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public discourse

Michael Chan, the Ontario Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade.Qilai Shen/The Globe and Mail

Ontario cabinet minister Michael Chan is demanding an apology from MP Jason Kenney, who criticized Mr. Chan's shows of support for the Chinese government.

In a letter sent by his lawyer and dated June 30, Mr. Chan, the province's International Trade Minister, asked Mr. Kenney to withdraw and apologize for comments made to The Globe and Mail last month within seven days or face legal action.

In a June 9 article, the former federal immigration and national defence minister said: "I get the impression that [Mr. Chan] sometimes regards himself as an unofficial ambassador for the People's Republic of China," adding that he never heard Mr. Chan assert Canadian principles of human rights in relation to China.

Mr. Kenney, who announced his leadership bid for the Alberta Conservative Party on Wednesday, also recalled an event in which Mr. Chan raised a fist and shouted, "Long Live the Motherland!" in Mandarin.

In a written statement, Mr. Kenney stood by his comments, which he said are within the realm of fair comment and ordinary political discourse. "Mr. Chan tries to intimidate his critics into silence with legal threats," Mr. Kenney said. "Elected officials in a democracy should respond to remarks they disagree with through open public debate, rather than resorting to legal threats designed to create libel chill."

Mr. Chan, who is suing The Globe for defamation, has asked that all queries from the newspaper go through a lawyer. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment on the threat of legal action against Mr. Kenney.

Last year, Mr. Chan, then Ontario's minister of citizenship, immigration and international trade, was the subject of a Globe report, which revealed that, in 2010, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was concerned he had grown too close to the Chinese consulate in Toronto, prompting a senior federal official to caution the province about his alleged conduct in a 2010 meeting.

This unusual visit came months after the CSIS director at the time, Richard Fadden, warned the public about two provincial cabinet ministers being under the undue influence of a foreign government. Mr. Fadden did not name the ministers or elaborate on the spy agency's concerns; nor did he disclose the foreign country by name.

The remarks were widely criticized and provoked a backlash in Ontario and British Columbia. CSIS never publicly identified the officials; nor did it ever expand on its concerns publicly. The standoff revealed a marked disconnect between the federal spy agency and the provincial government's approach to foreign influence.

Mr. Chan acknowledged to The Globe that CSIS had concerns about him in 2010, but he dismissed their allegations as thin and baseless. Former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty and his successor, Kathleen Wynne, both dismissed the allegations and stood by Mr. Chan.

The Wynne government told The Globe last year that Mr. Chan had consulted with the province's Integrity Commissioner after the 2010 briefing and was told there were no concerns. Citing privacy, the office would not reveal what specific issues had been raised, or how the Commissioner vetted and cleared them.

Mr. Kenney's recent comments arose after Mr. Chan defended China's record on human rights in a Chinese-language column.

"Human rights should be viewed from the perspective of livelihood issues," he told an unidentified journalist for a June 6 article that appeared in several Chinese-language publications. "The progress of human rights is complementary and linked together with the progress of people's welfare."

The comments were made in response to a diplomatic incident last month involving a news conference held by Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart.

Seizing on a question directed to Mr. Dion about human rights and the two-year detention of Canadian Kevin Garratt, Mr. Wang dressed down the reporter. "Your question is full of prejudice against China and arrogant," he said.

The series of events led to much controversy in the local community about censorship and civil liberties in Canada's Chinese-language media.

A Vancouver-area journalist lost his column after mocking Mr. Chan and Mr. Wang. Another writer who pilloried Mr. Wang received death threats.

Days later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed dissatisfaction with Mr. Wang's behaviour and reaffirmed the media's right to ask difficult questions.