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The Ontario provincial legislature building in Toronto.Steven Kriemadis/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

The Ontario Legislature cancelled an event that would have flown the flag of the People’s Republic of China on Wednesday to commemorate China’s National Day, a gesture that drew heavy criticism given the two Canadians who remain locked up by Beijing on what Ottawa calls unlawful grounds.

Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor have been incarcerated for 660 days by the Chinese government in apparent retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request from the United States.

Canada has criticized their jailing as “arbitrary detention” and Robert Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister, has described what has happened to them as “targeted abductions.”

The Chinese flag was to be raised at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday in commemoration of China’s National Day, which is Oct. 1. The date commemorates the founding of the People’s Republic of China by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.

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After a Globe and Mail report about the flag-raising, Jackie Gordon, the sergeant-at-arms at the Ontario Legislature, said late Tuesday the event and all future flag-raisings are being cancelled because of COVID-19. Ms. Gordon initially defended the ceremony commemorating China’s National Day as “apolitical.”

“In light of the rising number of COVID-19 cases and the recommendations by Public Health authorities to be more vigilant than ever, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario has decided to cancel all flag-raising ceremonies until further notice,” Ms. Gordon said in an e-mailed statement.

She had previously said the event was taking place at the request of the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations.

China’s consul-general in Toronto, Han Tao, was set to speak at the event, according to a statement from the Ontario Legislature.

Earlier Tuesday, Conservative MP Michael Chong, the party’s foreign affairs critic, slammed the decision to raise the Chinese flag.

“I don’t think any order of government in Canada should be flying the flag of the People’s Republic of China while two Canadian citizens are wrongfully imprisoned in China,” said Mr. Chong, who represents an Ontario riding.

“When governments fly a foreign flag it sends a certain signal,” he said.

Other jurisdictions in Canada have taken a different approach to commemorate China’s National Day, by not scheduling or pro-actively cancelling such events.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, for instance, specifically requested no flag raising.

“Mayor Watson has asked that the Chinese flag not be flown at Ottawa City Hall this year, in solidarity with the two Canadians who are arbitrarily held in a Chinese prison,” spokesman Mathieu Gravel said.

The Ontario Legislature earlier defended the decision to raise the flag even when Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor remain jailed. Ms. Gordon had said the legislature is apolitical. “Our focus is more provincial. We leave global diplomatic relations to the federal government,” she said. “We focus on the cultural diversity, or mosaic, of this province.”

In York Region in Ontario, the City of Markham, which has flown the Chinese flag in recent years, said this year it has no plans to raise it because of the coronavirus.

“As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, [Markham’s] Civic Centre is closed to the public except for extremely limited in-person services and appointments. All city events have been suspended, including flag raisings, and requesters have been provided notice,” city spokeswoman Jennifer Yap said.

According to an Ontario Legislature schedule released to journalists Tuesday, deputy Speaker Rick Nicholls, a PC MPP, was slated to speak at the flag ceremony and organizers were hoping for representatives from the Progressive Conservatives, Liberals and NDP to attend. Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner was not to attend in person but was to provide a “congratulatory certificate.”

After The Globe inquired about the ceremony, a spokeswoman for Premier Doug Ford said no one from the government or from the Progressive Conservative Party would attend. Mr. Nicholls did not respond to a request for comment.

“The Ontario Legislative Assembly has a flag policy independent of the political parties and the government. It is not the appropriate time to be raising this flag, and neither the Government of Ontario nor the PC caucus will be sending a representative,” Mr. Ford’s spokeswoman Ivana Yelich said.

Both the NDP and Liberals said Tuesday they were not sending an MPP.

“In light of serious concerns regarding due process and human rights, no NDP MPPs will attend this flag raising,” NDP spokeswoman Michelle Ervin said.

A spokesman for the Ontario Liberals said the party was not going to be participating in this event.

Asked who approves flag-raising requests, Ms. Gordon said the Speaker of the Ontario Legislative Assembly “ultimately has authority” to decide. The current speaker is Progressive Conservative MPP Ted Arnott.

Michael Kovrig has been in Chinese detention since December 2018, and has been even more cut-off from the outside world since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in China. His wife, Vina Nadjibulla, is spearheading efforts to have him released and returned home to Canada.

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