02/21/2020 15:07 EST | Updated 02/21/2020 15:09 EST

Francois-Philippe Champagne: Canada-China Relations Not Back To Normal Despite Coronavirus Help

The foreign affairs minister says he remains focused on securing releases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Adrian Wyld/CP
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne updates reporters on the evacuation of Canadians from China in Ottawa on Feb. 6, 2020.

OTTAWA — No one should construe the co-operation between Canada and China on the novel coronavirus outbreak as a sign that relations between them are returning to normal, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Friday.

Canada has been able to repatriate 550 Canadians since the outbreak with the help of Japanese and Chinese officials, Champagne said in a major speech in Montreal.

“However, it should not be inferred that Canada’s relationship with China has returned to normal,” the minister said in an English translation of an address given mainly in French to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Watch: Champagne explains why coronavirus-infected Canadians can’t return home


The speech outlined Champagne’s priorities on foreign policy in an increasingly volatile world. Champagne also elaborated on Canada’s campaign to win a two-year seat on the powerful United Nations Security Council, citing the need to strengthen the international institutions that were born out of the Second World War as one the main reasons for running. 

Canada wants to use its seat at that table to help address the challenges posed by rising populism and trade protectionism, the erosion of human rights, the “selective application” of international law and the shifting of political and economic power to Asia, he said.

“We are seeing the emergence of a multipolar world with new epicentres of influence and competition over ideas and models of governance,” he said. “Around the world, human rights are increasingly under threat.”

Champagne’s top declared priorities include winning the freedom of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from their arbitrary imprisonment by China and pushing Iran to release the black boxes recovered from the Ukrainian jetliner it shot down last month so they can be properly examined in France.

“However difficult and complex it may be, Canadians know that our relationship with China remains important in many ways,” he said. “You have to learn to live with this complexity.”

As for the plane crash near Tehran, Canada had to scramble to respond because it had no formal diplomatic relations with Iran. “I believe in dialogue even if it means having difficult conversations. After all, that’s the nature of diplomacy. Sometimes you do need to have difficult conversations.”

He called the crash that killed all 176 people on board, including 57 Canadians, “a tragedy that illustrates once again the importance of diplomacy and necessity to adapt quickly to circumstances.” While Iran has been co-operative in helping repatriate the remains of Canadian crash victims, the regime needs to more, he said.

“Much work remains to be done in order for Iran to fully assume responsibility for this very tragic event, including a full and transparent investigation, the need for Iran to get the black boxes downloaded and analyzed without any further delays and a swift compensation settlement for the families of the victims,” he said.

The vexing challenges posed by China and Iran come at a time when Canada is campaigning for that seat on the UN Security Council, an opportunity Champagne said would demonstrate Canada’s leadership in confronting the great challenges and crises of our time — the rising threats to the world’s multilateral institutions.

UN Security Council ‘among the most important tables’

Despite a full slate of international crises to deal with since the start of the year, Champagne has stepped up his campaigning for the UN seat in travels across Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. The June vote will pit Canada against Norway and Ireland for two available seats for a two-year term that begins next year.

Canada will need to win the support of at least 128 countries in the secret ballot at the UN General Assembly. Champagne cited Canada’s contributions to the Lima Group on the Venezuela crisis, its leadership of a dozen countries on an initiative to strengthen the World Trade Organization, its efforts to rid the world’s oceans of plastic pollution and its leadership on championing media freedom.

“Indeed, the UN Security Council is still among the most important tables in the world where major decisions and discussions on peace and security are taking place,” he said. “And it’s a place where Canada can have both influence and relevance.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2020.

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