John McKay

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Scarborough-Guildwood

John McKay

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Scarborough-Guildwood

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Article Feature: Signs of political opportunism emerge as MPs on Canada-China Relations Committee urge collaboration

MPs of all political stripes argue that the upstart special committee dealing with Canada’s relationship with China is not a place to score political points.

Debate over the size of the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations’ subcommittee, and whether there is a desire to see a “consensus” or a “spirit of collaboration” brought the Jan. 20 first meeting to a crawl. In the end, all MPs agreed that Canadian Ambassador to China Dominic Barton would be called in front of the committee before Feb. 7. A Conservative motion initially called for Mr. Barton to appear on Jan. 27.

“I felt a partisan temptation with the Conservatives with their initial motions in the House,” Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron (Montarville, Que.) told The Hill Times last week. “I felt a partisan temptation from the Conservatives with the motion they brought forward to make the Canadian ambassador appear on the 27th of January.”

“That being said—after a long discussion—we finally came to an a agreement. … I’m still optimistic that everybody wants to work in order to achieve results. But I can’t put aside the fact that the Conservatives gave the impression that they might want to use this committee for partisan matters.”

Mr. Bergeron was able to resolve a couple of impasses during the committee’s first meeting. During a debate on whether the subcommittee on agenda and procedure should change from six to five members—losing a Liberal member—he said he admitted he had a decisive vote, and that he could see the merits of both arguments, but ultimately sided with the opposition. During a debate over whether the subcommittee should be required to work by “consensus”—an idea forwarded by the Liberals—Mr. Bergeron broke the deadlock by suggesting the motion to create the subcommittee use the language a “spirit of collaboration” instead.

Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron could have an oversized influence over the committee, holding a vote that could break Liberal and opposition disagreements. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“I might have [a] big influence within this committee and I want to use this influence in a positive way,” he said. “I think that I proved on [Jan. 20] that I want to use this influence that I have within this committee in a positive way, in a constructive way to try to find ways to bring everybody together, to come to something together.”

The special committee was formed in December after all opposition parties voted in favour of its establishment, with the Liberals voting against. The committee has the power to call Mr. Barton, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne (Saint-Maurice-Champlain, Que.), and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.) to appear.

With Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor detained by Chinese authorities for more than 13 months in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the U.S.—whose extradition hearing began the same day as the first committee meeting—the special committee has been assigned to look at “all aspects” of the Canadian-Chinese relationship, including but not limited to “consular, economic, legal, security and diplomatic relations.”

Former House speaker Geoff Regan (Halifax West, N.S.) was charged with chairing the committee by its members.

Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, said the committee can be useful if it is operates in a non-partisan way.

Mr. Saint-Jacques, who has not been contacted by the committee yet but said he would appear if invited, said his message would be for MPs to work together in order for Canada to have better engagement with China.

Conservative committee member Dan Albas (Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola, B.C.) said the goal is to work collaboratively with other committee members across all parties.

“But,” he said, “the purpose of the committee is to study these issues that are uncomfortable for the government, and I understand that they didn’t like the idea of having scrutiny, and that’s why they don’t like the idea of this committee.”

He said the debate over the routine motion was necessary, as it’s a committee without a longstanding history.

“The headaches are always in the front end, and so by doing some of the heavy procedural lifting now it is my hope that we can focus more and more on the issues that the committee was there to study and make recommendations on,” Mr. Albas said.

Liberal MP Robert Oliphant (Don Valley West, Ont.), parliamentary secretary to Mr. Champagne, said the contentious work of the committee—establishing its structure— has already been completed. He said he doesn’t anticipate the committee would hold formal votes on its work. He said he hopes the witnesses that appear before the committee are chosen by consensus.

“I don’t think there will be a lot of discrepancies among the witnesses we want to hear from,” Mr. Oliphant said.

Conservative MPs on the Canada-China Relations committee forwarded a motion to have Canadian Ambassador to China Dominic Barton appear on Jan. 27. MPs agreed Mr. Barton would appear before Feb. 7. Pictured are MPs Leona Alleslev, Dan Albas, and replacement committee member Michael Barrett. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

He added: “I am hoping we’ll operate like the Subcommittee on International Human Rights does and that’s they work until they get consensus.”

Mr. Oliphant said there was a desire among committee members to work together collaboratively, but added the Liberals and opposition won’t agree on everything.

NDP MP Jack Harris (St. John’s East, N.L.), his party’s committee representative, said the committee should not be a place for “verbal sabre rattling.”

“This is something that ought not to be taken as a political exercise.”

China ‘wishes to do us harm,’ says Liberal MP McKay

MPs who are not on the Canada-China committee will also be talking about relations with China when the House of Commons returns, said Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont.) in an interview Jan. 22.

Liberal MP John McKay said Canada needs to be aware that China wants to bring it under its influence—’where influence means, we will do what they wish, when they wish it done.’ The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

Mr. McKay is not a member of the Canada-China committee, and did not vote on the motion to create the committee.

“I think that the larger narrative is recalibrating the relationship Canada has with China,” said Mr. MacKay, who chaired the House Public Safety and National Security Committee in the last Parliament, and served as the parliamentary secretary to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.) from 2015 to 2017.

“I think the Chinese are the new colonial power in the world, and see the rest of us as colonies to be exploited in whatever way they see fit. So that will calibrate our trade relationship, our academic relationship, our property relationship, our immigration relationship, you name it,” said Mr. McKay, who serves as the Canadian co-chair of the Canada-United States Permanent Joint Board on Defence.

Canada should “strike a much more independent posture, and recognize that the attraction of doing business in China has its limitations. And we need a serious diversification strategy,” said Mr. McKay, who pointed to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership with Japan and other Pacific countries as one avenue for diverting Canadian trade and international business away from China.

“I don’t think we’ve got our heads around the notion that China wishes to do us harm, and bring us within an orbit of influence—where influence means, we will do what they wish, when they wish it done,” said Mr. McKay.

“I think that that will be a very significant debate over the entire life of the Parliament.”

The Special Committee on Canada-China Relations will meet privately on Jan. 27 to plan future meetings. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Mr. Saint-Jacques said he hopes the “crisis” with China has changed the Liberals’ approach.

“It will require on the part of the Liberals a bit of swallowing to realize that—of course—the engagement strategy pursued so far needs considerable adjustment,” he said.

Mr. Albas said the Mr. Trudeau and his government have “failed to take action or explain itself to Canadians.”

“They’ve been very muted on the area of Hong Kong, they’ve been very muted on the area of Uyghurs, the Huawei decision we have,” he said. “It seems that nothing is happening and the government says it’s still studying the issue.”

Mr. Oliphant said the government is “very open” to examining the bilateral relationship between Canada and China.

“We have an important relationship. It is in a difficult situation right now. We want this committee to make it better, not worse. We want the two Michaels to be released and we want farmers to be able to sell their products in China” he said. “If this committee can offer the government some good advice on how do that, we want it. We want to listen to the opposition if they have some very good, constructive ideas that we’ve not thought of. I don’t there’s a silver bullet here.”

Mr. Harris said he would also like to hear from the American perspective, which has so much influence over Canada’s relationship with the emerging superpower.

“We want to know to what extent the Americans are able to provide some support for Canada’s position with respect to the problems we [have] with China,” he said, adding he would like the committee to hear from Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s acting ambassador to the U.S.

The committee could also hear from the Chinese perspective, including from Ambassador Cong Peiwu. Mr. Saint-Jacques said hearing from Mr. Cong would be useful for politicians to hear how “doctrinaire” the Chinese government has become.

The special committee and its subcommittee will meet privately on Monday to plan future meetings and schedule witnesses.

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