Michael Kovrig (left) and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians detained in China, are shown in these 2018 images taken from video. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP

New foreign minister presses for Canadian detainees with China counterpart

Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig have been in Chinese prisons for almost a year

Canada’s new foreign affairs minister hit the ground running this weekend, spending an hour in face-to-face talks with his Chinese counterpart over the fate of two Canadian men that the Trudeau government maintains are being arbitrarily detained.

Francois-Philippe Champagne, who was shuffled into the new portfolio on Wednesday, spoke with China’s Wang Yi on Saturday at the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Nagoya, Japan.

Champagne was discussing the fate of businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, who have been in Chinese prisons for almost a year on allegations of undermining China’s national security.

Champagne said securing the release of Spavor and Kovrig was his “absolute priority” as he takes over the post as Canada’s top diplomat at a time when relations with China have hit a new low.

Sino-Canadian relations have plummeted since Dec. 1 when the RCMP arrested Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver airport, at the request of the United States, which is seeking her extradition for allegations of violating sanctions on Iran.

Spavor and Kovrig were arrested nine days after Meng’s arrest in what is widely seen as retaliation.

“I took the opportunity to express Canada’s deep concern over the case of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who have been arbitrarily detained in China for almost a year. These cases are my absolutely priority as foreign minister of Canada,” Champagne told reporters in a conference call on Saturday night.

“In particular, I expressed my concern and the concern of all Canadians regarding the conditions of their detention. Minister Wang and I committed to our continuing conversation and to continue to be discussing this issue.”

Champagne declined to elaborate, citing the need to protect the welfare of the two detainees.

“But I can assure you this is my absolute priority as minister of foreign affairs,” he said.

READ MORE: Trump’s national security adviser says Canada should reject Huawei telecom bid

Champagne replaced Chrystia Freeland at foreign affairs, and he has had close first-hand experience dealing with Chinese politicians in a previous cabinet post as international trade minister.

In a dramatic twist during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s December 2017 trip to China, Champagne’s staff were pulled off the prime minister’s jetliner as its engines were warming up for a flight out of Beijing to southern China’s industrial heartland. Champagne was one of several cabinet ministers that accompanied Trudeau on the trip, which included a sit-down with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Champagne stayed behind in the Chinese capital for two days, trying to kickstart the opening of formal free trade talks between the two countries.

Progress towards formal trade talks had proved elusive during the Canadian delegation’s first two days in China. And while Champagne was unable to break the impasse, he worked closely and for long hours with his Chinese counterparts — something to which the new minister made a veiled reference.

“As you know, I met him last I think when I was at the President Xi dinner, when there was a visit of the prime minister, so obviously he recognized who I am,” said Champagne.

“I would qualify our discussion as being good, frank and it has been quite a long meeting, so there was receptivity of the concern of Canada. I expressed, like I said, my deep concern with respect to the detention conditions of the two Canadians, stressed with him that they will have been in jail now close to a year and that certainly, we wanted … to see progress on that.”

On Friday, China’s newly arrived ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, reiterated his government’s long-standing hardline position on the matter: he said Meng’s arrest and pending extradition to the U.S. amount to arbitrary detention, leading to the problems Canada and China are experiencing.

Cong said releasing Meng would pave the way for bilateral relations to return to normal.

Meng is free on bail, living in a comfortable Vancouver house. Canadian officials have met with Kovrig and Spavor several times since their arrests, but they have been denied access to lawyers or family.

The U.S. State Department has called for the release of the two Canadians. Germany, France, Britain, the European Union and Australia are among the countries that have also issued supportive statements, much to the consternation of the Chinese government.

Cong said Friday the Canadians’ “lawful rights have been fully guaranteed.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Province asks health-care staff to be ‘vigilant’ in screening for possible coronavirus cases

This comes after U.S. health officials confirmed a case of the virus in Washington State

Victoria man out $6,000 in latest gift card phone scam

Fraudsters claimed to be a member of a bank’s “fraud sting team”

Homes fit for royals for sale in North Saanich

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have returned to Greater Victoria

Gold Rush star dons Lucky Lager shirt in latest episode

Brennan Ruault, originally from Invermere, joined the show in the sixth season

VIDEO: Protesters block entrance to Victoria government building to support Wet’suwet’en First Nation

Activists want Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs demands to be upheld, observed and respected

Boy, 13, arrested after alleged assault involving girl at B.C. middle school

Boy alleged to have used ‘inappropriate levels of force’ to injure the girl

B.C. player becomes only second Canadian to enter Hall of Fame of Baseball

Walker received 76.6 percent of the Baseball Writers of America Association vote

PHOTOS: Heavy snowfall breaks window, causing avalanche into B.C. newsroom office

It was a chaotic start to the week for the Kitimat Northern Sentinel

Canadian law firm launches class action on behalf of Iran flight victims

Flight 752 was shot down by Iran shortly after take off

Mission Hill cellarman fired after mistakenly dumping $162K of wine down the drain

The former employee filed a grievance with the West Kelowna winery but was unsuccesful

Police suspect foul play in Cowichan Tribes death

Police are looking at foul play in relation to a death on… Continue reading

Hospital patient pleads guilty to dumbbell assault of nurse in Abbotsford

Neale Heath admits to assault causing bodily harm in attack last September

Most Read