OTTAWA—Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has again expressed concern over Beijing’s arbitrary arrest of two Canadians last December, while the opposition criticized the government’s lack of action.
“We strongly condemn the arbitrary arrest of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor,” Freeland said before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons on May 28. “The government of Canada continues to call for their immediate release.”
Chinese authorities detained former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor on Dec. 10, 2018, in a move seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver nine days earlier.
Freeland said the relationship between Canada and China has become difficult since Meng’s arrest. Canada was obligated to make the arrest by treaty agreements with the United States, who is seeking to have Meng extradited to face charges of fraud in the United States. U.S. authorities accuse her of actively participating in defrauding banks and violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
“I am confident that was the right thing to do, and I am confident that Canadians know that. We are a rule-of-law country, and we are a country that honours our treaty agreements. This was not a political decision, there was no political message, and there has been no political involvement,” Freeland said.
Kovrig and Spavor were only formally arrested and charged with stealing state secrets two weeks ago.
Conservative MP Erin O’Toole pressed Freeland about reaching out to her Chinese counterpart regarding Meng’s arrest and the detention of the two Canadians. Freeland said she has been wanting to speak with China’s foreign minister. However, that hasn’t happened.
“I would be happy at any time to have a direct conversation with Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister. We have been clear with the Chinese authorities that we are prepared for that conversation at any time, and I am happy to offer that invitation at any time now,” she said.
Freeland noted she has spoken on a few occasions with the Chinese ambassador to Canada.
Since Meng’s arrest, Canada has been on the receiving end of increasing hostility from Beijing. Besides detaining Kovrig and Spavor, another Canadian in China, Robert Schellenberg, was recently sentenced to death for his involvement in a drug case, an escalation of his previous 15-year jail term. A second Canadian man, Fan Wei, was given the death penalty in April for drug offences.
In addition, Canada’s exports of canola to China, worth over $2 billion annually, have been blocked, and exporters of other products including pork, peas, and soybeans are facing increasing obstacles getting their products into the country.
After the committee meeting, O’Toole criticized the Trudeau government’s response to Beijing’s aggression, saying it has been “paralyzed by inaction.”
“We have no ambassador, we have sent no envoy, we have got no WTO dispute on canola, we have no plan. It’s been almost six months—it’s time for a plan,” he said.
“Nothing showed the naivety of Justin Trudeau more than China,” O’Toole added.
“He put China on his top list for a free trade agreement but then his trip there in 2017 did not go well and our relationships have deteriorated. And of course, the extradition arrest of Meng Wanzhou—they had no response, they were flat footed.”
Freeland said that “Canada isn’t the only country that has found itself in the situation” of having to deal with Beijing’s practice of delaying high-level meetings.
Although Meng was released on bail shortly after being detained, Kovrig and Spavor have been reportedly kept in what amounted to solitary confinement since being being detained, without access to legal counsel or family and allowed consular access only about once a month.
“Their situations are very difficult,” Freeland said. “Both of them are incredibly resourceful, incredibly brave, and are handling themselves under highly inappropriate circumstances very, very well.”