The Conservatives have succeeded in a demand for a special committee to examine Canada’s contentious relationship with China, as two Canadians marked the one-year anniversary of their arrest and moved closer to a possible trial on accusations they stole state secrets.
The House of Commons late Tuesday voted 171-148 to set up the committee over Liberal objections, as the Bloc Québécois and NDP stood with the Tories in the minority parliament.
The committee could require the prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs and Canada’s ambassador to China to appear as witnesses.
The move comes as Conservatives in the Senate were also pushing for changes with Sen. Leo Housakos putting forward a motion that would see the government sanction Chinese and Hong Kong officials using the Magnitsky Act.
“We have tried soft diplomacy over the last year, more than a year. It has given us zero results,” he said.
Chinese officials arrested Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor last December in what is widely believed to be retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was apprehended as part of a U.S. extradition request. The pair have been held in detention, with no access to lawyers or their families and moved closer this week to a trial on accusations of espionage.
The investigative process in the two cases “has been completed, and they have been transferred to procuratorial authorities for investigation and prosecution,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday.
Conservative MP Erin O’Toole called for a special committee on Canada-China that would examine the entire relationship including diplomatic and consular issues, as well as trade and economic ties.
In addition to the two detained men, Canada has faced trade restrictions for canola and other products and the government is still deliberating on whether Huawei’s technology will be allowed as part of Canada’s 5G cellular network.
O’Toole said Canadians have seen Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stumble during international trips and the diplomatic relationship needs closer scrutiny.
“Canadians do not have confidence in our prime minister on the world stage,” he said.
The committee will be made of 12 MPs, including six Liberals.
O’Toole said the committee could be a non-partisan effort to understand the problems.
“It will allow critical elements of the Canada-China relationship to be explored in a serious fashion, while minimizing political complexities.”
Prior to the vote, O’Toole said rejecting the idea would be a sign the Liberals know they have handled the situation poorly.
“If the Liberal government opposes this modest proposal, it is a recognition that they simply want to avoid scrutiny of their handling of this diplomatic crisis over the last year,” he said.
We have tried soft diplomacy over the last year… It has given us zero results
Trudeau was not in question period on Tuesday, but in response to questions, International Development Minister Karina Gould said there were several House of Commons committees who could look into the issue.
“We all agree that the Canada-China relationship is incredibly important, and we are exploring all of those issues when it comes to human rights, when it comes to democracy, when it comes to trade and when it comes to our security,” she said.
She said they were doing everything possible to secure Kovrig and Spavor’s release.
“They are and will remain our absolute priority. We will continue to work tirelessly to secure their release.”
In the Senate, Housakos said the two detained Canadians are clearly being arbitrarily detained and it is time for the government to respond more aggressively.
The Magnitsky Act, which Canada passed in 2017 allows the government to sanction foreign government officials over human rights abuses. Similar legislation has been passed in several western democracies around the world in honour of Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow lawyer who uncovered tax fraud, but was jailed by Russian authorities and died in custody.
Housakos said he is also deeply concerned about how the Chinese government is responding to democracy protests in Hong Kong.
“Over the last six months, we have seen, on an ongoing basis, a situation where the Chinese administration in Hong Kong fights freedom of speech and freedom of expression with tear gas and batons.”
Housakos said for decades Canada has tried to guide China with soft power, but that is clearly no longer worth the effort.
“If anything appeasement and kowtowing to them has shown they take advantage of weakness,” he said. “We have leverage. We are an important economic player in the world and we need to send a statement.”
– with files from the Washington Post