Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne spoke with China’s Wang Yi on Nov. 23, 2019 at the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Nagoya, Japan. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

New foreign minister presses for Canadian detainees with China counterpart

OTTAWA — 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.

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.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2019.

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

Just Posted

Ponoka RCMP asks public to help find missing person

Ponoka RCMP are looking for a woman who went missing Friday night.… Continue reading

Stettler son accused of murdering his father

The RCMP have laid charges against a son charged with killing his… Continue reading

Canada to give $25,000 to families of each Canadian who died on Flight PS752

OTTAWA — Families of the Canadian victims on the Ukrainian passenger jet… Continue reading

Ottawa to avoid selling Trans Mountain pipeline so long as risks remain

OTTAWA — The federal government is studying the best options for Indigenous… Continue reading

Beware of Bitcoin scammers

Red Deer butcher and bistro spreading the word about bitcoin scams

Fashion Fridays: Look your best this year

Kim XO, helps to keep you looking good on Fashion Fridays on the Black Press Media Network

Your community calendar

Jan. 16 Red Deer Branch of the Alberta Genealogical Society monthly meeting… Continue reading

Trudeau, ministers head to Winnipeg for cabinet retreat, western outreach

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reviving his practice of holding… Continue reading

Audit to test federal government on oversight of student-loans program

OTTAWA — Canada’s auditor general is examining how the government manages billions… Continue reading

Once proposed as ski resort: B.C.’s Jumbo Glacier turned over to First Nation

A spectacular swath of mountains, glaciers and forests once proposed for a… Continue reading

Calls for dialogue as pipeline polarizes some in northern British Columbia

HOUSTON, B.C. — A natural gas pipeline project has polarized many communities… Continue reading

Ontario ticket takes Friday night’s $50 million Lotto Max jackpot

TORONTO — A single winning ticket was sold in Ontario for the… Continue reading

Local Sports: Aussie connection paying off for RDC Kings

The RDC volleyball Kings have put together a nice pipeline with Australia.… Continue reading

Most Read