OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne says he has repaid two mortgages with a Chinese state bank and refinanced them with a Canadian financial institution.
Champagne disclosed the development during testimony Tuesday before the House of Commons health committee, saying he decided to refinance the mortgages to avoid a distraction.
Earlier this month, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called on Champagne to explain how the mortgages with a Chinese state bank would not compromise his ability to handle Canada's tense relations with the People's Republic.
Champagne reiterated Tuesday what his office already has said: that he disclosed the two mortgages to the ethics commissioner when he entered politics in 2015.
"Neither of these mortgages nor any of my other liabilities have ever had a bearing on my function as a public office holder," Champagne told the committee in his opening remarks.
"And to avoid any distractions, both have been repaid in full and refinanced with a Canadian bank."
He said the commissioner's public registry will be updated to reflect the financial change.
The committee is studying the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Champagne raised the issue as he was wrapping up an opening statement because he said it has been in the news.
Before Champagne entered politics, he lived and worked in London and bought two apartments in 2009 and 2013, which he continues to own and rent.
His office has said the London branch of the Bank of China, (UK) Ltd. was one of a limited number of lenders that would give mortgages to people living in Britain on temporary work visas, as Champagne was at the time.
Garnett Genuis, the Conservative critic for China-Canada relations, told Champagne that many of his Liberal colleagues had said the mortgages were "not a big deal" but that the minister's decision to move them indicates otherwise.
"I appreciate that there is now an understanding that that is an issue, and that that has been addressed," said Genuis.
"This is something that of course, we in the Opposition were calling for."
Genuis questioned whether Champagne fully disclosed the nature of the Chinese mortgages. The minister said he did and would table documents with the committee that backed that assertion.
"Parliament has other things to do than focus on my apartments ... I've been forthcoming," Champagne said.
"But to avoid any distraction to you, the Opposition, Parliament and this committee I decided to refinance with a Canadian bank."
Scheer said earlier this month that the mortgages were problematic because of the strained relations between Canada and China since the RCMP arrested Chinese high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant in December 2018.
China arrested two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, nine days later in what is widely viewed as retaliation and has charged them with spying. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has dismissed the Chinese action as politically motivated pressure to force the government to intervene in a legitimate Canadian court proceeding to free Meng.
Champagne, who was appointed to his current cabinet post after last fall's federal election following appointments to the trade and infrastructure portfolios, has said freeing Kovrig and Spavor is his top priority.
In his first week on the job, he pressed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi about Kovrig and Spavor in a meeting at a G20 gathering in Japan.
Last month, Champagne joined a coalition of countries pushing to have Taiwan included in COVID-19 discussions at the World Health Organization over the vocal objections of China. Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and considers any international overture towards it as meddling in its internal affairs.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2020.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press