Canada's Employment Minister says Ottawa will "vigorously defend" the interests of two Canadian citizens detained in China on spying allegations, and raised concerns about religious freedom in that country.
Jason Kenney made the comments during an unrelated news conference in West Vancouver on Wednesday. Kevin and Julia Garratt, former Vancouver residents who run a café in northeastern China, were detained earlier this week on allegations that they stole Chinese military and defence secrets.
Mr. Kenney told reporters the government is providing consular assistance and would work with Chinese authorities on the matter. "We manage consular cases, at some times with … discretion and sensitivity, but obviously Canada will vigorously defend and represent the interests of Canadians abroad, particularly if we conclude that Canadians have been unjustly detained," he said.
The minister added that Canada is concerned about the persecution of faith groups in China and other countries. "It's a fundamental universal right for people to be able to practice their faith without persecution from governments around the world," he said.
The Garratts are committed Christians who sent food and other aid to North Korea using donations from a British Columbia church. Asked if their faith was relevant in the case, Mr. Kenney said he was not familiar with the details.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has said little about the Garratts' situation since they were detained. On Wednesday, a departmental spokesperson sent the same brief statement it had used earlier in the week, indicating the government is providing assistance to the Garratts.
"We are in contact with local Chinese authorities and the family, and are monitoring developments closely," the e-mailed statement said. "To protect the private and personal information of the individuals concerned, further details on this case cannot be released."
The Canadians were detained less than a week after Ottawa accused a "Chinese state-sponsored actor" of hacking into the computer system of Canada's National Research Council. Some academic and legal experts have suggested the Garratts' detention could be a tit-for-tat style retaliation for those allegations, but officials in Ottawa would not comment Wednesday on whether the government shares that belief.
Mr. Kenney said Wednesday that the federal government pursues "constructive relations" with China, noting that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has visited the country twice and hopes to return. The Prime Minister made plans to travel to China this November, where he will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Summit.
"Our approach to the relationship with China is a balanced one," Mr. Kenney said. "We believe, like our foreign policy generally, that it should address Canada's interests, for example our commercial interests, but also our values, our democratic values and our belief in human rights."