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Kevin Garratt, a Canadian Pentecostal pastor imprisoned for two years on suspicion of spying for Canada, was found guilty of espionage in a hearing Tuesday and deported back to Canada.Jack Chen/The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted in several meetings with China's top leaders that a new relationship would be difficult to forge between the two countries without the release of a Canadian man held for two years on suspicion of being a spy, a senior government source says.

By the time Mr. Trudeau's first official visit to China was over, the release of Kevin Garratt seemed all but guaranteed, according to the official who had knowledge of the Prime Minister's discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

Canada remained quiet – just in case.

But the assurances Mr. Trudeau received in return cast his visit to China in a new light. Instead of leaving Beijing with only relatively small gains, his doggedness allowed him to achieve one of his central ambitions – even if critics say the deportation of Mr. Garratt is a minor achievement next to more serious concerns about China's treatment of foreign investors and its own people.

Read more: Kevin Garratt free after high-stakes negotiation with China

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Mr. Trudeau's insistence was reflected in a visit from Michel Coloumbe, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, who in an unusual step was dispatched to meet his Chinese counterpart four months ago to personally attest that Mr. Garratt was not a spy for Canada. Co-ordinated efforts from Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion and Canada's ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, on top of previous attempts by Stephen Harper in 2014, helped to secure the release of a man whose lengthy detention in China on questionable charges had raised questions among Canadians, and anger in Ottawa.

"It's fair to say we were told that progress was being made, and the case was headed in the right direction," the government official said.

"There were some final details that had to be ironed out by officials. It was pretty much done by the time we left."

The official insisted there was no quid pro quo between the two countries. But there was also the implicit understanding that the situation was going to be resolved in between the time Mr. Trudeau returned to Canada, and before Mr. Li made his visit to Ottawa next week.

But not before Mr. Garratt, a Pentecostal pastor who first came to China in 1984, was found guilty on two counts of espionage in an open hearing on Tuesday. He was then deported from the country rather than sent to prison.

The Chinese wanted Mr. Garratt gone almost immediately. He was placed on a plane from Shenyang, China, to Tokyo, and then to Vancouver, where he joined his wife, Julia, who was also arrested but released on bail last February and allowed to return to Canada.

James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based lawyer representing the Garratts, said he and a Canadian embassy official escorted Mr. Garratt back to Vancouver on Thursday.

"The family is delighted that Kevin is now home," Mr. Zimmerman said in an e-mail. "It's been a long, trying two years."

Mr. Garratt's deportation, however, has drawn no visible public attention in China, with the Chinese media remaining quiet about the release, which occurred at the outset of the mid-autumn festival, one of the country's most important holidays.

But in winning Mr. Garratt's freedom, the Prime Minister showed an adroitness in handling China that has eluded many world leaders. China's economic might and financial firepower make it an intimidating negotiating partner, one willing to exact revenge on countries hesitant to do its bidding.

Mr. Trudeau, while cautious in his public statements, was insistent behind closed doors, said officials with knowledge of what happened. China has sought to revive a so-called "golden era" with Canada. Mr. Trudeau said he wanted Mr. Garratt released on humanitarian grounds, citing the lack of evidence that he had done any spying for Canada.

Roland Paris, who served as Mr. Trudeau's top foreign-policy adviser before stepping down in June, sees the Prime Minister's firmness on the matter as a reflection of his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Justin Trudeau is similarly "tough. And he's persistent," said Mr. Paris, now a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa.

"Not just in respect to dealing with China, but I have found him in meetings with foreign leaders to be extremely effective," he said. "Because he was able to communicate, to be clear in his own mind what he wanted to accomplish."

He called the trip to China, Mr. Trudeau's first as Prime Minister, "an important and successful first step in establishing a more consistent and constructive and sustained relationship with China."

Mr. Garratt's deportation can be read as "a message from the Chinese government – a new positive direction in relations can yield results," said Philip Calvert, a recently retired Canadian ambassador who was posted to China three times as a diplomat. For Mr. Trudeau, he said, it shows a Prime Minister willing "to listen to expert advice" from the Canadian ambassador and other senior diplomats in Beijing.

Still, while Mr. Garratt is back in Canada, numerous activists, lawyers and writers remain behind bars in China – including Canadian Huseyin Celil and Wang Bingzhang, whose children live in Canada.

It's "not terribly expensive for the Chinese to be co-operative in a situation like" that of Mr. Garratt, said John Higginbotham, who served as Canadian Commissioner to Hong Kong from 1989 to 1995.

Such a case is useful to "divert attention from much more controversial areas of the relationship, where you could be asking about release of Nobel Prize winners or many other broad issues in relation to transparency, hacking, intellectual property, the status of Hong Kong or the South China Sea," he said.

He called it a "Chinese opera," whereby a foreign nation – in this case, Canada – can claim successes that don't amount to much, all while Beijing strengthens its own hand.

"It's obviously a very political gesture by the Chinese to give face to Mr. Trudeau, and hope that that will generate further benefits to China," he said.

Some of those expectations are likely to grow more clear next week, when Mr. Li lands in Ottawa for the first high-level Chinese visit to Canada since 2010. China wants an extradition treaty to speed the return of people it calls corrupt fugitives and the commencement of talks toward a free-trade deal.