Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the Canadian government has expressed its dissatisfaction with China after its foreign minister scolded a Canadian reporter over a question on human rights.
"I can confirm that both (Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane) Dion and department officials from Global Affairs Canada have expressed our dissatisfaction to both the Chinese foreign minister and the ambassador of China to Canada — our dissatisfaction with the way our journalists were treated," Trudeau said in Winnipeg on Friday, after he gave a speech to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
"The fact of the matter is freedom of the press is extremely important to me," the prime minister said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called a Canadian journalist "irresponsible" for asking about human rights during a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.
Trudeau acknowledged that it's the media's job to ask "tough questions" and said he encouraged journalists to do so.
The prime minister also said he has not shied away from raising with Chinese officials the issue of human rights, including the case of Canadian Kevin Garratt.
"Every time I have had an opportunity to meet with any representatives of the Chinese government or of China in general, I have highlighted our concerns around human rights and specifically brought up the case of Kevin Garratt, a Canadian citizen imprisoned for espionage without any evidence to support the allegations and accusations."
"We will continue to bring up human rights concerns every chance we get while at the same time we work to create economic opportunities both for Canadians and for Chinese citizens," Trudeau said on Friday.
The question that provoked Wang's outburst on Wednesday came from Amanda Connolly of iPolitics and was initially addressed to Dion.
Connolly was asking the question agreed to by a number of journalists representing several news organizations at the event, including The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and The Tyee.
The Trudeau government remained publicly silent for nearly 48 hours after the incident, until Dion tweeted about the issue Friday morning.
During a conference call Friday, Dion was asked why he did not intervene following the Chinese foreign minister's remarks during Wednesday's press conference.
"Because I consider Madame Connolly as a professional with a thick skin, and she does not need me to go to her rescue," Dion said on the teleconference from Paris, where he was attending a ministerial meeting about the Middle East peace talks.
Dion added that he raised the issue of human rights "very clearly" during the press conference with the Chinese foreign minister.
Human rights cases were discussed "very, very frankly" in his meeting with Wang, he said, including the rights for Chinese journalists in China. "I think that's the best way to see progress made."
Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement said in a post on Twitter that Dion's delayed response was "Feeble, but better late than never."
Clement, who served as a cabinet minister under the previous Conservative government, argued on Thursday that such behaviour would never be tolerated from any Canadian official during an official trip to China.
"If we go to Beijing, as ministers or MPs, we were always told there are certain historical and cultural aspects of the Chinese that we have to be deferential to — and respectful of — and then he comes here and disrespects our values," he told CBC News. "So that was unacceptable."
Friday's remarks were not the first time Trudeau made a point of publicly defending freedom of the press.
During a campaign stop in Montreal days before the recent federal election, a group of Trudeau supporters were heard booing a CTV journalist for asking about Liberal campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier, who had resigned over his connection to the energy sector.
Trudeau turned to the crowd and told them to cut it out.
"Hey, guys, guys. Hey, we have respect for journalists in this country. They ask tough questions and they're supposed to, okay?"