THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 46, Season 10
Sunday, September 26, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Michael Kovrig, Freed Canadian Detainee
Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife (separated)
Ariana Botha, Michael Kovrig’s Sister
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader
Location: Ottawa, ON
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Imprisoned for 1,020 days in China. The two Michaels are free at last.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “About 12 minutes ago, the aircraft carrying Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor left Chinese airspace.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Hostages no longer, as they touchdown on Canadian soil.
Michael Kovrig, Freed Canadian Detainee: “Knowing that so many Canadians and others, who were aware of our situation and sending messages of support, really meant a lot to us so thank you. Thank everybody for that.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Their freedom granted just hours after a U.S. extradition request for Meng Wanzhou was dropped.
Ariana Botha, Michael Kovrig’s Sister: “I’m just still learning how to breathe again, because I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for almost three years.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The dramatic reversal from Beijing’s claims the cases weren’t linked.
Cong Peiwu, China’s Ambassador to Canada: “There is no connection between these cases. They are totally different.”
Mercedes Stephenson: What are the lessons of hostage diplomacy for Canadian foreign policy? And will Ottawa now ban Huawei? Foreign Minister Marc Garneau is on the show.
It’s September 26th, and this is The West Block.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor arrived back in Canada under the cover of darkness, accompanied by Canada’s Ambassador to China Dominic Barton. The operation was so sensitive that the Canadian Government did not even reveal the two men were on their way home until after their plane had left Chinese airspace. Few expected the two Michaels to be released so quickly by China who had long denied a connection between the cases of Meng Wanzhou and the Canadians, but what a welcome surprise. After nearly three years of watching and waiting, the Country can celebrate.
The West Block was able to quickly catch up with Michael Kovrig, his wife Vina Nadjibulla, and his sister, Ariana Botha at Ariana’s home in Toronto just hours after he arrived.
Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife (separated): “Hi Mercedes.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The family was eager to thank Canadians for their support and the overwhelming joy and relief at being together again was clear.
Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife (separated): “It’s amazing.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Here is what they had to say.
Hello Michael, Vina and Ariana. Welcome home! We are so excited to see you. This is just an incredible moment. Michael, what do you want to say to Canadians?
Michael Kovrig, Freed Canadian Detainee: I just want to say thank you very much, to all Canadians for the enormous support and all the effort that so many people have made to help bring Michael Spavor and me home, it was really moving. And knowing that so many people that knew about the situation, cared about the situation, really helped us get through a very difficult time, and we are so happy now. I’m so delighted to be back home with my family and to be back in Canada, and I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with friends and family and finally getting out and seeing all the beauty of Canada. So I am immensely happy and thank you so much.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well we are all just ecstatic to have you home.
Vina, how does this feel for you? You have fought so hard for Michael’s freedom. We have talked to you so many times. You’ve just been an absolute warrior. What a day for you, how are you?
Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife (separated): I feel fantastic, Mercedes. It has been an incredible day. I’m speechless. It’s hard to find the right words right now, but oceans of gratitude, enormous amount of relief and just joy that this day has finally come that Michael is home, that he’s safe, that he’s healthy and that we finally got here, right? We brought them home and this is because of all the Canadians who have been with us every step of the way. Just two weeks ago, we walked for them, 7,000 steps for their freedom and here they are free at last in Canada. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: What was the moment like when you first saw Michael stepping off the plane and you were able to embrace him?
Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife (separated): Hard to describe.
Michael Kovrig, Freed Canadian Detainee: Indescribably intense, let’s just say, and leave it at that. Thank you.
Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife (separated): Thank you. Yes. We just need some time now to heal and to rest.
Michael Kovrig, Freed Canadian Detainee: Exactly.
Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife (separated): But thank you so much, Mercedes, and everyone. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Can I ask you what you have planned for tonight? What’s the first thing that you want to go and do? Is there a favourite meal or drink or…?
Ariana Botha, Michael Kovrig’s Sister: Oh yeah, I haven’t asked you. We’re ordering in tonight.
Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife (separated): We haven’t gotten there yet. We’ll get there, but thank you. Thank you so much.
Michael Kovrig, Freed Canadian Detainee: I haven’t planned that far ahead.
Ariana Botha, Michael Kovrig’s Sister: Whatever he wants. Whatever he wants.
Mercedes Stephenson: Absolutely.
Ariana Botha, Michael Kovrig’s Sister: I’ll make it happen.
Michael Kovrig, Freed Canadian Detainee: I’m running on about—I’m running on about two hours of sleep in the last 24 plus hours so I don’t have any exciting plans just yet.
Mercedes Stephenson: I think that’s a very well-deserved nap. But we’re so glad to have you with us. Thank you so much for making time for us. We don’t want to intrude on your family time any further. We wish you the absolute best. We hope to talk to you again soon. All of our love to you and please take care of yourselves.
Michael Kovrig, Freed Canadian Detainee: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife (separated): Thank you. Thank you so much, Mercedes. Bye.
Ariana Botha, Michael Kovrig’s Sister: Bye.
Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now is Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau. Thank you for making time for us, minister. Can you take us through that moment when you found out that the two Michaels were coming home?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, Mercedes, it was certainly a very emotional moment because we’ve been working on this file, as you know, for a very, very long time and to actually reach that point where we knew that the two Michaels were coming home, and to be there especially as I was in Calgary on Saturday morning, to see them touch down on Canadian soil, was something I will remember my entire life. It was a moment that I think of happiness that was share by all Canadians. It was certainly very, very clear yesterday, the outpouring of joy across the country.
Mercedes Stephenson: Absolutely, a very joyful moment. Rare good news, which everybody was celebrating. Can you tell me a little bit, minister, about what role your government played in getting the two Michaels freed? I mean, obviously, the U.S. dropped the extradition request, but what was the discussion like between you and your Chinese counterpart and you and your American counterpart?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well some of these details will come out in due course, but we had always been very much engaged with the United States, I, myself, with Secretary Lincoln, the prime minister with the president. They realized how important it was for us to find a way to get the two Michaels home. And I have to also say that our ambassador in China, Dominic Barton, who was very engaged on the Chinese side so it all came together. The moment when it came together was when the decision was made with respect to the judicial proceedings and arriving at what’s called a differed prosecution agreement. That was really the moment when we felt we had turned the corner collectively and that enabled the return of the two Michaels.
Mercedes Stephenson: I think the speed of the return shocked a lot of people, including China experts who thought that China might want to save face. It could be days, weeks or months before they were released. Instead, thankfully it was hours. But it very clearly makes the case that what China was denying that these two cases were connected or that this was not hostage diplomacy, go out the window. Obviously, there was a very strong connection there. Will there be a consequence for China for practicing hostage diplomacy?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well as you know, we made that point repeatedly throughout the past 1,019 days that this was a manufactured arbitrary detention, directly related to the fact that Canada respecting the rule of law had detained Meng Wanzhou as part of our respect for our extradition treaty with the United States. We have, as you know, since February, built a very strong multilateral support on the question of the declaration on arbitrary detention in state to state relations. There are now 65 countries that have been supportive and very loudly supportive of the fact that you cannot—you cannot arbitrarily detain the citizens of another country simply because you have a disagreement with the country that you’re dealing with. And I think that voice is continuing to grow and that it will eventually cause countries that use arbitrary detention to reconsider.
Mercedes Stephenson: Will Canada take a very direct position on this with China, though, now that the two Michaels are home? For example, is your government considering sanctions against China?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, of course, we imposed sanctions in the case of their treatment of the Uighurs. Our relationship, and let me say that there was no path to a relation with China as long as the two Michaels were detained. Our eyes have been wide open from the beginning and we know that this is a complex relationship with China and it’s evolved over the past years, but our approach has been consistent. It’s four-fold. We co-exist with China. We’re on the same planet. We compete with them; trade is an example of it. In some cases, we need to cooperate because there are global issues, such as climate change. The upcoming COP26 conference is going to be extremely important. China is the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world and yes, sometimes we will challenge China, as we did on their arbitrary detention of the two Michaels, as we did on their treatment of the Uighurs, the people of Hong Kong, the Tibetans, and we’re going to continue to challenge China as we move forward. So the relationship is a complex one, but our eyes are wide open.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Garneau, what happens with Huawei now because your government had been putting this off, we’re the only country in the Five Eyes who has not restricted or banned the company’s operations here in Canada. A lot of folks thought that was because the two Michaels were in prison in China and that their lives were potentially at risk. That’s no longer the case, so will your government take action on Huawei and will you restrict or ban them in Canada?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: Canada will make its decision with respect to Huawei 5G and we’ve said from the beginning that this will be based on ensuring the security of our telecommunications system in our country. So that has been our position from the start and, you know, in due course, we will make that decision.
Mercedes Stephenson: I think a lot of people wonder, though, why wait? Why not simply say this behaviour was inappropriate by China? We do not accept hostage diplomacy and the consequence is that Huawei 5G is banned here.
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: So, we have been very clear on the unacceptable behaviour of China with respect to the arbitrary detention of the two Michaels and we’ve said it loud and clear. With respect to Huawei 5G, we’ve also said that our primary consideration is ensuring the security of our telecommunication system. And when we’re ready to make that decision, we will make it.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you support Canadian athletes participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics in China?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: So here again, we have been clear on our position. It is up to the International Olympic Committee to make decisions with respect to the location, the venue and it is up to the Canadian Olympic community to make its decision with respect to the participation of the athletes and they have made that decision at this point in time with respect to the participation of Canadian athletes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is your view that that’s the appropriate decision, though? Do you think that Canadians should still be going in light of the fact that this is a government that took two or our citizen’s hostage arbitrary for almost three years?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: We’ve been very clear on the areas where we have accused China of arbitrary detention, where we have criticized China with respect to the human rights records and we will continue to do that. But we’ve also said that the Olympics themselves is a decision that is made by the Canadian Olympic Committee because it is responsible for Canada’s athletes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, would you be concerned about Canadians who are in China right now? Do you think that perhaps there should be some kind of a travel warning for folks who are thinking about going there on vacation or for business that they could potentially be at risk in China if it doesn’t like something else the Canadian Government does, may take it out on innocent Canadians who happen to be in their country.
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: So Canada always publishes what are called travel advisories, and I would encourage all Canadians who are going to any country in the world to go the Global Affairs Canada website and check the travel advisory with respect to a particular country. Ultimately, it is a decision that is made by the citizens who decide that they’re going to go to a particular country, but we strongly advise them to check the Global Affairs Canada travel advisory.
Mercedes Stephenson: But do you think that Canadians who are in China are potentially at risk, that there is a danger there as the foreign affairs minister?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: We recommend that they check the travel advisory and it’s very explicit with respect to that. So Canadians ultimately need to make their own decisions for their own particular reasons with respect to it. They’re all aware of what happened with respect to the two Michaels, but they most ultimately make their decisions.
Mercedes Stephenson: Looking at Canada’s relationship with the Five Eyes, with other countries, your government has faced some criticism over the deal that the United States with Australia and others. Folks are saying Canada has been sidelined from discussion with China that we’re being excluded, we’re being left behind. Do you believe that’s true?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, the prime minister, I think said it very clearly. This was an agreement between Australia, the U.K., and the United States with respect to Australia acquiring nuclear submarines. That’s what it was about. Canada does not have any plans for acquiring nuclear submarines. With respect to our security and defence partnerships, they’re very strong. Whether it’s with NATO, whether it’s with NORAD, whether it’s with the Five Eyes, they’re a very robust set of relationships and they will continue to be.
Mercedes Stephenson: What does the Canada-China relationship look like going forward now? What is our foreign policy towards China?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: As I said, it’s a wide open—eyes wide open policy with respect to them and as I said, the relation was not going to be developed any further while the two Michaels were being detained. But as I said, we will coexist. We will compete. We will cooperate in areas where we need to cooperate, such as climate change, and we will challenge China. Whether it’s on human rights or whether it’s on arbitrary detention, when appropriate.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Garneau, thank you so much for making time for us this morning. We appreciate it, sir.
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: My pleasure. Thank you very much, Mercedes.
Up next after the break, after the open for summer policy, skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 in Alberta, we’ll speak to the NDP Leader Rachel Notley about what’s happening in that province.
Mercedes Stephenson: The fourth wave of COVID-19 is hitting Alberta so hard, the Canadian military is deploying into the province to help the overwhelmed ICUs and to transfer patients out of the province to other parts of the country. The crisis has forced Premier Jason Kenney to shuffle his cabinet, removing Health Minister—or former Health Minister now—Tyler Shandro, from that role.
Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: “As this crisis evolves, so too must our response to it. And so, I have accepted Minister Shandro’s resignation as minister of health. It is time for a fresh start.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The move has not stemmed the tide of criticism or calls for Kenney’s resignation who is fighting for his political life.
Joining us now to talk about this is Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley. Thank you for joining us today, Ms. Notley. Can you describe what the situation is in Alberta right now?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: Well we’re in a very dire set of circumstances right now as I speak to you. We’re at a point where we are one bad short of having to go into a triage protocol, where health care workers are literally making the decision between the lives of two equally urgent patients because not both of them can get the care that they urgently need to stay alive and that is—that’s tragic and it’s devastating. It’s devastating for those patients, obviously, it’s for their families, for these health care workers and of course, it was entirely avoidable. And so now we’re trying to figure out the fastest, best way to steer out of this emergency, but we’re certainly not hearing much from the premier or the cabinet or anybody in the UCP in terms of how to get there.
Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think needs to happen in Alberta right now to do that, to pull the province out of this emergency?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: Well we’ve been proposing a number of different things over the last few weeks. But most recently, because of the political turmoil within the UCP and the fact that now Jason Kenney has to campaign for the next few months for his leadership to people that he himself describe as being against public health measures, against vaccines, against masking, I just literally don’t believe that he or his cabinet are equipped to make these decisions. I think over the last several months we’ve seen fundamentally and categorically that they’re not, and if anything that situation has just gotten worse as a result of the fact that he’s now in a leadership campaign for his own party. And so we’ve suggested that we have the CMOH act more independently, but because the degree to which he’s been differing to the premier and his cabinet over the last 18 months has somewhat compromised people’s desire to listen to her that we also, through regulation, attach her to a science panel that would make recommendations transparently, openly on a regular basis and there would be sort of an open conversation that would grow, I think, in the long run, the trust of Albertans as we use science and evidence and best opinions of the experts to steer ourselves out of this—out of the emergency that we’ve driven ourselves into.
Mercedes Stephenson: Some say that, you know, Dr. Deena Hinshaw has been, as you kind of put it, differed too much to Jason Kenney. That said, if you put her in charge and you remove the politicians, aren’t the politicians the people who have been elected to deal with this kind of a crisis? Do you there’s any kind of a risk there in terms of setting a precedent that during a crisis you have people who are unelected making the decisions even if the decisions of the elected people are under heavy criticism?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: Well, you know that’s a really, really good point and it’s absolutely not the situation that we want to be in. But we are in a fourth wave because of politically motivated decision after politically decision after politically motivated decision. We have a premier who defied the advice of experts across the country, opened up too soon and then went away and went dark for weeks after weeks. So he made a decision that created an emergency and then he refused to deal with it for weeks afterwards and even now, he’s still refusing to deal with it in a meaningful way. And so at a certain point, when your political leadership becomes so devastatingly incapable of managing the crisis, then you have to look at another option. So you’re right, it’s not comfortable. But when we proposed it, we equated it a little to, you know, you don’t have the cabinet-making decisions about who gets criminally charged and who doesn’t. There’s a fundamental principle of independence that goes in place there, and for this short period of time that’s what should happen here and quite honestly, the act already gives the CMOH that level of independence. She’s just never chosen to use it. She’s always chosen to differ to Jason Kenney and his cabinet, and so we’re suggesting that they specifically direct her to exercise that independence and they pulled themselves out of it because they’re simply too conflicted with each other and their own political self-interest to lead in the way Albertans need.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that Premier Kenney should resign?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: You know, I honestly think that that level of chaos is not what is front and centre in the minds of most Albertans right now. They want their ICUs to be there for them if they are in an accident. I also think that honestly, the rot is very deep. What we know from what people have said over the last few weeks is that every member of that UCP caucus knew for anywhere from four to six weeks that the open for summer plan was failing and that the hospitals were filling up at a right that was unsustainable. And every one of them sat on their hands. So there’s a big problem within that whole organization. So whether he steps down, he doesn’t step down, ultimately, you know, there’s going to have to be accountability and he is the leader, but I don’t know that there’s any obvious better path at this point and certainly, I don’t think Albertans need an election right now. So really, right now, I think we’ve just got to find the most pragmatic and effective path towards getting our province out of this emergency and then we can start talking a little bit more about the politics and of course, I’m the Official Opposition leader, I’m all about the politics. But I think that we can get to that conversation once our ICUs are equipped to care for Albertans when they have emergency life and death needs.
Mercedes Stephenson: Rachel Notley, Leader of the Opposition in Alberta, thank you for joining us today. We send our very best to the people in Alberta.
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: The West Block will be right back after a quick break.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for watching. We’ll be right back here, next Sunday. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, for The West Block.