Liberal members of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee on Tuesday rejected a request from opposition members to study whether the government applied undue pressure on former career diplomats amid reports two were asked to stop speaking out about China.
The government-controlled committee met Tuesday in Ottawa after Conservative MPs Erin O’Toole, Leona Alleslev and Ziad Aboultaif, as well as the NDP’s Guy Caron made a request to study the issue and said they intended to try to call Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland as a witness along with Paul Thoppil, assistant deputy minister for Asia-Pacific at Global Affairs Canada.
They had also sought to call David Mulroney and Guy Saint-Jacques, both former Canadian ambassadors to China.
But the Liberal members said they would not support that bid, with Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, arguing instead that “there is no story here” and politics should be put aside in dealing with China given the two Canadians detained there now.
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“I think there are times … in politics, in public policy, in our Canadian shared life that we let some of that go and we actually think primarily, as the government has been doing since December, about two Canadians who are held arbitrarily in China in conditions that are horrendous, belittling and have demanded tremendous courage,” said Oliphant.
“There should be nothing more on our minds right now than on ensuring their safety.”
Conservative and NDP members of the committee used their statements to try to link the reports to other scandals involving allegations of political overreach and interference; namely, the SNC-Lavalin scandal and the Vice-Adm. Mark Norman affair.
Leona Alleslev, Conservative critic for global security, accused the government of having “engaged in a pattern of behaviour that attempts to silence and muzzle any form of criticism” both in those instances and in the current matter.
Michael Barrett, who is not normally on the committee but took the place of another member on Tuesday, also referenced both cases.
“We think it’s time to let sunshine in so we can disinfect the situation,” he said. “Canadians don’t need another scandal. They need the truth.”
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Mulroney and Saint-Jacques both told media last week they received phone calls from Thoppil on July 19 and July 22 asking them to get government clearance before making public comments on Canadian policies regarding China and, in Mulroney’s case, not to caution Canadians against travel to China.
Mulroney also described Thoppil’s remarks as referring to the “election environment.”
“In this time, he said, of high tension and in an election environment, we all need to be very, very careful,” Mulroney was quoted as saying by the Globe and Mail, which first reported on the story. “He said … ‘I’ve been asked by PMO: before you comment on aspects of China policy, it would be good if you called in and got the latest from us on what we’re doing.’”
Mulroney, who was ambassador to China from 2008 to 2012, said he refused to do so.
Saint-Jacques, ambassador from 2012 to 2016, described the call he received from Thoppil as “clumsy.”
“He wanted me to know that PMO just wanted him to relay the hope that we could all speak with one voice to support the strategy of the government,” Saint-Jacques told the Globe and Mail. “Paul told me PMO just wanted me to know that is what they were hoping: that we could speak with one voice.”
Both he and Saint-Jacques have been frequent commentators on how the government is handling escalating tensions with China given their recent experience in working with the government there.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday denied that his office “directed” the calls.
“I can confirm that the PMO did not direct that to happen,” he said when asked by reporters about the calls.
He did not say whether anyone from his office ever raised concerns about the comments being made by Mulroney or Saint-Jacques to Global Affairs Canada.
Tensions between Canada and China have been heightened since December 2018, when China detained two Canadians on what Trudeau has condemned as arbitrary charges of endangering national security in response to the detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou by Canadian border officials.
That detention came at the behest of American authorities, who charged Meng and her company in January 2019 with 23 charges of skirting sanctions on Iran and corporate espionage.
Meng is currently out on bail and living in her Vancouver home.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians detained in China, have been allowed only limited consular visits and no access to a lawyer and are reportedly being kept in harsh conditions, including lengthy interrogations and not being able to turn out the lights in their cells.