How a man with two wives helped deliver one big loss to Meng Wanzhou

More than a century before Meng Wanzhou's arrest at Vancouver Airport, another alleged fugitive from U.S. justice slipped across the border into British Columbia — one whose crimes would lay the groundwork for a judge to deliver the Huawei executive a stunning loss this week.

George Collins had apparently made enough money as a lawyer in San Francisco to take up rooms at Victoria's elegant Driard Hotel with his new wife in the summer of 1905. 

Only problem: He was supposed to be on trial for bigamy in California in relation to his other wife back home. And the United States wanted Collins extradited.

At first blush, it's hard to imagine two fates less likely to be intertwined than those of an American lothario born a decade before the invention of the telephone and Meng, the chief financial officer of a global telecommunications giant.

But in the decision she released Wednesday, B.C. Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes drew a straight line between the cases.

She relied, in part, on precedent established by Collins 115 years ago to justify a decision to continue extradition proceedings against Meng, despite the 48-year-old's claim that the offence U.S. prosecutors have accused her of would not be considered a crime in Canada.

A marriage is announced

According to what was then the Victoria Daily Colonist newspaper, Collins was arrested on July 12, 1905, at the hotel where he and his wife had checked in as "Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberry" in the weeks before.

His troubles had begun a few months earlier, when a notice of Collins' marriage to Miss Clarice McCurdy, the daughter of a wealthy widow, appeared in the San Francisco newspapers.

That came as a surprise to those who had watched Collins marry Charlotta Newman in May 1889. 

San Francisco Call

Collins was charged with bigamy after Charlotta's brother told a grand jury he had witnessed the wedding.

A trial was set to begin in June 1905 when Collins fled north.

The shrewd lawyer had ascertained that bigamy was not an extraditable offence under the treaty the U.S. had with Canada at the time. 

But perjury was. 

And so U.S. prosecutors charged Collins with lying about his marital status in a civil suit Charlotta Collins filed in the wake of his betrayal, seeking support for herself and their three children.

And they asked Canada to arrest the two-timer.

'Trumped-up' charge

Like Meng, Collins caught the attention of the headline writers of his day.

They speculated on his wealth and rumours of an expensive mahogany desk and book collection, estimating that he had made "at least a quarter of a million dollars" but that "like many of his kind … he spent his money freely and it was eaten up as fast as it came in."

Collins told the Daily Colonist the charge was a "trumped-up one" and that "he was the victim of a conspiracy which resulted from the fact that he had made many powerful enemies."

And like Meng, one of the key battles in his fight against extradition was over so-called double criminality  — the idea that the offence a person is accused of would have to be considered a crime in both countries to warrant sending an accused across the border to face justice.

In Meng's case, the charge is fraud. 

The Huawei CFO is accused of lying to an HSBC executive in Hong Kong about Huawei's control of a company that violated U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.

Ben Nelms/CBC

Prosecutors claim the banks relied on those lies to continue handling Huawei's finances, meaning they risked loss and prosecution by violating the same regulations.

Meng's lawyers argued that because Canada didn't have economic sanctions against Iran when the case was given the authority to proceed, there could be no loss if the offence had happened here — and so there would be no charge of fraud.

Collins, on the other hand, claimed the lie about his marriage happened in a pleading given to a notary in a civil suit in a way that wouldn't have made it an oath given in evidence had it been done in Canada — and so there would be no charge of perjury.

A hypothetical puzzle

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lyman Duff wrestled in 1905 with the same hypothetical puzzle Holmes, the judge in Meng's case, confronted this week

Exactly what does it mean to transpose the facts of an alleged crime to Canada?

Supreme Court of Canada

Is a judge limited to pretending that no sanctions exist, or that Canadian technicalities wouldn't make a lie an oath?

Or can judges also consider the context around the alleged offence — in effect, making foreign legal considerations part of the Canadian equation?

When it came to Collins, Duff — who went on to become the eighth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada — found they could.

"If you are to conceive the accused pursuing the conduct in question in this country, then along with him you are to transplant his environment," he wrote.

And that meant thinking about the legal environment in which Collins swore he wasn't married to two women.

"Treating the matter in that way, then what have we here?" Duff asked.

"You have an oath taken in a judicial proceeding before a court of competent jurisdiction after a manner in which it was authorized by law. These facts make up the substance and 'essence' of the 'criminality' charged against the accused."

Citing Duff's words, Holmes concluded that she could consider context to find Meng's alleged lie would amount to a crime in Canada — even without economic sanctions against Iran.

"The essence of the alleged wrongful conduct in this case is the making of intentionally false statements in the banker-client relationship that put HSBC at risk," she wrote.

"The U.S. sanctions are part of the state of affairs necessary to explain how HSBC was at risk, but they are not themselves an intrinsic part of the conduct."

'Well, George, we're off at last'

Meng's loss this week is not the end of her battle. 

She still has several chances to fight extradition through hearings to determine whether her rights were violated when she was arrested and whether there is sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution.

She has denied the charges.

Collins was extradited back to California in October 1905, placed on a steamer out of Victoria with only 20 minutes' notice.

A Daily Colonist reporter watched as a detective sent to accompany the fugitive said, "Well, George, we're off at last."

"Collins laughed. 'It does look like it,' he said," according to the newspaper. 

When he got back to San Francisco, Collins was convicted of perjury. 

He was sent to San Quentin to begin a 14-year prison sentence.

He's long dead. And 100 years from now — barring really drawn out proceedings — the question of Meng Wanzhou's extradition will be settled.

But her name and that of George Collins will forever be a part of Canadian extradition law.