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Michael Chan leads on a trade mission to China in April. (David Hogsholt, David Høgsholt/David Hogsholt, David Høgsholt)
Michael Chan leads on a trade mission to China in April. (David Hogsholt, David Høgsholt/David Hogsholt, David Høgsholt)

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The making of Michael Chan Add to ...

Michael Chan is a rare politician. Ontario’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade considers himself a middleman between domestic and foreign interests, a commercial conduit between his province and the Middle Kingdom.

“For me, it is how I am able to bridge Canada and China,” he told The Globe and Mail in an interview in his Queen’s Park office. “I can be in a position to promote both jurisdictions for the benefit of the people. I think that’s important.”

But Mr. Chan’s bridge-building mission once troubled the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. As The Globe reported on Tuesday, CSIS was concerned the minister was too close to the Chinese consulate, prompting a senior official to formally caution the province about the minister’s alleged conduct in a briefing that took place in the weeks around August, 2010.

The focus on Mr. Chan comes as Canada moves closer to populous, powerful China, needing its economic muscle but wary of its strong-arm tactics on domestic and overseas opponents. The country’s largest province craves those business links to China, and Mr. Chan is its man. But in this delicate environment, CSIS officials were not the only ones expressing leeriness about Mr. Chan’s ties to China.

Read Michael Chan's open letter about The Globe and Mail stories.

Like any diaspora, the Chinese community is not monolithic. There are more than 1.3 million Canadians of Chinese descent, and they are divided along political lines. While Mr. Chan has many supporters in the Liberal and business communities, his pro-Beijing views can be polarizing.

His myriad critics point to several instances of conduct that they view as alarming for a minister of citizenship and immigration. Mr. Chan supported the deal between the Toronto District School Board and the Confucius Institute, the controversial Mandarin language and culture program run by the Chinese government. He was quoted making florid, pro-Beijing comments to a state-run Chinese newspaper at Tiananmen Square in which he repeatedly referred to China as “my motherland.” He has also hired two aides with controversial pasts: one who has a history of organizing protests and counterprotests that advance the Chinese agenda, the other who was implicated in censoring anti-China sentiment from a Chinese-language daily newspaper.

Over the past 10 months, The Globe has interviewed dozens of leaders, journalists and activists in the community, some of whom express deep concern about Mr. Chan’s clout, especially of late. In the past year, he has been a mentor to a cadre of provincial and federal Liberals running for office, which has triggered both criticism and trepidation among pro-democratic community members.

“He has a lot of influence and used it to build up a network of pro-China candidates,” said Cheuk Kwan, chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China. “My worry is that he’s promoting a lot of candidates who don’t have the qualifications – except, ‘I’m Chinese, vote for me.’”

Mr. Chan is a valuable link to the growing political bloc of Mandarin voters. In the Greater Toronto Area, Mandarin is the city’s fastest-growing language spoken at home, increasing by 32 per cent during the same time period. Cantonese speakers, on the other, have declined by 11 per cent.

Courtship of the “ethnic vote” in Canada stretches back further than Confederation. But China is different from other homelands. After the United States, it is Canada’s most important bilateral partner, both in trade and kinship: Many Canadians of Chinese extraction see China as not just the sacred ground of their ancestors; they – like many other Canadians – see it as the economic future.

But China, having evolved from 20th-century socialism into a formidable practitioner of state capitalism, remains a police state – the biggest ever seen – that terrorizes and tortures political foes, religious groups and ethnic minorities. Its spying on trade partners grows ever more blatant. None of this is a cozy fit with Canadian values of due process, democracy and accommodation.

In an interview last winter, Canada’s former ambassador to China, David Mulroney, said his country cannot afford to be isolationist, but it also can’t be blind to its own vulnerabilities. “We’re going to have to grow up and get much better at what I would call risk mitigation,” said Mr. Mulroney, who was in Beijing until 2012. He defines the mitigation this way: “Engaging China to our advantage while getting much better at fending off its inevitable efforts to steal technology and interfere in our affairs.”

Mr. Chan, who helped lead an Ontario trade mission to China in April, seems as untroubled about the chasm between Chinese and Canadian political values as he is about the CSIS briefing. In the interview with Mr. Chan in October, The Globe asked him several times about Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, then garnering headlines for its resistance to Beijing’s plan to stamp out democracy in the former British colony.

Mr. Chan lived in Hong Kong as a high-school student, and recalled his stay there fondly. “I had my greatest time in high school, so I would say even though I’m not so long in Hong Kong, I treasure those years,” he said.

Days before the interview, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne had publicly supported the Umbrella Movement, but Mr. Chan viewed its struggle for universal values differently than his premier. “They always have people gathering, making speeches,” he said. “Just like our Labour Day.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Wynne dismissed the CSIS allegations and voiced total support for her minister, saying concerns about Mr. Chan are “baseless.”

LEARNING ENGLISH

Mr. Chan, 64, was born in the mainland city of Guangzhou. His father was an official in the Kuomintang, the nationalistic political party that became a bloody foe of the Communist Party. As Mao Zedong took power, Mr. Chan’s family moved to Macau, then a Portuguese colony, and eventually settled in Hong Kong.

After high school, Mr. Chan moved to Toronto in 1969. His first job was mixing mustard sauce in the basement of Far East Chinese Food, a restaurant still in operation on Burnhamthorpe Road in the city’s west end.

For an 18-year-old Cantonese speaker with no English, the workplace had its own charms. “I was working alone in the basement and I don’t need to talk to anybody. That was my perfect job,” he recalled. “After three or four months, I was able to talk a bit of English and understand the people a bit more. I got a huge promotion: from the basement to the ground floor.”

Eventually, Mr. Chan made his way into the insurance business, starting his own brokerage. In this period, he began travelling to China “many, many times.”

The 1980s and early 90s was a transformative time in the Chinese community, marked by newfound confidence and political empowerment. Multiculturalism had become an entrenched Canadian value. Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who had opened diplomatic relations with Communist China in 1970, was a staunch ally of the community.

Mr. Chan was among those inspired by the new dynamism – he became a member of the federal Liberal Party in 1983 and the provincial party a few years later.

Several major, pro-Liberal, national organizations emerged in the Chinese community in this period. Prominent among them are the National Congress of Chinese-Canadians, founded in 1991, with which Mr. Chan was briefly associated; the Confederation of Toronto Chinese-Canadian Organizations, founded in 1985; and the Chinese Professionals Association of Canada (CPAC), founded in 1992.

The congress emerged as the Chinese community was embroiled in the debate over redressing the Head Tax, the racist levy against Chinese immigrants that began in 1885. For a while at least, the congress didn’t want Ottawa to offer a formal apology. It suggested that instead the community should be given a lump sum, with the congress controlling the money. Its rival group, the New Democrat-leaning Chinese Canadian National Council, asked for a formal apology and direct compensation to victims and their families.

Pro-democracy advocates in Toronto’s Chinese community say both the congress and the confederation are unofficial lobby groups of the Chinese consulate in the city. A defector from the Chinese foreign ministry, Yonglin Chen, gave credence to this view in 2007, saying that the congress is at the top of a pyramid of groups set up by Chinese diplomats to control the Chinese-Canadian community and influence the Canadian government.

In his Globe interview, Mr. Chan said he’s never had much to do with the congress.“They drafted me in the early 90s,” he said. “I actually did not go to any of their meetings, and I drifted away.”

What is clear is that the groups are nonetheless close to Beijing. The confederation has hosted myriad functions in honour of China’s Toronto consulate. It also pushes back against activists who try to make China look bad. According to a Chinese government website, “Whenever there is something against China’s interests, the [confederation] will organize parades to protest or use media to protect the image of China … such as [in 1999 when] they protested the Mayor of Saint John who raised the Tibetan Separatist flag in City Hall on the day when Premier Zhu Rong Ji arrived.”

Unlike the congress and the confederation, CPAC is nominally apolitical, but it has been embroiled in a controversy involving its connection to the provincial Liberals. In 2007, Ontario’s then-minister of citizenship and immigration, Michael Colle, gave CPAC $250,000 in grants that it had not formally applied for. Conflict-of-interest allegations ensued: One of Mr. Colle’s interns, Michael Huang, was on CPAC’s board when the grant application was given. A ministry spokesman said Mr. Huang had nothing to do with the grant decision. Mr. Huang, who denied there was any connection between his two roles, was later promoted to become Mr. Colle’s policy adviser.

The Canadian edition of the Epoch Times, a worldwide web and newspaper publisher that is critical of Beijing, covered the controversy and recounted Mr. Huang’s history of pro-consulate activities. In 2004, he was among a core group of protesters who convened at Toronto City Hall when city council passed a motion to recognize a day in tribute to Falun Gong. He was an organizer of a farewell dinner in 2006 for Chinese consul-general Xiaolin Chen. That same year, during Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s visit to Toronto, Mr. Huang was seen directing consulate supporters to block protesters critical of Beijing.

Aside from the Epoch Times and broadcaster New Tang Dynasty, most of the Chinese-language press in Canada tilts toward Beijing. Perhaps the best-known example is Toronto’s market-leading edition of Sing Tao Daily, a globe-spanning newspaper and website.

The Toronto edition is produced in a minority partnership with the same subsidiary of Torstar Corp. that publishes the Toronto Star. In 2008, the Toronto edition of Sing Tao was caught fudging quotes and expunging anti-Beijing sentiment in a translation of a Star story on Tibet. The Star headline “Chinese-Canadians Conflicted on Tibet” became, in Sing Tao, “The West Uses Tibet Issue to Attack China, Inspiring Patriotism Among Overseas Chinese.” During the controversy, the paper’s top editor, Wilson Chan, defended the changes. As a result of complaints, he was fired.

The men at the centre of both of the CPAC and Sing Tao controversies now have jobs in Ontario’s Liberal government. Mr. Huang is a constituency assistant to Michael Chan, and the year after his controversy with Sing Tao, Wilson Chan became the minister’s communications adviser before moving into Ms. Wynne’s office as press secretary, ethnic media.

In a set of e-mailed answers to questions, Michael Chan’s director of communications, Bryan Leblanc, said in May that the minister was “unaware of any controversy involving Wilson Chan and Torstar.” Mr. Leblanc also said the minister did not know of any involvement by Mr. Huang in pro-Beijing rallies.

PATRIOTIC FLOURISHES

Raise the name Michael Chan with Queen’s Park Liberals, and most of them will bring up his fundraising prowess – in his own community and beyond. He put together events for federal heavyweights Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Sheila Copps during their heydays. For the latter, he boasted in his Globe interview, he raised $100,000 in one night in Toronto’s Chinatown. “You can confirm with her,” he said jovially. “The largest amount raised ever.”

In that period, Mr. Chan was happy to be a backroom man. By 2006, he was 55 and semi-retired, winding down his schedule at his brokerage as he spent more time with his two sons. But then the party came knocking on his door.

A provincial by-election in Markham-Unionville, a riding on Toronto’s northern fringe, precipitated the request. Most of the riding is in Markham, where Mr. Chan makes his home; a recent tally indicates the city’s population is more than half Chinese-Canadian. The riding’s MPP, the late Tony Wong, had stepped down to switch to municipal politics. He had voiced frustration with not being made a minister, a sentiment echoed in his community.

In his first electoral bid, Mr. Chan won with nearly 50 per cent of the vote and did not face the same hierarchical hurdles as his predecessor. Days after Mr. Chan was sworn in, Dalton McGuinty appointed him revenue minister. Trumpeting Mr. Chan’s immigrant success story, the premier boasted that his cabinet was now “a little bit more reflective of the experience of modern-day Ontario.” Eight months later, Mr. McGuinty promoted Mr. Chan to minister of citizenship and immigration.

While in China in 2009, he was quoted controversially in the state-run media Xinhua. Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party on Tiananmen Square – also the scene of one of the bloodiest military crackdowns in modern history – he was quoted praising his former homeland. “Great is my motherland, and great are the people of my motherland,” he was quoted as saying. “The Beijing Olympics last year made us overseas Chinese feel that we could finally hold up our heads and breathe freely. Today, seeing the army on parade with such precision and the high spirits of the people, I am moved even more by the strength and power of my motherland.”

When asked about this quotation, Mr. Chan’s spokesman denied he had said it, adding that at the time the minister didn’t speak Mandarin, the language the statement was supposedly given in.

The Xinhua journalist, however, stands by the quote. “The article came from my interview,” Zheng Liu said. “And it had no problems, of that I’m sure.”

The Epoch Times, which has published its own translation of the alleged quote several times, said Mr. Chan has never asked for a retraction.

Graham Sanders, an associate professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, translated the passage in question from Xinhua for The Globe. He said several words could have been chosen instead of “motherland,” but he felt it was most appropriate because of the passage’s patriotic flourishes. “Chan sounds like any other Chinese politician,” Prof. Sanders said.

Around Queen’s Park, Mr. Chan is seen as a mid-level cabinet member with a middling reputation: a competent, low-profile minister who has had both hits and misses. As minister of tourism and culture, he appeared to be instrumental in bringing the famed Terracotta Warriors to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum in 2010. He accompanied Mr. McGuinty on trade missions that promised to bring home deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars. For about a year and a half, Mr. Chan also was the minister responsible for the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games. Like many spectacles of this kind, it has been beset with cost overruns, as well as expense and gold parachute scandals.

During Ms. Wynne’s tenure, he has already spearheaded two trade missions to China within six months, as well as trade delegations to other countries. Mr. Chan has also continued to be a champion fundraiser: In March, he hosted an event for Ms. Wynne at Harbour Sixty, a Toronto steakhouse that offers a $36 shrimp cocktail. The night brought in $80,000.

Apart from the Pan Am issues, only two controversies stand out in Mr. Chan’s record. Last year, Mr. Chan apologized for remarks he made while promoting Vaughan councillor Sandra Yeung Racco’s unsuccessful Liberal candidacy in a by-election for the provincial Thornhill riding. Saying that both the Jewish and Chinese communities had suffered during the Second World War, Mr. Chan complained that Ottawa paid too much attention to the Jewish community and risked alienating other minorities.

He also lobbied the Confucius Institute to make a deal with the Toronto District School Board. At a gala to celebrate the arrangement last May 22, then-Toronto District School Board chair Chris Bolton stood up to speak. “I’d like to take a moment to thank the people who were directly involved in the establishment of the CI,” he told the crowd at Markham’s Crown Prince Fine Dining. “Right from the beginning, an MPP by the name of Michael Chan has supported the establishment. [He] has written letters to Hanban and [director-general] Xu Lin to be able to support the application of establishment of this institute.” Mr. Bolton only mentioned one other person in his thanks.

Mr. Bolton deemed Mr. Chan’s support as crucial even though Mr. Chan’s ministry is not education and he represents an area outside Toronto.

Mr. Chan’s spokesman said in an e-mail that Mr. Chan only “wrote one letter offering his personal support to the TDSB in pursuing a dialogue to establish a Confucius Institute in Toronto.”

After Mr. Bolton abruptly resigned weeks after making that speech, controversy arose over the secretive way the agreement was struck. Its conditions also sparked much debate. Hanban, the organization that oversees and subsidizes the program, would be in charge of the curriculum and the hiring of teachers. In October, the month The Globe interviewed Mr. Chan, the TDSB cancelled the arrangement.

NO ‘CHINA-ONLY MAN’

That October, Mr. Chan was forthcoming on a wide variety of topics, including the controversial CSIS briefing.

He shrugged off the intelligence findings. “I have nothing to hide,” he said. “They can carry out their perception and perception and perception but I have nothing, nothing, for them to investigate. They can take my phone, they can take my government phone, they can take my house phone, but they will not get anything because I am not what they perhaps may be suspecting.”

At the time of the interview, Mr. Chan was preparing to join Ms. Wynne on her first trip to China, but Mr. Chan was quick to point out that his own first trip would be to Washington, and he had many other destinations in mind. “It will be balanced in general. I do not want to be seen as China-only man. That’s not good.”

Asked about China’s human-rights record, Mr. Chan listed travel as something to consider, pointing to the latitude granted to tens of millions of Chinese to travel abroad. Such freedom would have been unfathomable decades ago, he said. “Anybody expecting things to change in China with just a snap of the finger is too fast,” he said. “I think some patience has to apply. Engagement must be there. Isolation should not be there, so that we can keep that dialogue, so that we can tell the 1.4 billion people how good is the West, how good is freedom of speech, and good these play together.”

The only time in the 90-minute discussion that Mr. Chan showed frustration came when he was asked if it troubled him that CSIS could still be keeping tabs on him. He pushed some papers away, but quickly collected himself and drew a deep breath.

“If you have a real goal, you will be not afraid of the fire,” he said. “It won’t change my colour, no matter how hot you burn me.”

With reports from Nathan VanderKlippe and Adrian Morrow

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