it comes to politics south of the border," Baird said.

"I think most Canadian families, when they see there's a real emergency -- someone in critical care, whether it's needing cardiac surgery or urgent cancer treatment -- they get pretty good care."

Baird pointed to two health-care challenges: waiting lists and the growing cost to the provinces. He said when he started in Ontario politics 21 years ago, health-care costs were about 37 per cent of the provincial budget. Now, he said, they're closer to half.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to say that's unsustainable if it continues. But even on its worst day the Canadian health-care system is pretty good," Baird said.

In an election campaign that's spent a great deal of time debating the value of trade relations, Baird said it’s not a bad thing if Trump's reference to Canadian health care Sunday night is the only significant mention.

"I didn't want to see Canada become a major punching bag in this election and I think it speaks well that we haven't," he said.

'Increasingly protectionist'

The negative sentiments toward free trade show "a much more inward-looking America," Baird said. It's led Trump to say he would take the U.S. out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and led Clinton to say she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations, including Canada, which Baird called a huge opportunity.

That protectionism will be a problem for Canadian producers and exporters, particularly on softwood lumber. The existing softwood agreement expired last fall and the Americans could this week start imposing new tariffs after a one-year pause that has so far failed to produce a new deal. Baird says the closer America gets to the election, the harder it is for U.S. President Barack Obama to use his influence to press for a deal.

"It's not an ideal time to solve bilateral irritants, particularly significant ones like softwood lumber," he said.

Baird says Clinton supports a strong relationship with Canada, but the challenge is Congress is increasingly protectionist.

"A more inward-looking landscape will make it really hard even for a President Clinton to tackle trade irritants where their predecessors might have been able to," he said.

"You could see an increasingly protectionist tone from Washington that could reverberate around the world."