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In Dong's riding, residents want answers on interference but no 'rush' to judge

Provincial Liberal candidate Han Dong celebrates with supporters while taking part in a rally in Toronto on Thursday, May 22, 2014. Some community members of a Toronto-area riding expressed their concerns on Friday about their local federal government representative who is at the centre of allegations of foreign interference by the Chinese government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — In Han Dong's Toronto riding on Friday, residents voiced hope that the truth would emerge about China's alleged interference in Canadian elections, but warned against condemning their newly Independent MP before the facts are clear. 

Dong has resigned from the Liberal caucus amid what he says are false allegations that he advised a Chinese diplomat on what the Trudeau government considered a high-priority file: the arbitrary and retaliatory detention of two Canadians in China.

Joanna Leung, a 40-year-old mother of two who lives in Dong's riding in Toronto's northeast, said she has "mixed feelings" about the ordeal. 

Leung was born in China and said one of the reasons her family moved from Hong Kong to Ontario in the 1990s – before Beijing retook control of Hong Kong in 1997 – was because of how little they trusted the Chinese Communist Party. 

"I already witnessed how the Chinese government influence people so if there's Chinese influence over Canadian politicians, it will be very concerning for my family. It's the very reason why we left Hong Kong," she said.

She also stressed that it would be "alarming" if an MP was disloyal to Canada. 

But, she said, linking all Chinese people to the Beijing government is no less troubling.

"I have negative feelings toward the Communist government, not against the Chinese people. They're two very separate things and I hope that we would be able to sort this out, be very clear and don't contribute to more biases against Chinese people."

"What I don't want to see is bias against certain racial groups just because of their ethnic background. That's against the values we hold true for Canada," said Leung, a project manager. 

Global News published a report on Wednesday, citing unnamed security sources, alleging that Dong spoke about Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig with a Chinese diplomat in Toronto in February 2021.

At the time, the two Canadian men who became known around the world as the "two Michaels" had been detained in China for just over two years in apparent retaliation for the December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Beijing, which has denied allegations of interference, has rejected any link between the "two Michaels" and Meng, despite a close alignment in the timing of each being detained and then released the same day in September 2021.

Global News alleged that Dong told China's consul general in Toronto that releasing the men would benefit the Conservatives, but also that showing some "progress" in the case would help the Liberals. The Canadian Press has not independently verified the allegations.

The MP said he met with the diplomat but disputes any suggestion that he urged China to delay releasing the two Canadian men. Dong told the House of Commons he would defend himself "against these absolutely untrue claims" and did nothing to cause Spavor and Kovrig any harm.

China's Toronto consulate called the claims "utterly groundless." The consulate said its staff "have never engaged" in breaching diplomatic protocol, and did not elaborate on the February 2021 discussion with Dong.

Dong voted with opposition parties on Thursday in favour of a public inquiry into alleged foreign interference. 

Anne Abeyesekera, a project manager, works across the hall from Dong's constituency office in the Don Valley North riding, where the doors were locked on Friday. 

She said she takes the allegations against him seriously, but stressed that "they have to be proved."

"Everyone has a right to be treated fairly and equally," she said.

Rahim Khan, a local mortgage broker, also said he is withholding judgment against the MP until he has more details but added the allegations are serious.

"You're putting the security of a whole country and of the 'two Michaels' (at risk)," he said.

"It's extremely serious. I was extremely shocked when I heard that but I don't want to just rush to judgment against an individual."

Mir Ali Asgary, another area broker, grouped the allegations surrounding Dong into his broader frustrations with the Trudeau government.

"I'm skeptical about the current leaders and definitely I have no faith in them," he said in his office. 

Former governor general David Johnston, as special rapporteur, has been asked to look into whether a judicial inquiry into foreign interference is needed. 

He has until May 23 to decide whether to recommend a public inquiry be held, though he was given an October deadline to complete his broader investigation into foreign interference.

- with files from Mickey Djuric and Dylan Robertson.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2023.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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