OTTAWA — Canada's House of Commons voted unanimously in favour Monday of a Conservative motion declaring as genocide the atrocities committed against ethnic Muslim Uighurs in China's Xinjiang province.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and all of his Liberal cabinet ministers abstained from the politically charged vote, which took place mainly over video, and against the backdrop of all-but-frozen relations between Beijing and Ottawa.
China has imprisoned two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on what the government and dozens of its allies say are bogus charges in retaliation for the RCMP's December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau registered a formal abstention on behalf of the government, drawing audible jeers over the video feed.
Dozens of Liberal MPs supported the Conservative motion, which passed by a 266-0 margin, amid the cabinet abstentions in the 338-seat Commons.
The vote is largely symbolic but represents growing political opposition to widespread reports of atrocities against Chinese minorities, accusations the China's communist leaders vociferously deny.
MPs also voted in favour of an amendment from the Bloc Québécois to call upon the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Olympic Games out of China if the genocide continues.
The Liberal support came after the Conservatives called on Liberal MPs to support the party's motion earlier in the day.
Conservative MPs Michael Chong and Garnett Genuis were joined by Uighur community members at a teleconference Monday in calling for the government's support, suggesting that unanimity would send a strong signal to China.
"We can no longer ignore this," said Chong, the party's foreign affairs critic.
"We must call it for what it is: a genocide."
The Conservatives tabled the motion in the House of Commons last week for vote to formally declare that crimes against Uighur Muslims in China's Xinjiang province constitute a genocide.
The move was non-binding but it has angered China and its ambassador to Canada warned Canadian MPs to butt out of his country's internal affairs days earlier.
Genuis, the critic for international development and human rights, said the Conservatives expected to have the support of opposition parties to pass the motion.
"But we believe the message will be that much stronger and clearer if as many members of the government as possible join with us and show that we are able to stand together on issues of fundamental human rights," he said earlier Monday.
Trudeau has stopped short of agreeing with American officials, human rights advocates and legal scholars who argue the violations amount to a genocide, saying it is a loaded word that has to be used carefully. But he has said serious human rights abuses are taking place in the western Chinese province.
Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden will be discussing China in their virtual meeting on Tuesday.
Opposition parties indicated before the vote they were prepared to support the Conservative motion.
"New Democrats recognize that China's measures of mass detention, forced labour, surveillance and population control, such as forced sterilization, against Uighurs and Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang meet the definition of genocide," said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in a statement.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said his party would support the motion so long as their amendment on the Olympics was passed.
A Green party spokesman said it would support the Conservative motion, and the Bloc amendment.
Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said on Twitter before the vote that he would vote in support of the genocide motion. His backbench colleagues fell in line like virtual dominoes once the voting started.
Earlier Monday, Chong dismissed the Chinese government's claims there is no genocide taking place in Xinjiang.
Ambassador Cong Peiwu recently told The Canadian Press that reports of millions of people in detention camps being subjected to forced labour, sterilization and other abuse is simply unsubstantiated China-bashing.
Chong rejected that denial, saying there are reams of satellite images, smuggled video and documents, accounts from escaped Uighurs and undercover reporting by major American newspapers to document the atrocities.
"The evidence has come in the form of high-definition, high-resolution satellite imagery that has been tracked over time that documents clearly the building of hundreds of detention centers," said Chong.
The Tories were joined by Kalbinur Tursun, a Uighur who fled China and has spoken publicly against the Communist party's treatment of her people in Xinjiang.
Speaking through a translator provided by the party, she said the world didn't believe the horrors of the Holocaust until the concentration camps were exposed for all to see after the Second World War.
"Yesterday's Jews are today's Uighurs," said Tursun.
Two weeks ago, Tursun said Chinese police contacted her with "threatening texts and phone calls reminding me to cease talking." She said she was speaking publicly in an appeal to save the lives of her relatives back home.
A Canadian parliamentary subcommittee concluded in an October report that China's treatment of Uighurs is a genocide, a finding China rejected as baseless. The committee heard from Uighur witnesses who gave first-hand accounts of atrocities.
"What we see before our eyes is not complicated. We see the existence of modern concentration camps," said Genuis.
"When you think of slaves being forced to pick cotton, you might initially think of images of the Antebellum South. But that description equally describes what is happening in Xinjiang."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2021.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press