OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he raised the plight of detained Canadians directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the recent Group of 20 summit in Japan, and that the leaders also discussed the broader relationship between the two countries that has been rocked in recent months by a diplomatic spat and trade restrictions on key Canadian exports.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Ukraine’s president in Toronto, the prime minister said he’s “confident” that United States President Donald Trump also raised the issue of detained Canadians in his own meeting with Xi — as Trump had said he would do if Trudeau asked him to.
Trudeau said Tuesday that he is pleased to see other countries highlighting China’s “unacceptable” treatment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained since December and charged with espionage.
“This is an issue that we take extremely seriously. I had a number of conversations with President Xi directly on this and the larger issue of Canada-China relations,” Trudeau told reporters in Toronto.
“We will continue to make sure that everything that we’re doing is in defending the interests of those Canadians and in the interests of Canadians around the world.”
Kovrig and Spavor were detained in December, after Meng Wanzhou, a top executive from the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei — and daughter of the company’s founder — was arrested in Vancouver on an extradition warrant to the U.S.
China has also sentenced two Canadians to death on drug smuggling charges.
In the months since Wanzhou’s arrest, China has imposed import restrictions on Canadian goods that are together worth billions of dollars every year, including Canadian canola and all meat imports, citing safety concern with the Canadian products. Canola seed exports to China alone were worth $2.7 billion last year, according to the Canola Council of Canada.
Heading into the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan last week, Trudeau was under pressure to raise these issues directly with Xi. Trump had also told Trudeau during a recent visit to Washington that he would raise the detained Canadians’ cases in his bilateral meeting with Xi if Trudeau asked him to do so.
During the summit, Trudeau was seated next to Xi during a roundtable discussion, and captured on video speaking with the Chinese president on the sidelines of the event.
Before departing Japan on Saturday, Trudeau told reporters that China and Canada are in a “challenging moment,” and that face-to-face conversations with Xi were important.
The Conservative opposition has criticized Trudeau over his handling of Canada’s relationship with China. In a statement released by the party on the weekend, Conservative Leader Andrew repeated his call for Canada to suspend $250 million in funding to the Asia Infrastructure Bank, a development initiative spearheaded by China, and increase inspections of Chinese imports to Canada.
He also said Canada should consider “retaliatory” tariffs over the restrictions China has placed on beef, canola and pork.
“As long as the Chinese government is willing to hold our exports and our citizens hostage, while committing human rights violations, we have no other choice but to fight back. If this government isn’t willing to stand up to China, they never will,” Scheer said.
With files from Tonda MacCharles and The Canadian Press
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga