VANCOUVER—For Brad West, it was a simple question: “Should a foreign government be able to buy access to elected politicians that are supposed to be working in the interests of our people and our communities?”
When the mayor of Port Coquitlam, B.C., learned that the Chinese government had been hosting a cocktail party for the municipal politicians at their yearly provincial convention, he was, to put it mildly, perplexed.
“The answer is, ‘No, they should not be able to do that,’” West says.
“And you could go out and talk to just about any person on the street, and you would have got the same answer.”
So West began speaking against the reception, which had first started in 2012.
West asked how a country holding two Canadians, consultant Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, and which was simultaneously imposing sanctions on Canadian goods, could be welcomed by civic leaders.
To make his point, he showed up outside this September’s reception with two boxes of Tim Hortons doughtnuts that had photographs of Spavor and Kovrig attached to them.
He faced criticism for his actions. The 34-year-old father was accused of grandstanding to further his political career; others levelled what he described as “thinly veiled threats” that his city could suffer a loss in services or funding if he kept criticizing the reception and the Chinese government.
But finally, this week, the Union of B.C. Municipalities’ executive adopted a policy that will no longer allow such events to be hosted by foreign governments.
West said the opposition he faced still exists within Canada’s political structure and that he believes it is preventing the will of Canadians from being carried out when it comes to Ottawa’s relations with Beijing.
During his fight, West said, he started being copied on what would become “thousands” of emails sent to other municipal politicians from residents speaking out against the reception.
“I hear a very clear message from the public, and yet government and politicians are, for the most, part completely unresponsive to that,” he said.
“I do think it is because they are completely beholden to some of these entrenched and powerful interests that are essentially proposing to double down on the same orthodoxy that has got us into this whole mess to begin with.”
Those interests include corporate Canada and a revolving door of politicians and bureaucrats who leave their posts and end up working for interests tied to China, he said.
As just one high-profile example, West pointed to former Conservative Party leader Stockwell Day, who is now on the Canada-China Business Council, the members of which include Chinese state-owned companies. Day has been vocal in his support of Huawei’s participation in the building of Canada’s 5G network despite concerns raised by traditional Canadian allies such as the U.S. and New Zealand. (Day did not respond to a request for comment from the Star.)
Last week, federal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that despite the Chinese government’s recent actions toward Canada, he doesn’t view China as an adversary and said there is still “certain aspects of trade going on.”
Sajjan said it is only through “appropriate discussion that we are able to get back to a rules-based order.”
Sajjan’s comments came months after a B.C. politician reportedly sent a letter to then-global affairs minister Chrystia Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau detailing how the Chinese government is interfering in Canada’s internal affairs.
On Friday, Global News reported that Richard Lee sent his correspondence Jan. 1 and revealed how, in 2015, while then an MLA in B.C. he was detained by Chinese authorities in Shanghai, and how they went through his government cell phone. Lee also told Global News that Chinese consulates were warning Canadian politicians not to criticize China. Lee received no reply from the federal government, he alleged.
West said acceptance of Canada’s China policy being intertwined with business has created a disconnect between the public and government.
“Our political culture has become very unhealthy and puts such a tremendous emphasis on going along to get along,” he said.
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Canada’s approach to China has been noticed by those outside of the country as well.
This week, former chair of the Hong Kong Democratic Party Emily Lau told Star Vancouver Trudeau’s “head needs examining” if he doesn’t speak out on the democracy fight in Hong Kong after months of violent street protests. Lau said the Canadian government must speak for Canadian values.
On Friday, the Global Affairs Canada released a statement congratulating “the people of Hong Kong on their peaceful District Council elections.” It added that “Canada continues to support fundamental freedoms, including the right of peaceful assembly, and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, that are enshrined in the Basic Law. We hope that the elections will help set the path towards peaceful dialogue and reconciliation.”
Lau also suggested Canada’s leaders frequently point to the country’s workers as a reason to not upset China because they are worried about economic strains costing jobs if they were to upset Beijing. She called that reasoning “rubbish.” Lau said many Canadians have told her they are unhappy with Ottawa’s approach to China.
At least some polling supports Lau’s experience.
In July Vancouver-based polling firm Research Co. found that out of 1,000 surveyed Canadians, 67 per cent said they did not think Canada should establish closer ties with China. A further 72 per cent of those polled said Ottawa had acted appropriately when it arrested Meng at the request of the United States late last year.
About 68 per cent of those polled said they were against allowing Huawei to participated in Canada’s 5G network.
Mario Canseco, the president of Research Co., said the gap between the federal government’s approach to China and the public’s opinion is “unique.”
Canseco said Canadians don’t support the idea of staying silent and allowing Huawei into the country’s 5G network to have Spavor and Kovrig released.
“It goes against the values that the country has worked so hard to have on the international stage. We’re still seen as peacekeepers, people who talk about specific values,” Canseco said. “Now we’re in a situation where it seems to be a lot of silence coming out of Ottawa when it comes to this particular file.”
Since Meng’s arrest, Canadians’ opinions on relations with China have hardened, he said.
West said he believes that if the pressure he saw placed on municipal politicians is applied at upper levels of government there might be change.
“When people come together in a very organic and grassroots way, because they feel that an issue is core to our values and they speak up on it, you can move people,” he said. “And I think that’s what happened here.”
With files from the Canadian Press