If China was setting out to sow political divisions in Canada in the case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, it must have been frustrated by the political unity it has encountered in this 18-month saga — until now.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is getting a remarkable degree of cross-partisan support for his firm decision to not intervene in Meng’s extradition case, despite a letter from 19 prominent Canadians urging that he do just that.
But the letter has highlighted one political schism that is a recurring theme in Trudeau’s career — the one between this current regime and Liberals who governed before him.
Jean Chretien’s signature was not on the letter signed by 19 of some of Canada’s most serious legal and foreign-policy thinkers, including former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour and former justice minister Allan Rock.
But Chretien’s name has been surfacing almost from the moment that this Canada-China tension exploded, and consistently on the side of political intervention to release Meng.
As Joan Bryden of The Canadian Press reported, Chretien called Rock last week to convey his support for the letter’s arguments in favour of Meng’s release.
Chretien also turns up in the new book by John Bolton, the former national security adviser to Donald Trump. Bolton doesn’t write much about Canada in his nearly 600-page tome — but the Meng case, and Chretien, made the cut.
“Canada was under great domestic pressure, which Trudeau was having difficulty resisting,” Bolton writes in The Room Where it Happened.
“Former prime minister Jean Chretien, never a friend of the U.S., was arguing that Canada should simply not abide by our extradition treaty.”
Bolton may be exercising a bit of literary license there with this “great domestic pressure” reference.
Conservatives are onside with Trudeau staying out of this, including the two top leadership contenders, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, who restated their support for non-intervention last week.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh went on the record ages ago to distance himself from one of his own MPs, Don Davies, who was arguing for Canada to stay out of the “politically motivated” extradition.
Not exactly “great domestic pressure” on Trudeau then, until that letter surfaced last week, which the prime minister immediately rejected as a bad idea.
Had Bolton been a little more acquainted with Canadian politics, he would know that Trudeau has not had much difficulty resisting voices from the past — especially the Liberal past.
Another former prime minister, Brian Mulroney, was floating Chretien’s name a year ago as the best envoy to deal with China in this complex web of extradition and political detention of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. That idea went nowhere.
Put simply, some key Chretien-era Liberals and Trudeau Liberals have definitely not been on the same page when it comes to Meng’s extradition — though it should be said that both are motivated by the goal of ending this nightmare for the two Michaels as soon as possible.
Chretien’s former deputy prime minister, John Manley, publicly and controversially announced in December 2018 that Canada screwed up when it arrested Meng.
Manley argued that authorities should have exercised some “creative incompetence” and simply failed to catch the Huawei executive as she was passing through this country.
One thing should be clear to anyone who has been watching Trudeau’s life in the politics — this is not a prime minister likely to be persuaded by arguments from former Liberals.
From the moment he ejected Liberal senators from his caucus as a newly elected leader in 2014, Trudeau has shown a near-complete lack of deference to Liberals who came before him, including those who worked with his father.
His clear “no” to the recent letter very much echoed the tone of the senators’ ejection.
It’s not so much hostility (although it isn’t hard to find Liberals of earlier vintage who are deeply offended by Trudeau’s disregard for them).
The letter, even though it came from more than just Liberals, was another reminder of the wall Trudeau has erected between himself and the Liberals past.
All that said, there may be one Liberal ghost influencing Trudeau at this juncture, and that’s former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Thanks to the 2019 controversy over SNC-Lavalin, which also revolved around whether politicians should be dabbling in the legal process, Trudeau would be understandably averse to going down that road again — even if the two cases are very different.
Some political struggles are sweeping and global — such as the current one between China and the United States. Other political battles are historical and intensely domestic — such as the Liberals versus Liberals in Canada.
Last week, those two types of political intrigue collided in one letter, reminding us again that relationships within Canadian political families can be just as complicated as battles between international superpowers.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.