Skip to main content

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, accompanied by Canada's Ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, are greeted on arrival in Calgary by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sept. 25.CANADIAN FORCES/Reuters

The emotional return of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to home soil after nearly three years of arbitrary detention was warmly embraced by Canadians this weekend, but their ordeal will have long-lasting implications on this country’s relationship with China.

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor arrived back in Canada very early Saturday morning after more than 1,000 days in Chinese prison. The pair were greeted in the dark and hugged by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the tarmac at Calgary International Airport.

The two Canadians were accompanied on their trip back to the country by Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China. Mr. Spavor stayed in Calgary while Mr. Kovrig proceeded to Toronto, where he was met by his wife, Vina Nadjibulla. Mr. Kovrig told reporters it was “fantastic” to be back in Canada and he was “immensely grateful” to everyone who worked so hard to ensure their return to the country.

China’s speedy release of two Michaels a dramatic reversal after insistence case had no link to Meng Wanzhou

Beijing finally releases two Michaels, but a hard lesson can’t be forgotten

Meng Wanzhou lands in China with fanfare after release from Canadian custody

Former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques told The Globe and Mail on Sunday that it will be “impossible” however for Canada to return to normal with China. He said a lot has been learned in the past three years about the “dark side” of the country and that “trust is gone.”

It will take years before it can be rebuilt, he added, noting other countries understand that what happened with Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor was clearly “hostage-taking.”

The federal Liberals were cautious with remarks during the recent election campaign because they did not want to antagonize Chinese communities, Mr. Saint-Jacques said. But he said that now that the campaign is over and the “Michaels are back,” it is time for Canada to articulate a new approach to China.

University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris, a former foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau, also said the re-elected Liberal government should move quickly to develop a long-term strategy for dealing with China.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, who conducted interviews with TV broadcasters on Sunday, said the country has an eyes-wide-open policy in dealing with the Chinese government and there was no path to a relationship as long as Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig had been in detention. Mr. Garneau also said that the countries must co-exist.

“We will co-operate in areas where we need to co-operate, such as climate change,” he told Global News’s The West Block. “And we will challenge China, whether it’s on human rights or whether it’s on arbitrary detention, when appropriate.”

Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and an expert on China, said the country is a big power and co-operation is required on key issues, even if Canada disagrees with them. Addressing problems such as climate-change mitigation will be meaningless without its co-operation, she added, noting that this is also true for bringing an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prof. Ong said, however, that Canadians will not forget the detentions of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, despite their return to the country, and that will have “long-lasting implications.”

China freed Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig after the U.S. Justice Department reached a deferred prosecution agreement with Huawei Technologies chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou waves as she steps out of a charter plane at Shenzhen Baoan International Airport in Shenzhen, China, Sept. 25, 2021.XINHUA/Reuters

Ms. Meng was arrested at Vancouver International Airport on a U.S. extradition warrant on Dec. 1, 2018. A deep diplomatic divide was created between Beijing and Ottawa when Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig were arrested that same month. Their detention was repeatedly condemned by the Canadian government, which said China was engaging in hostage diplomacy.

On Sunday, it was quiet at Ms. Meng’s Vancouver residence, where blinds have remained firmly shut since her return to China. A lone Vancouver Police Department officer sat in a black cruiser parked near the house.

On Saturday, Ms. Meng was greeted by medical workers wearing hazmat gear and an adoring crowd on the tarmac at the airport in Shenzhen, where Huawei’s headquarters are based.

“Sorry to keep you waiting this late, but finally I have come back home,” Ms. Meng said shortly after landing in China. “After a tortuous more than 1,000 days of waiting, I have finally come back to the embrace of my motherland.”

Michael Kovrig flew into Toronto on Saturday and spoke briefly to waiting reporters. With wife Vina Nadjibulla by his side, Kovrig said it was fantastic to be back home in Canada.

The Globe and Mail

A Chinese state-run newspaper reported Sunday that Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor “confessed their guilt for crimes they committed in China and were released on bail for medical reasons.”

Mr. Trudeau said Friday that Canada worked tirelessly for the past 2½ years to get them home and thanked diplomats, officials and Mr. Barton who “put in the hours to get to this positive outcome.”

Throughout the ordeal, the Conservative Party argued that the federal government should take a more hard-line approach to its relationship with China. The matter was raised during the election campaign, such as during the English-language debate when Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole accused Mr. Trudeau of letting “the Michaels down.”

Mr. Trudeau responded by saying that if the country wanted to get the Michaels home that it could not “simply lob tomatoes across the Pacific.” He said Canada needed to engage in “a sophisticated way with our allies.”

Mr. Trudeau said Friday that Canada will continue to ensure it is standing up for its interests around the world. He also said there will be “reflections and analysis in the coming days and weeks.”

The International Crisis Group, for which Mr. Kovrig has worked as North East Asia adviser since 2017, released a statement saying that after “more than 1,000 days in detention in Beijing, our colleague Michael was released, together with another Canadian, Michael Spavor.”

“We’re relieved the government of China has righted this wrong,” the organization said as it thanked Ottawa for securing the release and the “resolute efforts” of many Canadian officials during the detention.

It also said that throughout his confinement, Mr. Kovrig confronted tragedy with fortitude and humanity, and he maintained grace and humour.

“Michael, we’re so proud of you,” the organization said.

With reports from James Griffiths in Hong Kong, Nancy MacDonald in Vancouver, Robert Fife and Steven Chase in Ottawa and The Canadian Press

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct