The two men were greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after they landed in Calgary on Saturday morning.
After an exchange with the prime minister, Spavor stayed behind to reunite with his family in Calgary while Kovrig boarded another plane bound for Toronto — where he too would be reunited again with his wife Vina Nadjibullah and sister Ariana Botha.
Trudeau had announced on Friday night that the two men had been released and were on their way back having boarded a plane with Canada’s ambassador to China Dominic Barton.
“Welcome home, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor,” the prime minister said on Twitter.
“You’ve shown incredible strength, resilience, and perseverance. Know that Canadians across the country will continue to be here for you, just as they have been.”
Canada’s Global Affairs Minister, Marc Garneau, also appeared alongside Trudeau at the airport and thanked international partners for helping secure their release.
“We are inspired by the courage and resilience they have shown during this long ordeal,” he wrote on Twitter.
Trudeau’s announcement on Friday came hours after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was released from house arrest in Vancouver and allowed to return home to China after securing a deal to drop U.S. charges against her.
As part of the new deferred prosecution agreement, Meng pleaded not guilty to charges that she committed fraud by misleading the HSBC bank about the company’s business dealings in Iran.
Kovrig, a former diplomat, and businessman Spavor were detained in China days after Meng was arrested at Vancouver’s airport in December 2018 on behalf of the United States.
The two men were convicted on espionage charges in separate trials earlier this year. Spavor was later sentenced to 11 years in prison, while a sentence had yet to be issued for Kovrig.
Canada repeatedly demanded China release the pair, saying they were arbitrarily detained on bogus charges.
Meng was kept under house arrest in one of her Vancouver mansions, while the two Canadians faced harsh conditions in Chinese detention — where they had limited access to the outside world and their families.
Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that Kovrig and Spavor’s arrests were a retaliatory measure, though they had also suggested that the pair could be released if Meng is allowed to return home to China and the case against her is dropped.
“These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal,” Trudeau said during a news conference Friday.
“It is good news for all of us that they are on their way home to their families.”
News of their release was welcomed with a mix of surprise and relief.
Jacco Zwetsloot, a long-time friend of Spavor who lives in Seoul, South Korea, said he did not expect the two men to be freed so quickly after Meng’s release.
“That was beyond my wildest imaginings,” he told Global News. “It was incredible news.”
“I’m just glad that the process is over and that Michael’s ordeal was over and that he’s back with his family in Calgary.”
Jonathan Dunbar, another one of Spavor’s friends, said “this whole thing ended as suddenly as it began”.
Dunbar, who first met Spavor back in 2006, said he was curious to hear from his friend what he went through over last three years in China.
“I want to know what happened, what he experienced, what his side to all these experiences were,” he told Global News.
Kovrig, after having landed in Toronto, told reporters that it was “fantastic” to be back home in Canada and that grateful for everybody that helped to bring both him and Spavor back home.
Experts have since pointed to the cases of the “Two Michaels” as having been politically intertwined with that of the Huawei executive — reinforced especially by the fact that both Kovrig and Spavor were freed shortly after Meng’s release on Friday.
“Even though China has insisted that this is not a case of hostage diplomacy, the fact that the two Michaels were released and sent home immediately following the not guilty verdict of miss Meng — I mean I think it just goes to show that the two sets of cases are very much interrelated and politically motivated,” said Lynette Ong, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
Whether the release of both parties would have any meaningful impact on thawing Canada-China relations, experts were mixed — though some pointed at the damage as “permanent.”
“I think the damage is definitely if, not permanent, it is certainly not temporary,” said Ong.
Jeremy Paltiel, political science professor at Carleton University, said that while it was great news that both Kovrig and Spavor were able to now return home, the fallout from the political spat presented a ‘sad” moment in how much momentum had been lost in Canada-China relations.
“There are no real winners in this case,” said Paltiel.
– With files from Global News’ Bryan Mullan, Jeff Semple, Sean Boynton