Exclusive: Why this B.C. mayor is talking about the harassment of Chinese Canadians in Metro Vancouver

Photo: Jesse Winter/Star Vancouver (Toronto Star) – Port Coquitlam is an increasingly popular choice for Vancouverites and new immigrants wanting to raise families in relatively affordable homes. The suburb is a 40-minute drive east of Vancouver and is the hometown of cancer research activist Terry Fox, whose portrait is ubiquitous around the city hall building.

Mayor Brad West says Fox reflects his city’s fighting spirit against contemporary problems such as corruption, money laundering and the growing threat that the authoritarian Chinese government poses to the safety of Canadians.

West, this week’s guest editor for the Star Vancouver, says dozens of local residents have come to him with stories about themselves or their family members receiving visits at their homes or phone calls from Chinese officials unhappy about things such as their social media posts and participation in protests.

No one should tolerate this kind of intimidation on Canadian soil and leaders have a responsibility to help, says West.

Chinese-Canadians have pointed to the young mayor as the only B.C. politician who consistently speaks critically about Beijing. The 34-year-old recently lodged protests against the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) for accepting a $6,000 sponsorship from the Chinese consulate at a convention where politicians also attended a reception hosted by consulate officials.

Why did you boycott the UBCM reception sponsored by the Chinese consulate and drop off snacks with photos of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor attached?

As a completely retaliatory measure (after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wenzhou), Beijing took the two Canadian citizens hostage and continue to hold them.

One thing I kept thinking was, “What if one of these people who were taken were one of my family members?”

That’s why I could never get my head around the idea that at the UBCM you had a group of elected officials getting wined and dined by the government of China and having a wonderful evening pretending these things aren’t happening.

If someone had taken one of my family members hostage, the idea that I would then sit down and have a couple drinks and a nice chat with the hostage takers is beyond my ability to understand.

You’ve received backlash, including an angry email from the mayor of Whistler reported in The Province accusing you of wrecking the reputation of B.C. mayors and being motivated by ambition to run for higher office. What is your response to that?

I don’t tend to get derision or nasty comments from the general public. I get a lot of encouragement and appreciation for being willing to stick my neck out and take a stand. It’s people within the political class or pundits or Twitterati who you know, make these really asinine comments like “Stay in your lane,” or “He’s trying to draw attention to himself.”

I want to be mayor of Port Coquitlam for as long as I can. I love my job, and take seriously my basic municipal responsibilities, like improving infrastructure and fixing potholes. I also think that with the way our political system is operating, I can make more of an impact on issues like money laundering and the role of foreign governments as a mayor than as a backbench MP or MLA.

Some have argued that Canadian politicians also have a responsibility to look out for our economic interests and striking trade deals with China is beneficial to Canadians. What would you say to that?

Our politics have become so transactional. Everything is about, “OK, you do this and I’ll do this.” Relationships around the world and decisions that governments make become one of many transactions.

Politicians may know deep down that what’s happening is wrong, but they can put it out of their minds because of perceived benefits of working closely with the Chinese government. I question what these benefits actually are and whether they’re exaggerated.

What’s missing is a bigger picture vision for what it means to be a Canadian. I don’t know how we can claim a mantle of moral leadership in the world when we stand idly by when the world is taking backwards steps all over the place.

What have some Chinese-Canadian residents of Port Coquitlam told you about harassment and intimidation they’ve received?

Without violating people’s privacy and confidentiality, I have heard stories from people from Hong Kong and mainland China that made my jaw hit the floor.

These are people who call Port Coquitlam home. These are people who look to me for leadership and support. And these are people who themselves and their families are subject to forms of persecution and harassment that no Canadian would ever tolerate or find acceptable.

And yet it’s happening.

They say officials from the government of China are reaching them and getting in touch them even though they live in PoCo. They’ve gotten phone calls and visits to their homes here for little things like a post on social media or an attendance at a certain event. There’s been increased harassment related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. And it’s so unsettling to know these people who are our people, who live in our communities, are subject to surveillance and harassment by a foreign government on Canadian soil.

What’s equally shocking is how fearful they are. When we meet in my office, they want the blinds closed. They’re that fearful. I’ve passed on examples to the appropriate authorities.

What kind of approach do you suggest Canadian leaders take instead toward the Chinese leadership?

I understand the point of view that to bring about change to the current situation, we should have some behind-the-scenes closed dialogue with officials from China. The only point I would make is that our government has been doubling down on the same approach for decades now and the proof is in the pudding. There hasn’t been a change and things have gotten worse.

Maybe I’m being too simplistic in thinking, but when dealing with a bully, there does come a point where you just have to stand up for yourself.

Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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