A promise to Michael

Vina Nadjibulla and other family members have been waging a seemingly impossible fight to free her husband from a Chinese prison. After two torturous years, what does Canada owe ‘the two Michaels’?
Vina Nadjibulla (Photograph by Eric Putz)
Vina Nadjibulla. (Photograph by Eric Putz)

Michael Kovrig walks at least 7,000 steps a day in laps of his cell, along with doing push-ups and planks and practising yoga and meditation. Among his few possessions are a grey uniform, a bar of soap, two Hello Kitty washcloths and a small set of matching plastic cups and bowls. He can read a limited number of books his family sends, but he is allotted only a few hours each month with a pen and paper to write letters and process his thoughts. The world beyond the prison gates ground to a halt over the last year because of the pandemic, but Kovrig, cut off in his own state of suspended animation, was oblivious to it all.

He has always been disciplined and strong-willed—the kind of person who couldn’t just let it go after 20 minutes when his computer was on the fritz—so the spare, regimented life he has constructed in a Beijing prison cell is not exactly a surprise to those who know him best. But they have been caught off-guard by the sheer grit he’s shown. The tiny flashes of dry wit and glimmering hope that surface in his letters and his conversations with consular officials tell them that he’s still there, somehow.

“He always tells me, ‘I’ve got this day to day. Just get me out,’ ” says Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla.

But after more than two years of imprisonment in China, Kovrig and Michael Spavor—his own family has elected to stay silent, but he is the other half of Canada’s “two Michaels” and facing the same deprivation in a prison cell in Dandong, on the North Korean border—appear no closer to freedom. They were detained by Chinese officials in December 2018, in implicit retaliation for Canada’s arrest nine days earlier of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, and the two men have since been formally arrested and charged with espionage, which means a virtually certain guilty verdict.

Michael Kovrig (Michael Kovrig/Facebook)

The geopolitical threads binding them to their prison cells are deep and tangled, but also implacably simple in their most basic form. Meng is a figure of towering symbolic importance in China; Canada arrested her at the behest of the United States under the terms of the extradition treaty with our closest neighbour; China has made it apparent that the two Michaels don’t go free until Meng does; Canada has a mechanism by which it could end Meng’s extradition at the discretion of the justice minister, but the implications of surrendering to hostage diplomacy could be enormous. A few paths to a tidier resolution remain open, with different degrees of likelihood or potential fallout attached to each, but so far, none of the basic elements have shifted over the last two years.

READ: China kidnapped two Canadians. What will it take to free them?

The intractable nature of the fight to free the men begins with the identity of the prisoner currently ensconced in her Vancouver mansion under house arrest. Meng Wanzhou is the daughter of Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei, intertwined with his running of the company for 20 years, says Yun Sun, senior fellow and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. “She’s the daughter of the founder, so she is like a princess,” she says. “People know she’s one of the core members of Ren Zhengfei’s inner circle.”

But there is a symbolic as well as a literal dimension to Meng’s identity, says Jonathan Manthorpe, a former foreign correspondent and author of Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada. “They call themselves the Chinese Communist Party, but they look far more like a medieval aristocracy,” he says. “She is important both as a person who comes from within this elite aristocracy, but also as a symbol of what they want China’s future to be as an important corporate entity, a global entity.” And now that Meng is being pursued through the courts by the U.S. on fraud and conspiracy charges, with Canada as a proxy in the extradition process, her legal difficulties have become impossibly freighted. “For the country, she has now been turned into this symbol of the victimization of the nation and also national pride,” says Sun. “She is the symbol of the American unfair persecution of Chinese companies.”

Michael Spavor (Courtesy of
Michael Spavor (Courtesy of

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa has repeatedly insisted that Kovrig and Spavor’s imprisonment is unrelated to Meng, and that Meng’s arrest is an unjust political manoeuvre. “It is entirely out of the U.S. government’s political agenda to suppress Chinese high-tech enterprises,” Chinese Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu said in December. “And Canada played a very disgraceful role in this process.” Sun reads the offended posture as both real and strategically feigned. The Chinese genuinely believe their citizen has been treated unfairly and that Canada only did this as a political favour to the U.S., she says, and also that Canada should have said no to the U.S. or found a way to give China a heads-up. “There’s an inescapable situation here: the Chinese Communist Party cares more about the fate of one red princess, Meng Wanzhou, than it does about the relationship with Canada,” says Manthorpe. “They’ve made it very plain that they’re going to go to the wall for Meng Wanzhou.”

RELATED: Huawe’s Meng Wanzhou: The world’s most wanted woman

Because of that immutable fact, behind the news headlines, loud political debates and quiet diplomatic efforts of the last two years, two families have spent more than 760 days fighting a frustrating, difficult battle to win freedom for the two Michaels. The men themselves are at once utterly cut off from everything and everyone, invisible in their lonely purgatory, but also at the very heart of a swirling network of loved ones, government officials and advocates trying to help them and a mortally offended superpower that seems to perceive them as living, breathing chess pieces.


Nadjibulla and Kovrig met as graduate students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2001. When they were both working at the United Nations—Kovrig with the Canadian mission and Nadjibulla with the Development Fund for Women—he drew her into the empty General Assembly hall one day, ostensibly to take photos to send to his grandfather, and then proposed. “The General Assembly hall is a place for announcing commitments to the world,” he said at the time. “Our romance has been international, so it seemed appropriate to make the commitment on international territory.”

They have since separated, but he remains, as she describes it, “my person.” Her work with various UN agencies often took her into war zones, and they had an agreement that if anything bad ever happened, he would find a way to get her out. “It was always going to be more about me. I thought I was going to get the better end of that bargain,” Nadjibulla says with a small laugh. “That was definitely a promise we had made to each other many, many years ago, and it’s a promise I am now keeping. And it’s an honour.”

Kovrig (left) and Nadjibulla in New York; he proposed in an empty UN General Assembly hall (Courtesy of Vina Nadjibulla)
Kovrig (left) and Nadjibulla in New York; he proposed in an empty UN General Assembly hall (Courtesy of Vina Nadjibulla)

Nadjibulla has been the public face and voice representing the families of the two men, while working furiously behind the scenes to secure their freedom and ensure they are not forgotten. “He has been the most important person in my life for almost 20 years, and we have been through so much together,” she says. “He is in a fight for his life, and I feel I’m in a position to help, and I will do whatever it takes to fulfill that promise.”

From the outside, the last two years may have looked like torturous stasis, but for Nadjibulla and Kovrig’s sister, Ariana Botha, the time has unfolded in distinct phases. For the first six months after Kovrig and Spavor were detained, there was very little information available to their families while they were in solitary confinement. During those months, it felt to Nadjibulla like Kovrig, who turns 49 in February, could be released at any moment and the whole thing declared a misunderstanding because the men hadn’t been formally arrested. That chapter closed on May 16, 2019. “It felt very hopeful,” she says. “So then the formal arrest was a very hard milestone.”

In those early months, Botha, who lives in Toronto, was sometimes reduced to learning updates about her older brother from the news. “I found myself just obsessively poring over the internet, googling what might show up today,” she says. “And it’s a bit destructive to do things like that.” Each time a potential development arose—an important meeting, some government official raising the issue on the world stage—it buoyed their hopes, but then every one of those “this is it” moments led to nothing, or seemed only to make things worse.

READ: The calm hand of Marc Garneau

Botha’s sons are 10 and 12 years old, and while they possess that beautiful solipsism of childhood, they’re old enough to know their mom is struggling sometimes. They understand the basics of what’s happened to their uncle, but how do you explain a trade war or the machinations of U.S. President Donald Trump when most adults can’t make sense of it? “Then their uncle’s face will flash on the screen and, oh, they’re talking about Michael in the news again,” Botha says. “I see little hints of how it upsets them and bothers them, and how could it not?”

Even for her, there is a surreal split to watching this global news story play out. “It’s a bizarre feeling to have something so huge and so important going on, somebody that you care about and that you love involved in something so complex, and suffering, and feel so helpless and also uninvolved in it,” she says. “I feel like, ‘God, there must be something I can do,’ but I am so powerless in this.”

Nadjibulla has channelled that same impulse—along with the skills she developed as an international affairs specialist—into the full-time job of advocating for Kovrig. She toggles between monitoring high-level geopolitical issues, consulting with an international roster of contacts and experts, keeping tabs on the Canadian government’s work and the extradition proceedings in a Vancouver courtroom, along with handling the quotidian details that might make Kovrig’s life behind bars a little more tolerable: which books to send or how to convince Chinese authorities to allow him more time to write. She is in regular touch with officials from Global Affairs Canada, now-former Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s office (now helmed by Marc Garneau) and the Prime Minister’s Office.

“I kind of feel like I am wearing glasses that have a telescope and a microscope,” she says. “It’s hard, but it’s also probably the most profound mission of my life, the one that actually gives me such a sense of . . . ” She pauses here to search for the right word before continuing. “Purpose. I feel like I’m learning things every day.” Nadjibulla comes across as exceptionally deliberate and cautious, weighing each word and thought before dispatching them into a world where inflaming tensions between global superpowers could make her husband’s everyday life even more difficult. “It has been a heart-expanding experience, hands-down. I feel like my heart keeps growing every day,” she says, for one brief moment losing her composure, before returning to her usual meditative mode.

After the chaotic radio silence of the first six months, a period of relative consolation followed between June 2019 and January 2020, thanks to monthly consular visits. The Canadian embassy in Beijing operated as the family’s proxy eyes, ears and hands, passing letters back and forth and bringing books to Kovrig, relaying verbal messages and offering observations about his physical and emotional condition. In his letters, he would request specific books, including War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft; A Short History of Nearly Everything; World Order by Henry Kissinger; and Globalization and Its Discontents Revisited: Anti-Globalization in the Era of Trump. He and his family formed a slow-motion book club, in which he would jot down thoughts on one of the books he had read and ask them to read the same one and send their own reflections in their next letter.

READ: The next big threat facing the Trudeau Liberals: China

His family knows they cannot say anything delicate related to his case, so they stick to broader reassurances that everyone at home is healthy so he doesn’t need to worry about them. “I also reassure him that he’s not forgotten, that it’s not just me and the family that are working for him,” Nadjibulla says. “That there’s a growing group of Canadians and people around the world that care, that he needs to continue to stay strong because he will be free, we will come to the other side of this.”

The public glimpses they have offered of Kovrig’s letters are poetic and expansive in tone. In one, he paraphrased the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been harmed.” He signed off, “Rest assured I remain resolute and resilient. You must be relentless. Yours enduringly, Michael.” At another point, he wrote, “If there’s one faint silver lining to this hell, it’s this: trauma carved caverns of psychological pain through my mind. As I strive to heal and recover, I find myself filling those gulfs with a love for you and for life that is vast, deep and more profound and comforting than what I’ve ever experienced before.”

But Botha also sees her family’s dark and sarcastic sense of humour in her brother’s letters: he writes about how he works out daily, but only showers once a week, so he feels pity for his cellmates. “He can write these long, beautiful letters, but that shows us he’s still there, every part of him,” she says

Over the same months that Kovrig and Spavor’s families have been struggling to stay in touch with them and secure their freedom, a through-the-looking-glass parallel world has unfolded in a Vancouver courtroom with Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case.

Extradition occurs in three stages: in the first, Department of Justice officials decide whether to proceed with an extradition hearing if basic requirements are met; the second stage—where Meng’s case currently sits—is the judicial phase involving the hearing before a superior court judge; the third is the ministerial phase, in which the justice minister must decide whether to surrender someone to another country if the court determines the extradition can proceed. That decision must be made by the minister alone, and the justice department says “the government’s practice” is for department officials to handle everything else on a delegated basis up until that point so that the minister can “maintain his objectivity” until he is required to make the final decision.

The public debate over the Canadian federal government’s handling of the Meng-Michaels dilemma—and, on a deeper level, what a government owes its citizens—has fractured into a philosophical divide between principle and pragmatism. The former group believes that for Canada to capitulate to China’s demands and free Meng would amount to a prisoner swap and validate this tactic for China or any other country that may have a future bone to pick. On the other side is the argument that China will do as China does regardless of what puny-tough stances Canada might adopt, and because two people are suffering right now, the government should simply find a way to get them to safety and worry about the possible consequences another day. Through that lens, Justice Minister David Lametti’s capacity to intervene in Meng’s extradition is key to the belief among some critics that the government has a path to get Kovrig and Spavor back home, but is refusing to take it.

The detention centre in Dandong, on the North Korean border, where Spavor is being held (Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail/CP)
The detention centre in Dandong, on the North Korean border, where Spavor is being held (Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail/CP)

In its public statements over the first year and a half of the case, the federal government repeatedly invoked rule of law and the importance of Canada’s judiciary operating free of political influence in response to questions about whether Lametti would intervene. In response, Nadjibulla, together with former justice minister Allan Rock and former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour—both of whom she describes as “supporters”—sought a legal opinion from prominent defence lawyer Brian Greenspan in May 2020. He sent a 10-page memo to the government, arguing that not only could Lametti step in any time he liked, but given the weakness of the case, the fact that Canada does not support the sanctions against Iran that underlie the fraud allegations, and the “political undertone” of the pursuit of Huawei “as part of the American government’s larger trade war with China,” he would be standing on firm ground to do exactly that.

The justice department says that no minister has halted an extradition case before hearings began since the Extradition Act was established in 1999. Of 258 extradition cases from the beginning of the 2015 fiscal year to December 2020, a justice minister stepped in to stop 26 of them after the court decision was rendered, the department says. The government has made it clear, perhaps belatedly, that regardless of what Lametti is permitted to do, in practice, he will not step into the Meng extradition until the final stage.

Meng’s first obvious path to freedom through the courts closed in May 2020, when a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that the extradition case could proceed because the charges against her met the standard of “double criminality,” meaning that what she is accused of in the U.S. would also be a crime in Canada. Hearings are expected to last through most of this year, resuming in February, with Meng’s lawyers next presenting arguments about alleged improprieties in her arrest and questioning, contending that the U.S. misled Canada on the strength of its evidence and that the case has been politicized in what amounts to an abuse of process.

Attorney Donald Bayne believes that last approach holds the strongest possibility for Meng’s extradition to be halted by the courts. “This is a good argument with good judicial precedent in Canada, on a very similar fact situation,” he says. Bayne was the lawyer for Ottawa professor Hassan Diab, who was extradited to France in 2014 in relation to a 1980 Paris synagogue bombing and spent three years behind bars before the case fell apart without ever going to trial; he is also a legal adviser to Nadjibulla, and his law partner Ian Carter is part of Meng’s defence team. The precedent Bayne refers to is a unanimous 2001 Supreme Court of Canada decision that halted the extradition of two men to the U.S. in part because a district attorney warned in a media interview that they would receive harsher sentences and be sexually assaulted in prison if they dragged out the process.

In Meng’s case, her lawyers have pointed to Trump’s comments a few days after her arrest that he “would certainly intervene” if he thought it would help a trade deal with China. Some observers point to that as the moment when Canada had its best justification to halt the extradition, but it’s useful to remember that at the time, Canada was “in the middle of a full crisis” with the U.S., says Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016. “They didn’t do that because they knew that Trump would have gone ballistic on the NAFTA negotiations,” he says. “Canada lost its voice on foreign policy issues about that time because they didn’t dare criticize Trump.”

READ: Meng Wanzhou is ready for her close-up

It’s part of what Saint-Jacques calls “the appeasement strategy” of the Trudeau government toward China initially: working back channels, installing Dominic Barton as ambassador, with his deep business ties in the county from his years at McKinsey & Company, and expecting common sense to prevail. Early on, the delicacy of the government’s response to China was such that an official with Global Affairs asked both Saint-Jacques and David Mulroney, the ambassador to China before him, to curb their public comments in hopes that the government could speak with a unified voice; neither was interested in complying. “They had to come to the conclusion at some point that they were going nowhere, and in fact they were a bit naive,” Saint-Jacques says. “It was just recently that this finally sunk in in Ottawa and they have decided to change their tune.”

Saint-Jacques has also been one of the most prominent advocates that Canada not bow to Beijing’s pressure tactics. “If you agree to that, you’re toast, and it can be repeated not only by China but by other countries—Russia or Saudi Arabia—that will see that the Canadians will buckle,” he says. “This is a matter of principle. And that’s why I’m saying we have to get together like-minded countries to oppose this kind of behaviour. These poor two guys are paying a price, but let’s be firm to avoid that other people be faced with the same problem in the future.”

This is not an opinion he wears lightly. Saint-Jacques was ambassador in 2014 when Kevin and Julia Garratt, Canadians who had been living in China for 30 years, were detained and accused of spying. Julia Garratt was released on bail after six months, but her husband spent two years in prison before he was deported and returned to Canada. A younger diplomat was working at the Canadian embassy along with Saint-Jacques throughout the Garratts’ ordeal: Michael Kovrig. “Michael Kovrig, when he was arrested, knew exactly what was going to happen to him,” Saint-Jacques says. “Because he had seen what happened to Kevin Garratt.”

Now retired, the former ambassador tries to walk five kilometres every day, and as he does, he thinks about his former colleague walking a daily circuit in his cell. “I know very well the consequences of what I advocate,” he says of a refusal to give in to China.


Only once in the last two years have Kovrig and his family heard each other’s voices. In March 2020, when Kovrig’s father was gravely ill, Chinese authorities allowed a brief phone call. Nadjibulla recites like an incantation the fact that it lasted 16 minutes and 47 seconds, despite the fact that they were allotted 15 minutes.

She was with Botha and her father at the elder Kovrig’s house—they all live in Toronto—and they got only brief advance warning. “It was also on my cellphone, so there was something also very normal about it, to hear his voice on my cellphone,” Nadjibulla says. They had him on speaker phone and Kovrig’s first words were “V, is that you?” He didn’t know the call was happening, but didn’t miss a beat, she says. “The moment that he understood it was us on the phone, he just got into the conversation as if it hadn’t been all those days,” she says. The call was a much more direct way for them to feel out what they always looked for in his letters: was he basically okay, was he still Michael? “To hear his voice,” Botha says. “Bittersweet doesn’t even express it strongly enough.”

In his letters, Nadjibulla could see Kovrig choosing to write “from a place of strength and resilience” for his family’s sake, but she worried about his underlying psychological state. Those worries were dramatically heightened from January 2020 through to the fall, during which time Chinese authorities halted consular visits, ostensibly because of the risks posed by COVID-19. In that time, Kovrig’s family only received a couple of packages of letters from him, and their worries for his well-being have grown in that silence. “There is always a little bit of anxiety: what if he’s given up, what if he’s despairing completely, what if something has changed for him?” Nadjibulla says. “What is that last thing that’s going to be too much?”

There have been occasional creature comforts offered to Kovrig in prison: on Christmas Eve last year, he was given Pizza Hut Hawaiian pizza (he hates that type), on Christmas Day KFC drumsticks and on Chinese New Year, he was offered dumplings. His media diet is severely curtailed—no news or current events—but he was shown Mary Poppins Returns four times and had three screenings of Kung Fu Panda. Now that his imprisonment has stretched on for two years, a big focus for Nadjibulla is trying to find ways to improve his day-to-day living conditions or, at the very least, make sure nothing further is taken away from him.

For the first year and a half, Kovrig’s family remained silent and out of the spotlight in their advocacy efforts. “We were so petrified of doing anything that might harm their situation worse than it already was,” says Botha. In June 2020, several things coalesced at once to push them out of the shadows. On June 19, Kovrig and Spavor were formally charged with spying on national secrets. Nadjibulla felt like so much time and effort had gone into trying to find a resolution, and it still ended with charges in a Chinese justice system with a 99 per cent conviction rate. “The legal process in China can now only end one way, which is a very long sentence—life imprisonment, death, whatever,” she says. “And so the stakes just became very, very high.”

At the same time, it seemed to the family that the urgency of the story was in danger of fading in the public’s mind, and people needed to know who Kovrig was and what all this had been like for him and his family. “It kind of felt like there needed to be an injection of humanity into the conversation,” Nadjibulla says. She made the rounds of select media outlets, offering Canadians for the first time a glimpse of the real people caught in this global tit-for-tat.

At the same moment, the Greenspan legal opinion hit the public radar by way of a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed by 19 boldface political and diplomatic names—including Rock, Arbour, former Foreign Affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, Canada’s former ambassador to the U.S., Derek Burney, and Robert Fowler, a former diplomat and PMO policy adviser who spent 130 days as a hostage in Niger—urging that Lametti end Meng’s extradition and bring the two Michaels home. “Of course, it does not sit well with anyone to yield to bullying or blackmail,” the letter said. “However, resisting China’s pressure is no guarantee that it will never be applied again in the future.” The whole affair was “making it impossible for your government to define and pursue an effective foreign policy toward China,” the signatories argued.

READ: Inside the Canadian establishment’s fight with Trudeau over China

Unlike the legal opinion, the letter was never meant to go public. The fact that it did was “fatal” to what it was trying to accomplish, because it made the signatories look like they were acting in bad faith rather than trying to start a real discussion with the Prime Minister and his staff, says a person with knowledge of the effort. “It made it impossible for the PM to give any answer except no,” they say. “There wasn’t even scope for discussion after that, it was completely out of the question. It’s a damn shame.”

But in response to the flurry of public debate and media coverage that resulted, Trudeau abruptly offered a very different answer on why his government would not set Meng free in a tacit exchange for the two Michaels. “I respect these distinguished Canadians who put forward that letter, but I deeply disagree with them,” he said. “The reality is releasing Meng Wanzhou to resolve a short-term problem would endanger thousands of Canadians who travel to China and around the world by letting countries know that a government can have political influence over Canada by randomly arresting Canadians.” He understood the “heart-wrenching ordeal” of those two men, Trudeau said, but it was “always” his duty to think about what would keep all Canadians safe. “It is not just the two Michaels who are at question here,” he said. “It is every Canadian who travels to China or anywhere else overseas.”

Asked about these comments in an interview, Nadjibulla begins nodding eagerly before the sentence is even finished. In soliciting that legal opinion, they hoped to “open up the space for a real conversation,” she says, and Trudeau’s response at least accomplished that. “That was the moment where it was no longer about ‘can the government do so within the rule-of-law framework,’ it became about, ‘We shouldn’t.’ That’s a very different conversation,” she says. “We respect that. As the family, it’s very hard to hear, but it’s a line of argument that one can then engage with.”

Ariana Botha (Photograph by Eric Putz)

Botha’s response is more blunt. “I’ll be honest, after the first year, I thought, ‘If I hear “rule of law” one more time, I’m going to scream,’ ” she says. “It’s such an easy, dismissive statement.” She readily owns the fact that she does not have an impartial response to the argument that the most expedient path to her brother’s freedom might endanger others in the future. “This is close to me, and I would like him to imagine that this is his son or his brother or his best friend,” she says of Trudeau. “Would he still make the same decisions, would he still make the same choices? Is his brother expendable and just unfortunate collateral damage in a geopolitical battle?”

It is easy to understand why the people closest to the men in those prison cells land firmly in the pragmatism camp in the debate over how to resolve this. Kovrig’s father, Bennett Kovrig, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, argues that the most obvious way out of this “deadlock” was advanced months ago in that letter. “The Americans would have understood our priorities,” he wrote in response to questions from Maclean’s. “The government responded with a prim reminder that Canada did not negotiate with terrorists . . . Predictably, Beijing took offence, Washington remained largely indifferent, and the two Canadians are in jail to this day.” Now, Ottawa “waits placidly for a face-saving compromise” between the U.S. Department of Justice and Huawei, but it has painted itself into a corner by rejecting the earlier course of action that could have won his son’s freedom, he says.“Having performed admirably given the political constraints, Canada’s diplomats could be becoming uneasy at serving a government that is so neglectful of even their one-time colleague Michael Kovrig,” he wrote.

Nadjibulla points out that she is not arguing for a pragmatic solution 10 days into the whole affair, but after two years of these two men being stuck. She maintains that if there are downsides or dangers to the Canadian government intervening, there should at least be a debate and an attempt to find ways to act while minimizing the fallout. “There are two innocent Canadians in immediate danger, and if we can help them, we must,” says Nadjibulla. “It’s a simple obligation of the government to do so.”

Ask Gar Pardy, a former diplomat and retired director general of consular affairs, about what should be done and you can practically hear him waving a hand in exasperated dismissal over the phone. “All countries do this one way or another,” he says. “Some people try to make large principles involved here, but I mean, this is the way the world is and if you’re not prepared to play that game, then you’ve got to be prepared to sacrifice the lives of your own citizens.” The only real debate is how you massage or obscure the ransom terms you pay, he says, but it’s absurd to think you will stop this sort of thing from happening by taking a firm stand on one individual case. “Something awful is going to happen anyway, but what you do is deal with the problem you have at hand, and that’s the well-being of two Canadians who have been clapped up for two years. Deal with that issue, and if something happens down the road, you deal with it,” he says. “That’s how foreign policy works.”

As long as the two Canadians have been imprisoned, the government has taken great care to note each time another country or multilateral body speaks up on Canada’s behalf. The message is that this is not a Canada-China problem, but a China-and-the world problem. Champagne has emphasized this recently in describing how he believes the two Michaels are seen through international eyes. “Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are not only Canadians, they are citizens of a liberal democracy and we know that arbitrary detention is an issue of great concern for many countries around the world,” the foreign minister said in a statement to Maclean’s. “Our government believes the best approach to common challenges is to act in concert with others in order to have the maximum impact.”

Multiple close observers of this case have all independently used the same word—elegant—to describe a hypothetical path to freedom for the two Michaels that they see as the most advantageous. To Saint-Jacques, the tidy exit could arrive in a B.C. court decision against extraditing Meng, and he does not see that outcome as improbable.

Meng returns to house arrest at her Vancouver mansion after a January 2020 court date (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
Meng returns to house arrest at her Vancouver mansion after a January 2020 court date (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

For Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, the elegant solution is a made-in-America one. In his mind, the entire problem started in Washington, and he has a “gut feeling” it will end there, too. He cannot imagine Meng serving a long prison sentence in the U.S., simply because there are too many big political and economic arguments against it, and Houlden suspects that at some point, Washington will simply decide they need to be done with the whole thing. “I think even the United States may have miscalculated how important China viewed Madame Meng,” he says.“That solution is somewhat elegant: they started the problem, they would end it, and we—at great cost to us and our relationship to China—would not have budged.”

That possibility hit the news in December, with reports that U.S. prosecutors were working on a plea deal with Meng, but there has been no further movement in public. However, Sun, the China scholar at Stimson, does not believe China would tolerate an outcome that casts aspersions on Meng. “Any acknowledgement of her wrongdoing will, using the Chinese word, forever nail China on the historical pillar of shame,” she says. “I don’t think that the Chinese will accept that plea deal or that route at all.”

Manthorpe, the book author, initially believed that Canada had to stick by its extradition treaty with the U.S. The balance of global power is changing as the relative authority of the United States is diminished, he argues, and Canada is venturing into a new world on its own in a way it has never been before. “As we try to firm up and establish alliances, we need to be seen as a dependable partner,” he says. “And if we start sort of abrogating our treaty responsibilities when it’s inconvenient or we shuffle aside the rule of law when it doesn’t conform to what seems politically expedient, that diminishes us as a country in the eyes of our allies.”

If the B.C. court decides Meng should not be extradited, he predicts Canada could expect the Michaels home relatively quickly, perhaps after a rote trial. But if that is not the outcome in Vancouver, Manthorpe has come around “very reluctantly” to the idea that Canada should bargain for a swap, with tough terms. He suggests measures like a crackdown on activity of the United Front Department—the intelligence and propaganda arm of the Beijing regime—in Canada and expelling many of the “two-hatted diplomats” who function as espionage agents. “Then it’s just about acceptable,” he says. “But I don’t see that this can be resolved very easily, whatever—it can’t.”


After much advocacy, in October 2020, monthly consular visits for the Michaels finally resumed. Embassy staff would normally handle these, but Barton has been conducting them himself, which is intended to signal the importance of these cases to Canada. He physically went to the two detention centres for the visits, even though they are still restricted to video meetings; simply having a set of Canadian eyes on Kovrig, even through the proxy of a computer camera, is a relief for the family. “Really from January to October, nobody had seen Michael,” says Nadjibulla. “It was a big thing for our peace of mind to make sure he looks okay, he’s still healthy.”

She finally received two letters from Kovrig in December—another enormous relief—and the embassy has passed along verbal messages from Kovrig to each of them. In one of her earlier letters, Botha had told her brother that her youngest son, currently obsessed with sushi and anime, dreams of going to Japan, and she thought that was a trip he should take with his uncle. “In the last visit, Michael had relayed, ‘Ariana, tell Kai that I will take him on a trip to Japan that will blow his mind, and it will be up to his parents to decide if they want to come along,’ ” she recalls. To this point, Botha had rattled through an interview in a likeably brusque, sardonic manner, but here she comes undone and needs a few seconds to compose herself.

On the day that Botha spoke to Maclean’s, Kovrig had just had his third consular visit since the meetings resumed. The embassy sent a brief initial report saying that he looked healthy and more relaxed than during the November visit, but it was still a day when his family would wait anxiously for a full update; Botha is full of praise for the Canadian embassy and for Barton’s efforts. To her, the refusal of Chinese authorities to pass along Kovrig’s letters is “unnecessarily cruel.” Her brother’s writing skills are so sharp that she often found his letters difficult to read because they provided such a visceral window into his constricted existence. But losing the connection afforded by that window has been equally hard. “As painful in some ways as getting his letters were—reading his words because they completely transport you into his cell, into that little cell with him, and I find that difficult,” she says. “But at the same time, to have that piece of him, it’s like I can hear his voice. I read his letters and I can see him—it’s like he’s here in a sense.”

Nadjibulla describes herself as a person of faith, with a deep belief in the basic goodness of the universe and its tendency to bend toward justice. “I’m just fundamentally always looking for the totality of the experience, not just the darkness,” she says. “Always holding the shadow and the light together.” She writes poetry as a private way to “metabolize” pain and anger and despair into something more useful. The fuel to keep going arrives in letters or consular reports, when Kovrig cracks a joke or flips back through their shared memories.

If she had been asked two years ago whether Kovrig’s imprisonment would stretch on this long, she would have dismissed the idea out of hand. Many sprints have added up to a marathon she never expected to run, but carving it into sprints is also what’s allowed her to keep running. “I never give up hope, but sometimes it feels like, ‘Enough,’ ” she says, punctuating this with a curt nod of her head. “ ‘How much longer?’ There is this feeling of, ‘Oh my goodness, please, I want to be through this.’ ”

Botha, for her part, says she’s traversed the five stages of grief since Kovrig was imprisoned, but because she refuses to enter into acceptance, she drifts between bargaining and depression.“It has become way too much of the new normal: yep, my brother is just there in jail and I write to him every month, and my children have gotten accustomed to seeing his face on the news and in the newspaper,” she says. “That’s not normal. That’s not okay.”

After the media reports of a possible plea deal for Meng, someone advised Botha that she needed to start imagining her brother’s homecoming: where would he stay? What would he need? What kind of party would they throw? But she can’t take herself to that place yet; it has simply been too long with nothing changing.

“I want to picture it. I want to picture standing at the airport and watching him walk off a plane,” she says. “And I’ve sort of maybe got that image in the back of my mind. But I don’t want to let my heart go there until it might be a reality. It’s too hard.”

This article appears in print in the February 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “A promise to Michael.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.