Canada

On the two Michaels’ 1,000th day of captivity, hundreds march in Ottawa

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Chants of “Bring them home!” filled Major’s Hill Park on Sunday as about 300 demonstrators reached the end of their 5-km., 7,000-step march to show their support for Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — aka the two Michaels — whose captivity in China reached its 1,000th day.

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The 7,000-step trek, from Windsor Park to Major’s Hill, symbolically matched the 7,000 steps that Kovrig takes each day in his small windowless cell in China, sometimes reading, sometimes singing, in order to buoy his spirits.

“I think of it as 7,000 steps of prayer, contemplation and courage,” said Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, who took part in Sunday’s march in Ottawa, as did Kovrig’s sister Ariana Botha, and Spavor’s brother, Paul, and his family.

“I hope that today will be an important moment, and that with each step we take we bring Michael and Michael Spavor one step closer to freedom,” she added.

OTTAWA — September 5, 2021 — Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife, spoke to media ahead of the March Sunday. ASHLEY FRASER, POSTMEDIA
OTTAWA — September 5, 2021 — Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife, spoke to media ahead of the March Sunday. ASHLEY FRASER, POSTMEDIA Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

Nadjibulla admitted that each day has been a struggle for her, “But in addition to the heartbreak and pain, I, and the rest of us, have experienced a lot of kindness and grace, and a lot of inspiration from Michael, who has endured these 1,000 days with dignity, strength and even humour.

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“He has been remarkable, and that is what has kept me going, and it’s what is keeping the fight alive. I think that’s what is resonating with so many Canadian across the country.”

Indeed, the Ottawa march was just one of more than 10 held across Canada and abroad on Sunday. Others took place in Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Brussels, Budapest, New York, Washington, Seoul and Singapore.

Kovrig and Spavor were arrested by Chinese authorities in December 2018 and charged with spying, in what is widely viewed as retaliatory “hostage diplomacy,” after Canada, at the behest of the U.S., days earlier detained Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. China, for its part, has denied any link between the cases.

The Michaels were tried in secret in March, and last month Spavor was found guilty and given a sentence of 11 years. A similar outcome is expected for Kovrig.

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Meng’s extradition hearing, meanwhile, took place recently, with a decision expected on Oct. 21.

Nadjibulla, who typically gets news of her husband’s condition through monthly consular visits that Canada’s ambassador in China, Dominic Barton, has been allowed since last October, said she hasn’t spoken with Kovrig since last Christmas, one of only two calls she’s had with him. And while she’s grateful for Canada’s efforts on behalf of the Michaels, she noted that 1,000 days is a long time.

“Whatever has been tried has not worked, and my hope is that once we have a new government in place, once we’re past the election phase, that we redouble our efforts and do whatever is possible to break the stalemate, because we’ve been at a stalemate and this is costing a great deal of suffering.

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“The injustice of it all is almost unbearable.”

Paul Spavor said there was one consular visit so far since his brother’s sentencing, and that he is in good spirits “and he’s very thankful for all the attention that everyone has had for him, and he’d like to be home soon.”

His brother, he added, spends much of his time in his cell reading, meditating, and doing exercises and yoga.

OTTAWA — September 5, 2021 — Paul Spavor, Michael Spavor’s brother, spoke to media ahead of the March Sunday. ASHLEY FRASER, POSTMEDIA
OTTAWA — September 5, 2021 — Paul Spavor, Michael Spavor’s brother, spoke to media ahead of the March Sunday. ASHLEY FRASER, POSTMEDIA Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

The stress on Spavor’s family members, meanwhile, has been difficult. “A thousand days is a long time and it wears on us, particularly our father,” said Paul. “It weighs on him greatly, and we worry about him.

“But it’s important to mark this day,” he added of the grim anniversary. “It’s just another day, but it’s another day that goes by without our Michaels being back with us.”

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In a brief address to demonstrators prior to Sunday’s march, Paul urged people to reflect on a line of Rudyard Kipling’s: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run, then yours is the Earth.”

Politicians and diplomats, meanwhile, were among those in attendance Sunday, the latter recognizing the peril that can occur to foreign-service officers around the world.

Peter Bundy, who serves with Global Affairs Canada, the same department from which Kovrig was on leave when he was arrested, took part in the march with his wife, Amy, and their four children. He said he recognized that what has happened to Kovrig could happen to anyone.

“That’s part of why we’re here. The arbitrariness (of the arrests) is tough to dispute. Michael Kovrig is a colleague of all of ours, and this is one of the little things we can do to let him know that we’re thinking about him, about both Michaels.”

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OTTAWA — September 5, 2021 — Senator Peter Boehm, a former diplomat and deputy minister took part in the march Sunday. ASHLEY FRASER, POSTMEDIA
OTTAWA — September 5, 2021 — Senator Peter Boehm, a former diplomat and deputy minister took part in the march Sunday. ASHLEY FRASER, POSTMEDIA Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

Senator Peter Boehm also took part in Sunday’s march. As a former Canadian ambassador to Germany and senior associate deputy minister at Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, Boehm understands better than most the complexities of foreign issues like those involving the two Michaels.

“It’s unconscionable that they’ve been held for 1,000 days,” he said. “It’s a very difficult foreign policy issue for Canada. We have debated it in the House and in the Senate, and the government has taken actions. There’s a network around the world, there’s the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention and other activities.

“It sends a message to China that this is not fair, it is not just, and drawing equivalencies to the Meng Wanzhou case is, in fact, inaccurate. This sends a message to China, a country that’s on the ascendant, you just do not incarcerate citizens of other countries for no cause and don’t make your judicial proceedings visible.

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“It has,” he added, “reputational consequences for a country like China, all over the world.”

Neither politician nor diplomat, Stephen Willcock is no stranger to the cause, having protested, alone, outside the Chinese embassy on St. Patrick Street on roughly a half dozen occasions. On Sunday he arrived to the march wearing a Team Canada hockey jersey and carrying a large placard that read: “Free the Michaels.”

“If I were in one of the Michaels’ shoes, it would hearten me greatly to know that somebody back home did something like that for me.”

Like most, Willcock doesn’t know either of the Michaels, saying he was inspired to get involved simply by the sheer injustice of their story.

“You can’t protest every injustice, but this seemed like a thing I could do; it was within my grasp to do something. The Michaels were arrested and denied due process, and that, in itself, is an injustice that as Canadians is easy to stand for. We cherish that aspect of our society.”

bdeachman@postmedia.com

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