Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to shore up international support in the diplomatic feud with China over Canadian detainees, including the pending death sentence to an alleged drug smuggler from British Columbia.
Trudeau spoke with the leaders of Argentina and New Zealand Monday as part of Canada’s ongoing efforts to build support for Canada in its dispute with China.
Trudeau and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern discussed “the detention and legal treatment of Canadian citizens in China and the need for all countries to respect judicial procedure and rule of law,” said a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office.
The prime minister and Argentinian President Mauricio Macri “discussed the arbitrary detention of two Canadians in China and the importance of safeguarding international norms, including judicial independence and respect for the rule of law. They also discussed China’s application of the death penalty to a Canadian citizen,” his office said.
Canada has received support from other allies including the United States, the European Union, France, Britain, Germany and Australia in its ongoing efforts to win the release of two Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were arrested last month.
WATCH: Canada-China relations take another hit
The international outreach has sparked Chinese ire, including a scathing attack from Beijing’s envoy in Ottawa that it smacks of “Western egotism and white supremacy.”
China shot back at Trudeau on Tuesday in expressing “strong dissatisfaction” with his criticism of a death sentence handed down this week to a previously arrested third Canadian, an alleged drug smuggler.
Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was sentenced in 2016 to a 15-year prison term but on Monday, after a new trial, he was sentenced to death.
Trudeau said Monday he was very concerned to see China “acting arbitrarily” by applying the death penalty and that Canada will do all it can to intervene on Schellenberg’s behalf.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday Trudeau should “respect the rule of law, respect China’s judicial sovereignty, correct mistakes and stop making irresponsible remarks.”
Hua told reporters at a daily briefing in Beijing that China expresses “our strong dissatisfaction with this” and is cautioning its citizens about travelling to Canada.
The foreign ministry’s consular affairs office also published a notice Tuesday saying that Canada has recently “arbitrarily detained” a Chinese national _ a reference to Canada’s arrest of Chinese telecommunications executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States.
It urged Chinese citizens to consider their personal circumstances and “fully assess the risks of going to Canada for tourism.”
The notice mirrored Canada’s revision of its own travel advisory Monday that warned of the “risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws” in China.
WATCH: China escalates criticism of Canada’s fidelity to rule of law
Global Affairs says on its website that Canadians are still advised to “exercise a high degree of caution” when visiting China _ which is unchanged _ but it now explains the warning is “due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” It also now warns of the death penalty, as well as penalties for drug-related offences.
Canada and China made a concerted effort to boost tourism last year to take economic advantage of the growing middle class in the People’s Republic. The initiative appeared to bear some fruit with travel in the first 10 months of 2018 exceeding the number of Chinese tourists during the same period in 2017.
Statistics Canada figures show more than 663,000 Chinese travellers visited Canada between January and October, compared with more than 620,000 between January and October 2017.
Hua’s comments add to increasingly strained relations between the two countries since Canada detained Meng on Dec. 1, followed soon after by China’s detention of Kovrig, a former diplomat and Spavor, an entrepreneur, on allegations they were undermining national security.
Rights organizations said Tuesday’s remarks by the Chinese foreign ministry raise serious questions about possible political interference in China.
The Chinese media began publicizing Schellenberg’s case after Canada detained Meng, who faces extradition to the U.S. on fraud charges.
Schellenberg’s aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones, said the family is awaiting any news regarding an appeal.
Schellenberg’s lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, said his client has 10 days to contest the latest sentence.
As an idea, pickleball sounds like a pretty easygoing sport. It’s basically a low-impact version of tennis, played mainly by retirees looking for a way to stay active.
But the reality — at least in Vernon, B.C. — is sometimes very different. As a recent court case lays out, the sport’s exploding popularity in this Okanagan town has come with some major growing pains.
A dispute between the Vernon Pickleball Association and one « unsportsmanlike » player became so tense, in fact, that the RCMP had to be called in, according to court documents.
This week, a B.C. Supreme Court justice upheld the VPA’s decision to permanently revoke that player’s membership, despite his insistence that he would « literally ‘bite my tongue off' » to be allowed to play.
At the centre of the conflict is a man named Lane Roberts, who joined the Vernon Pickleball League in 2015.
Over the next two years, the league says it received numerous complaints from other players about Roberts’ conduct, his insistence on bringing his barking dog to games, and, especially, his habit of trying to coach players who weren’t interested in his advice.
And so, after several warnings and one temporary suspension, the league decided to cancel Roberts’ membership.
He turned around and sued the club and 10 of its members and directors, saying each one should be fined $3,000, suspended from playing for at least nine months « for their foolishness, » and ordered to pay all of his pickleball-related costs for the rest of his life.
‘Ridiculous rule’ against unsolicited coaching
In his statement of claim, filed in B.C. Supreme Court in May, he asks for the club to « recognize their folly in imposing such a punitive, irrational, unreasonable punishment! »
Roberts writes that he was banned from the league because of a « ridiculous rule » against unsolicited coaching, which he describes as « giving helpful tips. »
The VPA, on the other hand, argues in court filings that Roberts was barred from playing for « unsportsmanlike, bothersome and threatening behaviour. »
Vernon has dedicated pickleball courts, which are smaller than regulation tennis courts. (Vernon Pickleball Association)
The feud came to a head in May 2017, when Roberts refused the club’s request to leave his toy poodle Suzie at home during games.
The tiny dog, according to a legal response filed by the VPA, « disturbed and distracted players by excessively barking during matches. The plaintiff would also tend to his dog during play, delaying the timed games and leaving playing partners standing idle. »
The league suspended Roberts from play for a month.
Two weeks into that suspension, Roberts appeared at a club pickleball session in a local park. He says he brought protest signs with him; the league says he stormed the courts and interrupted games by throwing balls over the fence.
Club officials called the RCMP, and Roberts left after police officers arrived and spoke with him, according to the VPA. The league extended his suspension for another month.
‘I will do whatever is necessary’
When Roberts was finally allowed to play again, the club says he continued his unsolicited coaching of other players, prompting more complaints. The president of the VPA sent Roberts a letter that October telling him his behaviour was making people feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, according to the VPA.
Roberts countered that he was just giving « suggestions. » In an Oct. 5, 2017, email to the board, he wrote that he had recently suffered a personal tragedy.
« If there is any time I ever needed pickleball it is NOW and I will do whatever is necessary to be allowed to play. I will literally ‘bite my tongue off’! » Roberts said.
The only equipment needed for pickleball is a plastic paddle and a whiffle ball.
Six days later, the club informed him that his membership would be permanently revoked.
Roberts, who represented himself in court, first tried suing the VPA in small claims court, but that claim was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. He filed again in B.C. Supreme Court, writing that he’d been forced to take an « arduous, gut wrenching, lengthy route to get this INJUSTICE overturned. »
Roberts ‘created a hostile environment’
On Tuesday, Justice Sheri Ann Donegan dismissed Roberts’ lawsuit, saying he’d failed to prove his implied claims of abuse of public office, conspiracy, intentional infliction of mental distress and intimidation.
She said the club had a duty to provide a safe and fun environment for other players.
« Despite their best efforts over the last years to accommodate Mr. Roberts, the evidence proves that his continued disregard for the bylaws and code of conduct, episodes of aggression and continued unsolicited coaching created a hostile environment within the VPA, » Donegan wrote.
She pointed out that Roberts can always play pickleball in one of the many nearby towns that offer the sport — in fact, he could play with friends in Vernon when the VPA isn’t using the courts.
The justice said Roberts will have to pay the league’s legal costs.
Sam Sorbara was 14 when his family fled the poverty of an Italian village in 1925 and settled in southern Ontario. His alcoholic father all but abandoned the family and his mother died within a few years of arrival.
After the Great Depression hit, Sam’s family worked the streets to survive. They bootlegged booze and stole coal to stay warm. Sam was caught using counterfeit bills in Toronto and sentenced to three years in jail.
Later, he sold mineral feed to farmers in the Toronto region and started buying land from those anxious to sell. His efforts eventually made him a leader in Toronto’s Italian-Canadian community and a wealthy man. When he died in 2002, at the age of 91, he left behind the family-run Sorbara Group, a multi-faceted real estate company with current assets estimated by one of its owners at $1.4 billion.
His legacy is now under threat. The company he founded has torn his family apart. His four children — including former Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara — are locked in a bitter succession battle that has placed the company’s future in doubt.
“It’s cause for real sadness,” says Greg Sorbara, “another situation where money poisons enduring family relationships. »
Each sibling owns 25 per cent of the Vaughan-based private company. It develops and builds commercial buildings and low- and highrise housing, along with providing financial services. It owns, operates and manages more than eight million square feet of industrial, commercial, office and residential properties.
The legal part of the family feud began in October 2016, when Joseph Sorbara, the oldest of Sam’s children, filed an application in Superior Court against his siblings — his brothers Greg and Edward, and his sister, Marcella Tanzola.
Joseph, who is 76 and co-ran the company for three decades, has asked the court to declare that his siblings “have engaged in conduct that is oppressive and unfairly prejudicial” to his interests in the company. He also requests that it order his brothers and sister to do one of two things: buy Joseph out or liquidate the company and divvy up the proceeds.
“Joseph has lost all confidence in his siblings, and in particular Edward and Gregory and their ability to look after the best interests of the Sorbara Group,” says Joseph’s application to the court.
“Joseph and Edward have irreconcilable differences with respect to the day to day running of the Sorbara Group and its future plans and on this basis it is no longer possible for them to carry on in business together,” his application adds.
The application makes clear that at the heart of the dispute is Joseph’s attempt to have his eldest son, Paul, “ultimately take over his role as the co-chief executive officer of the Sorbara Group.”
But in August 2014, “Gregory, with Edward’s support, deliberately fired Paul without cause.” Joseph’s application claims the firing occurred after Paul “discovered that the presentation of the Sorbara Group’s financial materials appeared to conceal poor performance and a substantial underperformance of the Sorbara Group’s sales targets.”
The application’s claims haven’t been tested in court.
In a written statement to the Star, Greg Sorbara says Joseph’s allegations of “oppression” began about two months after Paul was “terminated.” He denies the financial allegations and adds that the company has performed “stronger than ever” in the past five years, and earned “unqualified audit opinions” from auditors, which means financial statements fairly represented the company’s financial position and results.
“Disputes often occur in family-run enterprises, especially when it comes to issues of intergenerational involvement and succession,” adds Sorbara, who at 72 is the youngest of the siblings.
“Obviously we are disappointed and saddened that this dispute has not been resolved amicably, and while we hold out hope that an amicable resolution will eventually be reached, for now we are addressing Joseph’s concerns in the court proceedings.”
Greg Sorbara adds that the company employs more than 200 people and has “60+ stakeholders consisting of our extended family.”
“This creates an enormous responsibility for our management team, which is why we have always insisted that senior executive positions be assigned based strictly on merit,” writes Sorbara, who has six children and 15 grandchildren. “We believe that is in the best interests of the business and our many stakeholders, including Joseph and his family.”
He said affidavits that respond to Joseph’s claims have not been filed with the court and can’t for now be shared with the Star. He adds that his side can’t comment on the merits of the case because it is before the courts.
Requests to interview Joseph and Edward, made through their lawyers, went unanswered. Paul Sorbara also did not respond to interview requests.
“You should wait for the (court) hearing if you want the whole story,” said Joseph’s lawyer, Alan D’Silva, of Stikeman Elliott LLP, adding it would likely happen next April or May.
By 2016, the dispute allegedly resulted in personal insults.
Joseph’s application states that while he was hospitalized for an intracerebral hemorrhage in June that year, Edward emailed “many” Sorbara family members claiming Joseph “had not done any meaningful work throughout his 30 plus years at the Sorbara Group.”
The email, the application adds, also accused Joseph of “taking advantage of their sick father to impose himself in the business” and “personally insulted (Joseph) and members of his family in the most destructive of ways.”
The dispute is shaking the foundation of the house that Sam built. It dates back to 1942, when the patriarch started Adriatic Insurance Brokerage, a company that expanded into the real estate business and spawned the Sorbara Group.
Edward joined his father’s company in 1968, after earning an MBA. Joseph went into law. With his sister’s husband, he established the Tanzola & Sorbara law firm in 1971, which handled the legal needs of the Sorbara Group.
Greg Sorbara served as an Ontario Liberal MPP from 1985-95 and 2001-12. He held several cabinet posts, was president of the Liberal party, and wasn’t involved in the family business during his time in politics, according to Joseph’s court application. Sam’s daughter, Marcella, never worked in the company.
Joseph joined the company in 1985, when his father’s health was deteriorating. He and Edward were “partners of equal weight” and co-CEOs.
“Not only did they have the final say on every significant decision that affected the Sorbara Group, but their historical practice has been to make all such decisions together,” Joseph’s court application says. The two brothers, it adds, “signed all cheques together.”
In his statement to the Star, Greg Sorbara agrees: “From 1989 until 2015 Joseph and Edward served as co-CEOs. No substantive decisions were made nor initiatives undertaken in the absence of agreement between the two of them.”
The company had no formal corporate governing structure. There was no protocol for calling or conducting meetings and no shareholder agreement that defined the business relationship between the siblings, Joseph maintains.
“Instead, governance depended on the ability of Joseph and Edward to do business together,” his application states. “Disagreements had to be resolved and compromises reached, otherwise, as equal partners, the Sorbara Group could not function.”
In the mid-1990s Joseph and Edward consulted PricewaterhouseCoopers about succession planning. The brothers “wanted to ensure that a process was in place for the business to be transferred to the next generation of the Sorbara family,” Joseph’s court document says.
Joseph, who once chaired the York University Development Corp., was close to retirement. He says he wanted someone from his immediate family to take over his role in the company, thereby ensuring that his children and grandchildren “would be looked after.”
In February 2003, Joseph’s son, Paul, a lawyer with an executive MBA from U of T’s Rotman School of Management, joined the company. Joseph wanted Paul to succeed him as co-CEO, but Edward allegedly had other designs.
“Edward has unilaterally promoted certain third generation family members without Joseph’s consent and appears intent to continue to do so in complete disregard to Joseph’s opposition to these practices,” Joseph’s court application says.
Joseph does not want his interests in the company overseen by people “that have been appointed without his consent,” it adds.
With the extended family growing, Greg Sorbara proposed an advisory board to deal with governance and succession. It was made up of the four siblings and a member from each of their families. Greg became the board’s chair and Joseph appointed Paul as his family representative.
In the meantime, Joseph and Edward clashed over the company’s direction. Joseph opposed “Edward’s insistence on investing nearly all income and capital generated by rental properties in development projects that were not generating adequate financial returns” and were poorly managed, his application claims.
The brothers couldn’t agree on whether the company should focus on pursuing income from rental properties and diversifying investment or doubling down on investing in land for housing and condos, it adds.
Joseph claims Edward increasingly left him out of project decisions while refusing to provide adequate information on the company’s financial performance.
In his statement to the Star, Greg Sorbara said the company’s chief financial officers always reported directly to Joseph and Edward. And the company’s auditors “have never identified inaccurate or inadequate financial reporting.”
Joseph’s application to the court describes the company’s finances as “opaque and in some circumstances inaccurate.” It states that between 2010 and 2014, the company spent about $233 million on “development activities but had no clear assessment of what profits had been made or how the projects were performing from a cost, timing and value perspective.”
“Even based on the financial data available, it is apparent that the Sorbara Group is not being run in a prudent and businesslike manner,” Joseph’s court application claims.
It cites the example of the company’s planning, marketing and sales division, which Joseph claims “created a $14 million operating deficit.” Rather than address “this failed business model,” Joseph adds, the Sorbara Group has been using loans from its banking entity, Antica, to fund the deficit.
“It appears that, through Edward’s now-unilateral directions, monies are being taken out of the Sorbara Group’s profitable business ventures and used to fund an ever-increasing deficit,” Joseph’s court request alleges.
Joseph also accuses Greg Sorbara of attempting to “entrench himself as chairman” of the advisory board while blocking any succession planning and the setting up of a governance structure.
His application to the court calls the firing of his son “capricious” and says it fuelled Joseph’s “marginalization” in the company. It insists there’s no way for Joseph to ensure that his 25-per-cent interest in the company is being properly managed.
A formal mediation process, started in March 2016, failed to bring peace. Joseph then had a severe stroke, followed by what his application describes as Edward’s poisoned email to the extended family.
“Notwithstanding the litigation we wish only the very best for Joseph and his family,” Greg Sorbara says in his statement. “He and his family continue to share the full benefit of their stake in our business.”
There is no evidence that Joseph is having a change of heart. He accuses Edward of running the Sorbara Group “as if it was his own private group of companies” and of “depleting” its value. He estimates the company’s assets at $1.4 billion, wants his siblings to buy him out, and asks the court to appoint an inspector to determine the fair value of his share.
Barring that, Joseph wants the court to order that the company his father built to be dissolved.
Sandro Contenta is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @scontenta