Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion is being criticized for staying silent in a news conference earlier this week after Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, unleashed a tirade on a Canadian reporter.
The reporter had asked Dion about human rights in China – specifically the case of Kevin Garratt, a Canadian detained since Aug. 2014 and charged with stealing state secrets.
Wang reacted angrily and called the reporter’s question ”unacceptable” and that it was “full of prejudice against China and arrogance.”
At the time, Dion didn’t defend the journalist. Asked about the incident Friday on a teleconference from Paris, Dion said he felt the journalist could fend for herself.
“I consider Madame Connolly a professional with a thick skin and she doesn’t need me to come to her rescue.”
Opposition MPs felt Dion’s comments didn’t get to the heart of the issue.
“Completely beside the point,” said Conservative MP Tony Clement.
“This is not about whether a reporter can take or not take a barb directed at her. This is about the fact that Mr. Wang was calling into question the very bedrock principle of freedom of the press.”
“I think it’s a real mistake. I think he missed an opportunity to say in Canada we have a fundamental principle that we adhere to, that all Canadians adhere to,” said NDP MP Peter Julian.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a tougher message later in the day, reiterating his position that asking such questions is a key part of the media’s role.
“I have expressed our dissatisfaction to both the Chinese foreign minister and the ambassador to Canada the dissatisfaction with the way our journalists were treated.”
In an interview airing Sunday on The West Block with Tom Clark, former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said Canada has come out of the encounter looking weak and that could affect trade negotiations.
“It’s going to make it difficult for the government which is anxious to have some kind of free trade arrangement with China… to be able to frame this so that we don’t look as a supplicant,” said Robertson.
Senator Jim Munson said Trudeau may be able to make up for the incident, but it will mean taking a tough stance when the prime minister does visit China.
”Absolutely Mr. Trudeau has to speak in strong language. At least it would give our country a good feeling that our prime minister can speak out, not just for journalists, but for free speech,” Munson said.