Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says heeding a recent call from some prominent Canadians to politically intervene to end the extradition proceedings against Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou “will imperil thousands of Canadians travelling in China and around the world.”
More than a dozen former federal cabinet ministers and diplomats signed a letter earlier this week urging Trudeau to have his justice minister order an end to the proceedings, which are moving along under the terms of the extradition treaty between Canada and the U.S.
In that letter, the former officials said that Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor will likely remain in “indefinite confinement” until Meng is allowed to return to China and because of that, Canada should cave to demands from Beijing to politically intervene in her case.
Trudeau said that would embolden China and other countries that might view Canadians are bargaining chips.
“If countries around the world, including China, realize that by arbitrarily arresting random Canadians they can get what they want out of Canada politically, well, that makes an awful lot more Canadians who travel around the world vulnerable to that kind of pressure,” he said.
“I respect these individuals, but they’re wrong in their approach.”
The letter was signed by individuals including Allan Rock, former federal justice minister, and former foreign affairs ministers Lloyd Axworthy, Lawrence Cannon and André Oullet.
Robert Fowler, former foreign policy advisor to former prime ministers Pierre Trudeau, John Turner and Brian Mulroney — and himself a former hostage — also signed it.
Louise Arbour, the former Supreme Court justice, also signed on.
Arbour is also the former president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, for which Kovrig was working in China at the time of his detention.
It came on the heels of reporting about a legal opinion written by Toronto extradition lawyer Brian Greenspan that noted Canadian extradition law allows for the “discretion” of the justice minister on whether to intervene to shut down a proceeding.
There are three phases in a Canadian extradition proceeding: authority to proceed, the judicial phase and the ministerial phase.
The justice minister must issue an authority to proceed in order for a case to begin moving through a Canadian court: this was issued by the Department of Justice in May 2019, and can technically be withdrawn at any time throughout the proceeding, though that is extremely rare.
The judicial phase, which determines whether there are sufficient grounds to extradite Meng to the U.S., is currently underway and could take several years.
In the final ministerial phase, the justice minister must decide whether to sign off on a judicial decision to extradite and approve actually sending the individual to the country requesting their extradition.
Critics of the Greenspan opinion argue that while the power technically exists, using it to withdraw the recently-issued authority to proceed would set a precedent for ministerial intervention in more cases and potentially jeopardize the reliability of the extradition treaty process.
Many in fields like constitutional law, international relations and others also warned a concession would only embolden Beijing to detain others the next time it has a diplomatic or political dispute with Canada.
Phil Gurski, president of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting, said while he was surprised to hear Trudeau be so firm in rejecting the suggestion, he thinks it is the wisest move to protect the most Canadians.
“It sends the message that Canada is willing to pay groups or states that illegally capture our citizens,” he said. “For a terrorist group, it’s easy money. For a state, it’s: ‘I can get away with it down the road.'”
Gurski, also a former strategic analyst for CSIS, said he understands why the families of Kovrig and Spavor would “move heaven and earth” to try to get them back, but that he doesn’t understand why so many former federal officials thought it was a wise move for them.
“I’m shocked that someone who served time in government would say it’s okay to pay a ransom to a state who has completely without reason, any justification, been holding two Canadians,” he said.
Global News asked Gurski whether a generational divide could be at play between older political and diplomatic officials who spent much of their careers watching the world working to build bridges with China and still believe those lead down a path that at least appears to be receptive to Canadian interests.
However, the face China shows the world today is very different from the one it showed then.
“Former Liberal governments, there’s no question they have been accused of kowtowing to China … in a sense then, when these people call for us to do a deal with the Chinese, they’re just following what they did when they were in power which is trying to establish a relationship,” he said.
“Having a relationship is better than no relationship at all on the international stage, but you have to stand up for your values.”
He added there’s also no way to guarantee China would actually release the two Michaels — or that if it did, that Beijing wouldn’t just seize more a few months down the road the next time a dispute emerges.
Trudeau has insisted the government is working both publicly and behind the scenes to push China to release the two Canadians, who Beijing is accusing of espionage.
Meanwhile, 12 Canadian senators — mainly Conservatives but also a number of Trudeau-appointees — urged the government this week to use Magnitsky sanctions to freeze the assets of high-level Chinese officials over human rights abuses, including the detention of Kovrig and Spavor.
Trudeau said he understands the difficulties that the families of Kovrig and Spavor are going through as their loved ones endure detention, but that the risks of intervening are too significant to ignore.
“The idea of solving a short-term situation by creating a precedent that demonstrates to China that all they or another country has to do is randomly arrest a handful of Canadians … would endanger the millions of Canadians who live and travel overseas every year,” he said.
“We cannot allow political pressure or random arrests of Canadian citizens to influence the functioning of our justice system.”
Canadian authorities arrested Meng in December 2018 at the behest of American authorities, who charged her and her company the following month with dozens of counts related to allegedly skirting sanctions on Iran and stealing corporate secrets.
Just days after Meng’s arrest, China detained Kovrig and Spavor.
In the year-and-a-half since, officials in Beijing have repeatedly linked the cases and suggested any release of the two Michaels will only come if Meng is allowed to avoid the judicial proceedings.
With files from Global’s Sean Boynton and Beatrice Britneff.