OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called Friday for Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne to explain how his two mortgages with a Chinese state bank don't compromise his ability to handle Canada's tense relations with the People's Republic.
Those mortgages on two properties in Britain he bought before entering politics were fully disclosed when Champagne was elected in 2015 and have no bearing on his ability to do his job, the minister's spokesman responded.
In a morning news conference, Scheer said Champagne is Canada's top diplomat and China's communist leaders can use the $1.2 million he owes on two London properties to the Bank of China as leverage at a time of strained relations.
"Owing someone over a million dollars — that's pretty big leverage," he said.
Champagne's spokesman Adam Austen said the minister disclosed the two mortgages to the ethics commissioner when he entered politics in 2015 and they were part of the public record.
"When he entered politics, the two mortgages with Bank of China (UK) Ltd. along with all his other liabilities and assets have been fully disclosed to the ethics commissioner and have been placed in the online registry," Austen said Friday.
"Neither of these mortgages or any of his other liabilities have ever had any bearing on his function as a public office holder."
The mortgages became a subject of controversy following a report in the Globe and Mail newspaper this week.
On Friday, Scheer pointed to the ongoing dispute that has seen two Canadian men arbitrarily detained by China since December 2018 and the fact Canada is dependent on Chinese supplies of personal protective equipment for COVID-19.
Relations between Canada and China have been severely strained since the RCMP arrested Chinese high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant in December 2018.
China arrested Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor nine days later in what is widely viewed as retaliation and has levelled accusations of spying against them.
"When it comes to China, our absolute priority of course is the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and all of the other Canadians who are detained in China," said Austen.
"The minister works every day to pursue a policy with regards to China that has their well-being at its core."
Canada calls their detention "arbitrary" and has marshalled a broad coalition of international support calling for their release and that has angered Chinese leaders.
Scheer questioned why Champagne's latest disclosure was made on June 4, four days ago. "So did the minister disclose both mortgages when he was elected in 2015 or not?"
The short answer, said Austen, is yes.
"It's been fully disclosed to the ethics commissioner since 2015, and it's been placed in the public registry since 2015," Austen said, adding the most recent update to the public registry was done as part of Champagne's annual disclosure, as required.
Austen declined to comment on Scheer's characterization of Champagne's real estate holdings.
Austen said that before Champagne entered politics in 2015, he lived and worked in London and bought two apartments in 2009 and 2013, which he continues to own and rent.
"At the time, Bank of China, (UK) Ltd., was one of a limited number of lenders who were providing mortgages to the individuals who were living in the U.K. on temporary work visas, as the minister was at that time."
Champagne was appointed to his current cabinet post after last fall's federal election, following stints as trade minister and infrastructure minister.
In his first week on the job, he pressed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi about Kovrig and Spavor in a face-to-face meeting at a G20 meeting in Japan.
"I took the opportunity to express Canada's deep concern over the case of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who have been arbitrarily detained in China for almost a year. These cases are my (absolute) priority as foreign minister of Canada," Champagne told reporters at the time.
"In particular, I expressed my concern and the concern of all Canadians regarding the conditions of their detention. Minister Wang and I committed to our continuing conversation and to continue to be discussing this issue."
Last month, Champagne joined a coalition of countries pushing to have Taiwan included in COVID-19 discussions at the World Health Organization over the vocal objections of China. Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and considers any international overture towards it as meddling in its internal affairs.
"Canada continues to support Taiwan's meaningful participation in international multilateral fora where its presence provides important contributions to the public good," Champagne told The Canadian Press at the time.
"We believe that Taiwan's role as a non-state observer in the World Health Assembly meetings is in the interest of the international health community and is important to the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2020.