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CSIS officials were not the only ones expressing leeriness about Michael Chan’s ties to China

INVESTIGATION

The making of Michael Chan

CRAIG OFFMAN

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail

Published 

Last updated 

Michael Chan is a rare politician. Ontario’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade considers himself a middleman between domestic and foreign interests, a commercial conduit between his province and the Middle Kingdom.

“For me, it is how I am able to bridge Canada and China,” he told The Globe and Mail in an interview in his Queen’s Park office. “I can be in a position to promote both jurisdictions for the benefit of the people. I think that’s important.”

But Mr. Chan’s bridge-building mission once troubled the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. As The Globe reported on Tuesday, CSIS was concerned the minister was too close to the Chinese consulate, prompting a senior official to formally caution the province about the minister’s alleged conduct in a briefing that took place in the weeks around August, 2010.

The focus on Mr. Chan comes as Canada moves closer to populous, powerful China, needing its economic muscle but wary of its strong-arm tactics on domestic and overseas opponents. The country’s largest province craves those business links to China, and Mr. Chan is its man. But in this delicate environment, CSIS officials were not the only ones expressing leeriness about Mr. Chan’s ties to China.

Read Michael Chan’s open letter about The Globe and Mail stories.

Like any diaspora, the Chinese community is not monolithic. There are more than 1.3 million Canadians of Chinese descent, and they are divided along political lines. While Mr. Chan has many supporters in the Liberal and business communities, his pro-Beijing views can be polarizing.

His myriad critics point to several instances of conduct that they view as alarming for a minister of citizenship and immigration. Mr. Chan supported the deal between the Toronto District School Board and the Confucius Institute, the controversial Mandarin language and culture program run by the Chinese government. He was quoted making florid, pro-Beijing comments to a state-run Chinese newspaper at Tiananmen Square in which he repeatedly referred to China as “my motherland.” He has also hired two aides with controversial pasts: one who has a history of organizing protests and counterprotests that advance the Chinese agenda, the other who was implicated in censoring anti-China sentiment from a Chinese-language daily newspaper.

Over the past 10 months, The Globe has interviewed dozens of leaders, journalists and activists in the community, some of whom express deep concern about Mr. Chan’s clout, especially of late. In the past year, he has been a mentor to a cadre of provincial and federal Liberals running for office, which has triggered both criticism and trepidation among pro-democratic community members.

“He has a lot of influence and used it to build up a network of pro-China candidates,” said Cheuk Kwan, chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China. “My worry is that he’s promoting a lot of candidates who don’t have the qualifications – except, ‘I’m Chinese, vote for me.’”

Mr. Chan is a valuable link to the growing political bloc of Mandarin voters. In the Greater Toronto Area, Mandarin is the city’s fastest-growing language spoken at home, increasing by 32 per cent during the same time period. Cantonese speakers, on the other, have declined by 11 per cent.

Courtship of the “ethnic vote” in Canada stretches back further than Confederation. But China is different from other homelands. After the United States, it is Canada’s most important bilateral partner, both in trade and kinship: Many Canadians of Chinese extraction see China as not just the sacred ground of their ancestors; they – like many other Canadians – see it as the economic future.

But China, having evolved from 20th-century socialism into a formidable practitioner of state capitalism, remains a police state – the biggest ever seen – that terrorizes and tortures political foes, religious groups and ethnic minorities. Its spying on trade partners grows ever more blatant. None of this is a cozy fit with Canadian values of due process, democracy and accommodation.

In an interview last winter, Canada’s former ambassador to China, David Mulroney, said his country cannot afford to be isolationist, but it also can’t be blind to its own vulnerabilities. “We’re going to have to grow up and get much better at what I would call risk mitigation,” said Mr. Mulroney, who was in Beijing until 2012. He defines the mitigation this way: “Engaging China to our advantage while getting much better at fending off its inevitable efforts to steal technology and interfere in our affairs.”

Mr. Chan, who helped lead an Ontario trade mission to China in April, seems as untroubled about the chasm between Chinese and Canadian political values as he is about the CSIS briefing. In the interview with Mr. Chan in October, The Globe asked him several times about Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, then garnering headlines for its resistance to Beijing’s plan to stamp out democracy in the former British colony.

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The 1980s and early 90s was a transformative time in the Chinese community, marked by newfound confidence and political empowerment. Multiculturalism had become an entrenched Canadian value. Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who had opened diplomatic relations with Communist China in 1970, was a staunch ally of the community.

Mr. Chan was among those inspired by the new dynamism – he became a member of the federal Liberal Party in 1983 and the provincial party a few years later.

Several major, pro-Liberal, national organizations emerged in the Chinese community in this period. Prominent among them are the National Congress of Chinese-Canadians, founded in 1991, with which Mr. Chan was briefly associated; the Confederation of Toronto Chinese-Canadian Organizations, founded in 1985; and the Chinese Professionals Association of Canada (CPAC), founded in 1992.

The congress emerged as the Chinese community was embroiled in the debate over redressing the Head Tax, the racist levy against Chinese immigrants that began in 1885. For a while at least, the congress didn’t want Ottawa to offer a formal apology. It suggested that instead the community should be given a lump sum, with the congress controlling the money. Its rival group, the New Democrat-leaning Chinese Canadian National Council, asked for a formal apology and direct compensation to victims and their families.

Pro-democracy advocates in Toronto’s Chinese community say both the congress and the confederation are unofficial lobby groups of the Chinese consulate in the city. A defector from the Chinese foreign ministry, Yonglin Chen, gave credence to this view in 2007, saying that the congress is at the top of a pyramid of groups set up by Chinese diplomats to control the Chinese-Canadian community and influence the Canadian government.

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While in China in 2009, he was quoted controversially in the state-run media Xinhua. Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party on Tiananmen Square – also the scene of one of the bloodiest military crackdowns in modern history – he was quoted praising his former homeland. “Great is my motherland, and great are the people of my motherland,” he was quoted as saying. “The Beijing Olympics last year made us overseas Chinese feel that we could finally hold up our heads and breathe freely. Today, seeing the army on parade with such precision and the high spirits of the people, I am moved even more by the strength and power of my motherland.”

When asked about this quotation, Mr. Chan’s spokesman denied he had said it, adding that at the time the minister didn’t speak Mandarin, the language the statement was supposedly given in.

The Xinhua journalist, however, stands by the quote. “The article came from my interview,” Zheng Liu said. “And it had no problems, of that I’m sure.”

The Epoch Times, which has published its own translation of the alleged quote several times, said Mr. Chan has never asked for a retraction.

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