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Despite Freeland’s pleas, N.S. premier declines to press Chinese ambassador on Canadian detainees

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At a time when Canada’s federal government is involved in a full-court press to demand the release of 2 Canadian detainees in China, the premier of Nova Scotia seems to be prioritizing his province’s economic interests over the federal foreign minister’s pleas to raise the problem with Chinese officials.

Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil did not boost the consular cases at a meeting with Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye in Halifax on Wednesday, the premier’s spokesman told the National Post, despite Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office asking him to use the rare face time with Chinese officials to do just that.

“Global Affairs Canada and the minister’s office have spoken with and briefed elected Canadian officials visiting China, including the office of Premier McNeil, to underscore how important these cases are and the importance of raising them with the Chinese,” Freeland’s press secretary Adam Austen said.

Instead, coming off many years of effective efforts to develop the province’s business ties and increase seafood exports to China, the 2 discussed “regional issues,” McNeil’s spokesman David Jackson said, and the detentions “did not come up .” Shaye told journalists during a photo opportunity that McNeil is a “great friend,” and Nova Scotia is at the forefront of co-operation between China and Canadian provinces.

China demanded her issue but Canada insisted it is following its treaty obligations. Kovrig and Spavor were detained in apparent retaliation, 2 Canadian citizens have since been sentenced to death in China on drug charges, and China has utilized non-tariff trade barriers to ban Canadian imports of canola and pork.

There are longstanding disagreements within Canadian politics on how wise to navigate relationships with China, which, in spite of its position as the world’s second-biggest economy and a primary trade partner, is ruled by an authoritarian government that routinely tramples on its citizens’ rights.

Meanwhile, the feds are “seized” with calling for the release of Kovrig and Spavor, Austen said, what has become “a top priority for the whole government.” International allies including Australia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, the EU, the G7 and NATO have publicly supported Canada on the consular cases.

Freeland’s parliamentary secretary Rob Oliphant was in China last week with a delegation and increased the cases directly with the Chinese officials he met. And Freeland said at the time of a House of Commons committee hearing on Tuesday that Canadian diplomats in China have made the best of their limited consular access to Kovrig and Spavor. “I hear after every visit that it makes a real difference to them to know that we are fighting for them and standing up for them, and to know what we are doing,” she said.

But for months the Canadian government has been not able to secure high-level meetings, or even phone calls. Although Freeland said she has spoken “on a few occasions” with Lu, Freeland confirmed at the time of a parliamentary committee hearing on Tuesday that she has not spoken with the Chinese foreign minister since before Meng’s arrest. She prolonged another invitation via her committee testimony, saying, “we are prepared for that conversation at any time.”

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