A new special parliamentary committee created to examine Canada’s fraught relationship with China is holding its first meeting in Ottawa.
The committee’s creation was the result of a Conservative motion passed in December, thanks to support from other opposition parties in the minority Parliament.
The motion authorizes the committee to order the prime minister, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, to appear as witnesses “from time to time as the committee sees fit.”
Champagne congratulated members of the committee in a letter Monday, where he focused on the importance of Canada’s relationship with China while also reiterating concern over the detention of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
“As you are aware, this is a challenging period in Canada-China bilateral relations,” read Champagne’s letter. “Canada is deeply concerned by China’s actions, including the detention of Canadian citizens.”
Spavor and Kovrig remain without access to lawyers or their families.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said in December the committee will work to address Canada’s current diplomatic dispute with China and help develop a specialized approach to easing the bilateral challenges between the two nations.
China’s move to detain the two was widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the United States, which wants to extradite her on fraud charges related to U.S. sanctions against Iran.
The all-party Canada-China relations committee convened Monday afternoon and was dealing with a series of procedural issues.
Before the meeting, Conservative deputy leader Leona Alleslev said Canada’s ambassador to Canada, Dominic Barton, told her in an email that he is “ready and willing” to testify.
She said it was important that he testify first because he could help the committee understand the government’s strategy towards China.
Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, said government MPs on the committee want to work constructively with the opposition.
“We will operate in good faith,” he told reporters before the meeting. “We have Canadian lives at stake, and we’re going to take that very seriously.”
The meeting comes as Meng’s extradition hearing begins in Vancouver.
China’s foreign ministry reiterated its call for Canada to release Meng.
“The U.S. and Canada abused their bilateral extradition treaty and arbitrarily took compulsory measures against a Chinese citizen without cause,” said spokesman Geng Shuang, according to translated remarks on his ministry’s website.
“This is entirely a serious political incident that grossly violates the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese citizen.”
Meng is free on bail and living in one of her two multimillion-dollar homes in Vancouver.
Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister, said Monday that the well-being and release of Kovrig and Spavor is a “clear priority” for the Liberal government.
“That is at the heart of all the work we are doing and rightly so,” she said in Winnipeg, where she was attending the Liberal cabinet retreat.
Then she defended how the Liberal government has handled the Meng case.
“Our government has been clear that we are a rule of law country and that we honour our extradition treaty commitments,” she said.
“That is what we need to do and that is what we will do.”