Canada, China had better relationship at time of Trudeau Foundation pledge: Rosenberg

OTTAWA — The level of caution Canadian institutions must now take when dealing with China was not top of mind when the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation accepted a pledge from a Chinese billionaire, says the former head of the charitable organization.

Morris Rosenberg was president and CEO of the Trudeau Foundation from 2014 to 2018, which is when the charity was given $200,000 by Zhang Bin, a political adviser to the Chinese government and head of the China Cultural Industry Association, and Niu Gensheng, a Chinese businessman and philanthropist.

The charity set up to honour the legacy of the former prime minister announced Wednesday it is returning the donation after the Globe and Mail alleged the gift was linked to a Chinese government plot to influence Justin Trudeau after he became Liberal leader.

"As an independent, non-partisan charity, ethics and integrity are among our core values and we cannot keep any donation that may have been sponsored by a foreign government and would not knowingly do so," Pascale Fournier, the current president and CEO of the Trudeau Foundation, said in a written statement.

Citing an unnamed national security source, the newspaper reported Zhang was instructed by Beijing to donate $1 million in honour of the elder Trudeau in 2014, two years before the $200,000 donation to the Trudeau Foundation was made.

The Canadian Press could not immediately reach Zhang regarding the allegations in the Globe and Mail, which said Tuesday he did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Niu also could not immediately be reached for comment.

A press release from the China Cultural Industry Association at the time of the 2016 donation says the money was given to honour Pierre Trudeau, who established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in 1970. Three years later, he was the first Canadian prime minister to make an official visit to the country, where he met Mao Zedong.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he stepped back from the Trudeau Foundation shortly after being elected. The charity has previously said his formal involvement ended in 2014, about a year after he was elected Liberal leader. He became the member of Parliament for the Montreal riding of Papineau in 2008.

Rosenberg, who said talks about the donation were already underway when he assumed his role at the Trudeau Foundation, recalls that at the time Canada had a more positive, hopeful and trusting relationship with China.

He said the situation has changed and Canadian institutions need to question China's motivations for entering into such relationships.

"It's a different environment today," Rosenberg said in an interview.

"I think more caution is being exercised by all Canadian institutions," he said. "But that wasn't the situation back in 2016."

Back then, Canada was exploring a free trade deal with China. Discussions were hampered by several issues, including the Trudeau government's opposition to an extradition deal, concerns over use of the death penalty and Beijing's international pursuit of so-called economic fugitives and other dissidents.

Canadian officials also had concerns with labour rights, the environment and role of Chinese state-owned enterprises in the global economy.

Guy Saint-Jacques, who was Canada's ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, said when trade talks began in 2016 the prime minister's assessment of China was "outdated."

"I think naive is the right word," he said.

He said reports were sent back to Ottawa detailing how Xi Jinping's China was cracking down on political dissidents domestically and abroad, emboldening its stance on Tibet control and censoring criticism online.

"Despite all of this, it was like either (Trudeau) had not read these reports, or he was not aware of them, or he had dismissed them."

In 2018, China's ambassador to Canada attributed a stall in talks to Trudeau's efforts to entrench labour, gender, environment and governance issues in the negotiating framework. Still, there was optimism in Ottawa a deal could be reached.

"Trudeau thought that the Chinese were desperate at the time for that first (free trade agreement) with a G7 country and he thought he would get his way, but that was not based on good judgment," said Saint-Jacques.

It wasn't until December 2018, when Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained in China, that Canada changed course, he said.

The two men were arrested after Canadian officials detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou for allegedly violating American sanctions against Iran. The men who became known around the world as the "two Michaels" returned to Canada the same day Meng returned to China.

"It took the Meng Wanzhou crisis for Ottawa to finally understand that, oops, China is changing, this is not the China that we thought we were dealing with."

Recent media reports citing leaks from national security sources have alleged China tried to meddle in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. That prompted new scrutiny of the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol, a panel that monitored foreign interference in those elections.

Rosenberg, who was tasked with authoring a report on the panel's work, concluded that it worked well overall in 2021. The panel did not feel that any foreign interference in the last two elections reached the threshold to alert Canadians.

The Conservatives have been raising Rosenberg's previous role at the Trudeau Foundation in arguing for a public inquiry, saying the $200,000 donation raises "serious questions" about his being "hand-picked" by the Liberal government to write the report.

In response, Rosenberg pointed to his long career as a public servant for both Conservative and Liberal governments, which included a three-year stint as deputy minister for foreign affairs under former prime minister Stephen Harper.

The $200,000 donation, which was part of a $1-million pledge that also included money for the Université de Montréal, came under scrutiny soon after it was made in 2016.

That was in part because weeks before the donation became public, Zhang had attended a fundraising event at a private residence in Toronto.

The political controversy over the so-called cash-for-access events eventually led the Liberal party to bring in new transparency rules for fundraising.

Rosenberg said in the interview he was unaware that Trudeau would attend the 2016 fundraiser with Zhang.

"There was no co-ordination. This was a coincidence," he said.

Rosenberg also said he does not have a personal relationship with Zhang or Niu and thinks he met them "once, briefly" at a ceremony at the Université de Montréal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2023.

David Fraser, The Canadian Press