Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his recent virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden (Photo: Justine Trudeau/Flickr).

It appears China has thrown Canada an unexpected lifeline, offering us a chance to redeem our relationship with the world’s No. 2 economy and save the Two Michaels.

Is Justin Trudeau up to the challenge? 

Canadian Michael Spavor (Photo: Facebook).

On Friday, the Chinese government put Michael Spavor on trial for espionage in Dandong on the country’s eastern border, where the Canadian operated a cultural exchange company that promoted business and investment in next-door North Korea. He is said to have personal ties to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. 

The closed trial only lasted a couple of hours, but instead of finding him guilty, clapping him in irons and hauling him away, the Chinese court adjourned without a verdict – giving Canada a little more time to bring the matter to a more satisfactory conclusion.

The other Michael, Michael Kovrig, is scheduled to go on trial Monday in Beijing on spying charges. 

Meanwhile, Meng Wanzhou, the high-profile Chinese high-technology executive with close ties to the country’s government, remains under house arrest in Vancouver. She was detained by the RCMP in December 2018 during a stopover at Vancouver airport at the behest of U.S. officials, supposedly for fraudulently covering up violations of American sanctions on Iran.

Donald Trump, then the Republican U.S. president, stated openly at the time he hoped to use Huawei’s chief financial officer as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with China. 

The Two Michaels were arrested in China soon after, and there is little doubt this was in response to Ms. Meng’s arrest. 

Under these circumstances, arguably both those two Canadians in Chinese jails and the Chinese citizen held in Vancouver can fairly be called hostages. 

Canadian Michael Kovrig (Photo: Twitter).

The impasse has continued ever since, while Ms. Meng fights her extradition to the United States and the case is pursued unabated by President Joseph Biden’s Democratic Party administration.

At a news conference in Ottawa yesterday, Prime Minister Trudeau focused on the lack of transparency in the Calgary-born Mr. Spavor’s trial. This has been a theme of Canadian media coverage in the past few days, contrasting the closed trial with the openness of Ms. Meng’s extradition hearings. 

Arguably, though, this compares apples and oranges. All Western countries maintain the right to closed trials when espionage and national secrets are involved. Secret trials in such matters have recently been held in both Australia and the United Kingdom, our Five Eyes allies. The United States has a special court empowered under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct secret trials and impose secret punishments. 

By contrast, no national security issues are at stake in the extradition proceedings in Vancouver.

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, under house arrest in Canada, facing extradition to the United States (Photo: CBC).

Regardless, the urge for the prime minister to thump the podium for the hometown press was understandable, especially in the face of constant heckling by Opposition Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who argues preposterously that taking harsher line with China would somehow help to free the Two Michaels. 

But like the frequently repeated claim Canada has no choice but to hold Ms. Meng and hand her over to U.S. authorities, because to do otherwise would supposedly go against the rule of law, this is not particularly helpful.

In light of the spurious nature of the U.S. charges, Canada would hardly be ignoring the rule of law by allowing Ms. Meng to return to China. Since her detention was obviously intended to placate the Trump Administration, our government could end it at any time without damage to our extradition law. 

And by arresting two men whose resumes suggest they were well positioned for spying, the Chinese government seems to have been trying to make the case it is the party acting in accordance with the rule of law and the rules-based international order, unlike the U.S. government that Canada was assisting.

Meanwhile, Ms. Meng’s Canadian lawyers have been arguing Canadian police and customs officials denied her access to a key witness, questioned her on matters only of interest to U.S. police, and tried to help American FBI agents hack into her electronic devices. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, who arguably helped get Canada into this mess (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons).

So what is to be done before a verdict is rendered against Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig and it becomes much more difficult to extract our citizens from China’s prison system? 

Instead of crossing our fingers and outsourcing their rescue to the United States – which has an obvious interest in leaving them where they are – maybe it’s time for Canada to act like the sovereign nation we insist we are and talk to China ourselves, as we were quite capable of doing when our prime minister’s father occupied the same office.

Seriously, does Mr. Trudeau require the permission of the United States to pick up the phone and ask to speak to the president of China? If he does, we can stop pretending right now to be a sovereign nation. 

The Biden Administration might not like it if he did. The U.S. State Department certainly wouldn’t. Global Affairs Canada would probably break out in hives. But so what? It’s said here we would earn more respect among the family of nations by calling the highest Chinese official who would answer than by kowtowing to the empire next door. 

What’s more, there’s no reason Mr. Trudeau couldn’t tell Mr. Biden, who so recently was singing his praises, “Let’s you and I work together to share the credit for accomplishing something while we still can!” 

U.S. President Joseph Biden (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons).

Perhaps we could even do some good for the other 120 or so Canadians imprisoned in China, who for some reason our government is not nearly as enthusiastic about repatriating. 

U.S. officials might grumble, but we would earn more respect from Americans for doing that too.

If we send Ms. Meng to the United States to disappear into its penal Gulag, China will naturally pivot to negotiating with her kidnappers. We will be written off as irrelevant by the leaders of the world’s second largest economy, perhaps soon the largest. 

In addition to earning the contempt of the world, recent history suggests we would get nothing from the United States for our co-operation except to be taken even more for granted. 

Of course the Conservatives won’t like it. But they have nothing to offer but pointless belligerence and pipsqueak sabre rattling. 

So what about it, Mr. Trudeau? Are you a prime minister or a mouse? 

Join the Conversation


  1. Nice use of the word ‘kowtow’!

    You are offering Trudeau a tightrope, but he lacks the skill to start along it or the strength to persevere upon it. For him, better to be a safe mouse on the ground than a clown falling from a tightrope. He may even be one of those who holds that it’s beneficial, to the righteous cause of bad relations with China, to loose 2 Canadians.

    Aside from that, if we blame Trump and let Ms. Meng return to China, and then Republicans win the next American election, we are in another awkward spot.

    Not to say I wouldn’t cheer for Canada if we did do the right thing! 😀

    thank you, good start to my day

  2. Ok, David, so Trudeau bad. However, think of the alternative.

    Do you, or anyone else believe that if Erin O’Toole, or (gasp), Harper was prime minister things would be any different?

    It’s not us, it them. By “us” I mean Canadians and their government, and by “them” I mean the Chinese government.

  3. Well, he is our Prime Minister, for the moment.

    One might be wiser to contemplate the mouthings of the presumptive replacement to this Prime Minister, if one was so dissatisfied by the character of one’s Prime Minister.
    (K)Erin the Fool is desperately trying to get his party faithful to turn and look to the future instead of their generations-long gaze into the past. It’s the only play the conservatives have.
    It’s entirely unlikely that the conservative mob will change their ways, it is, after all, all they’ve got. Mr. O’Tool will become known as only the fifth leader in 2 years.
    In the entirely unlikely event that the conservative mob demur and begin to, at least speak, of a different future we’ll see Mr. O’Tools slide down that slippery slope of saying one thing while meaning another altogether. There is no chance that conservatives will embrace any future that does not look exactly like the past they imagine.

    We citizens do not get an opportunity to elect a wise, courageous, thoughtful and careful person – ever. We do, however, get to choose, once every 4 years or so, a person as Prime Minister. That person is, as all of us are, frail and mortal and prone to error. The best we can hope for is not an absence of these but one who is willing to carry our burden and take our advice.

    1. Nice thoughts Ranger but completely unrelated to OPs blog post. Actually you’re deflecting away from the point, this isn’t about Erin O’Toole or even Justin Trudeau, this is about what what the govt of Canada could and maybe should do. But just DO something. DJC has noted some possibilities of why our govt isn’t doing ANYTHING. Do you have an opinion on that?

      “…saying one thing while meaning another altogether.” Do you think maybe JT is quite happy to have Kovrig, Spavor, and 120 other Canadians locked up in China? He’s certainly using it for political purposes isn’t he? If it wasn’t for this what would they use to get us to hate China? Complaining about Canadian drug traffickers jailed in China wasn’t working so well. Yes I’m beginning to think there are influential people who like things just the way they are.

      Dealing directly with China would help salvage our stature in the international community. Pick up the phone JT…

  4. Well David I could not agree more with you but tell me the name of any Canadian prime minister since Pierre Trudeau that has not been a mouse? Somehow we cannot grow up.
    Also if Canada is so upset with China why instead of this diplomatic circus we do not go to the root of the matter and reduce trade with them drastically? Why do we not stop allowing Canadian companies from exploiting cheap labour in China and ban any products that are made in China from Canadian Companies? Well the reason is simple. When it comes to money nothing matters even if China treats us like we are nobodies.
    This is all a darn farce and although I cannot prove it, the issue here is that I had no put my hands in the fire for either government on whether or not they are lying about these people being spies.
    Are you sure they are not spies? I for one do not believe the Chinese government one nanometer but neither do I trust our own government.
    Does any of you readers?
    And yes why are the Mikes so different from the other 120 you mentioned?

  5. According to the G&M’s Robert Fife the main mover and shaker behind Ms. Meng’s arrest was Robert Bolton, the then US Sec of State. Maybe if Trudeau went ahead and released Meng would anybody really care in the current US administration?

  6. I am mystified! Most don’t care about some whacked adventurer trying to build a free trade agreement with North Korea, when some cheap con man dismantles democracy here at home! Alberta politics. Stick to your knitting! Jeebus chief! Ball? Eye? WTF?

  7. Reposting these from yesterday in case you missed it:

    Iranian doctor Majid Taheri was taken hostage by the US (the pretext was a sanctions technicality). The Americans then released him in a prisoner swap. No mention of any “rule of law” issue.

    The US also took medical researcher Masoud Soleimani hostage on sanctions pretexts.
    They had no “rule of law” problems swapping him either:

  8. This should be called the M&Ms scandal in the history books. That’s 1M & 2Ms. Kim Jong-un is that added extra neon-colored chocolate-coated nut: Kim’s Inconvenience.

  9. The advice Trudeau received in 2018 came out in an access to information request last year: do not politicize extradition. “The minister (of Justice) has broad discretion to decide but (that) discretion cannot be exercised arbitrarily,” his then-national security adviser Greta Bossenmaier concluded. ”Note there are no examples of the minister discharging a case for political or diplomatic reasons.” That seems like good advice to me.

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