Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has confirmed Canadian soldiers are no longer training members of the Chinese military, amid scrutiny following a report that senior civil servants opposed a decision last year to stop training activities with the regime.
A report by The Globe and Mail on Thursday cited documents mistakenly released under access to information laws which said Global Affairs Canada pushed back at the decision by Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance last year to cancel the training.
The training was set to see Canadian soldiers train Chinese soldiers in winter activities at CFB Petawawa.
The matter dominated question period in the House of Commons, with Sajjan blaming the former Conservative government for having signed a military cooperation plan in 2013 with Beijing.
“Because of the agreement that they had signed, this is one of the reasons why we actually changed our approach because of the concerns that the member outlined,” Sajjan said after Conservative defence critic James Bezan asked him to explain why Canadian troops would train Chinese soldiers.
“We will always stand up for Canadians who are arbitrarily detained. This is one of the reasons why we actually stopped our training with the Chinese.”
Bezan was previously parliamentary secretary to Rob Nicholson, the former Conservative defence minister who signed that agreement in 2013.
The revelation came as Canadians across the country marked a grim milestone.
Thursday marked two years since Beijing arbitrarily detained Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have received only limited consular access since they were seized in December 2018.
Beijing has repeatedly linked their arrests with the detention by Canadian authorities several days prior in December 2018 of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in accordance with the longstanding extradition treaty between Canada and the U.S.
American officials have charged Meng and Huawei with dozens of criminal counts related to allegations of skirting sanctions on Iran and stealing corporate secrets.
Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat, was on leave doing research work with the non-profit International Crisis Group as part of a team analyzing Chinese foreign policy.
Brittany Brown, chief of staff for the International Crisis Group, said the team remains “devastated” by his continued detention, adding it casts a discouraging cloud around global relations.
“I thought the worst-case scenario was three months, six months,” she told Global News, noting the group remains concerned that other authoritarian regimes will use the detentions as a model.
“I think we can all imagine those governments are watching it really carefully and they’re seeing that China has pretty much gotten away with holding two Canadians hostage for the last two years with very little impact.”
Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat in China and now senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, expressed similar concerns on Thursday.
He said the federal government’s response so far sends a clear signal to China.
“I think that all of these passive non-responses by our government is sending a signal to the Chinese authorities that hostage diplomacy works,” he said.
“And until such time as we make it clear to the Chinese government that they cannot menace and intimidate us through hostage diplomacy, they will persist with this policy of hostage diplomacy.”
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole called on the government to implement Magnitsky sanctions on Chinese officials, freezing their assets and finances here in Canada.
He also called the report of senior officials opposing Vance’s move to cancel winter training “disturbing.”
“China does not act like a partner or a friend,” he said. “Communist China acts against human rights and the rule of law consistently. … The government needs to wake up.”
— With files from Global’s Marc-Andre Cossette.