New U.S. administration brings fresh momentum to those working to free Canada's '2 Michaels'

For those who have been working for more than two years to free Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from detention in China, the new U.S. administration brings with it the hope of some new momentum.

‘There is serious engagement,’ Canada’s ambassador says of case of Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor

A new administration in Washington has given new momentum to the effort to free Canadians Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor, shown in these 2018 images from video, from detention in China. (The Canadian Press, The Associated Press)

Minutes after the new administration was sworn in last month, the new U.S. president himself made clear that how it deals with allies and foreign policy issues will be different from the past four years.

"We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again," Joe Biden said in his inauguration speech.

For those who have been working to get Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor home from China, that new focus brings with it the hope of some new momentum after more than two years of agonizing waiting. 

"There is serious engagement, there are serious conversations," says Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the United States. 

Kovrig and Spavor were detained in China on Dec. 10, 2018 — nine days after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, was arrested by Canadian officials while she was changing planes in Vancouver.

Some believe that ending the extradition process of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou could help secure the release of Spavor and Kovrig. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Act of reprisal

Meng was arrested on a U.S. extradition request over allegations she lied to a Hong Kong banker in August 2013 about Huawei's control of a subsidiary accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The arrest and detention of Kovrig and Spavor were widely seen as an act of reprisal for Meng's arrest. 

They are essentially stuck in the middle of a larger geopolitical battle between Beijing and Washington that Ottawa has no real power to resolve alone.

Hillman said she raises the Michaels in every single conversation she has with senior officials in the White House. 

"Every conversation we've had, without a single exception, they have committed to doing whatever they can to get the Michaels home as soon as possible," the ambassador said.

WATCH | Kovrig's wife describes how he deals with detention: 

'I don't know how he does it': Michael Kovrig's wife describes his detention

2 years ago
Duration 1:22
Vina Nadjibulla tells the CBC's Katie Simpson that her husband, Michael Kovrig, is 'remarkable' as she describes how he is staying positive and healthy despite more than two years of detention in China.

A 3rd birthday marked in detention

That includes the new vice-president, Kamala Harris, who told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a call this week that the U.S. will do everything it can to help get them home.

Wednesday is Kovrig's 49th birthday — his third birthday in detention, his wife Vina Nadjibulla notes. 

She told the CBC's Katie Simpson that the words of solidarity and assurances from the new administration mean something. "But," Nadjibulla added, "Those are words."

What's more urgent right now, she says, is action. 

"This is a complex geopolitical situation for sure," she said, "and the change of administration will not necessarily resolve that." 

But Nadjibulla said she is more optimistic now given that "in Washington, we have a group of people who are not only competent and dedicated and want to do the right thing, but they also want to restore decency and leadership, both domestically and internationally."

WATCH | Nadjibulla says only action will bring the Michaels home: 

Michael Kovrig's wife says 2 Michaels were detained only due to Canadian citizenship

2 years ago
Duration 1:33
Vina Nadjibulla tells the CBC's Katie Simpson that the new U.S. administration is reassuring when it comes to talk of gaining freedom for husband Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians detained in China since December 2018, but says there must be more than words.

Potential bright spot

Hillman agrees that it is important right now to make sure nothing is done that would "move things backwards instead of forwards."

But there is another potentially bright spot. 

The Michaels are well known to one of the newest and most senior members of the Biden team.

Robert Malley, who was named as the new U.S. envoy to Iran, was Kovrig's boss at the think tank International Crisis Group.

Robert Malley, left, is seen here in 2015 with John Kerry, now U.S. special presidential envoy for climate. Malley is Joe Biden's new point person on Iran and could provide extra help in the effort to free the Michaels. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The organization's interim president, Richard Atwood, says that connection could be beneficial. 

"In terms of those opportunities in Iran, where there is opportunity for collaboration, that might also open opportunities to try to raise [the Michaels] case" and ultimately increase efforts to secure their release.

For Nadjibulla, the key right now is not to squander any new opportunity. 

"Now that we have all of this support and momentum, how do we translate that into action?" she said. 

"And how do we seize the moment to make sure that [the two] Micheals are free as soon as possible? Not six months from now, not a year from now, but soon. And now." 


  • A previous version of this story provided incorrect information about the nature of the allegations against Meng Wanzhou. In fact, Meng is accused by U.S. prosecutors of lying to an HSBC executive in Hong Kong in August 2013 about Huawei's relationship with Skycom, a company prosecutors claim was violating U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.
    Feb 03, 2021 11:52 PM ET


Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.

With files from Peter Zimonjic