In a provocative speech in the upper house on Monday, Independent Senators Group (ISG) Leader Sen. Yuen Pau Woo said Canada should avoid criticizing China for its human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims because our country has mistreated Indigenous peoples.
Echoing an argument made by Chinese officials at the UN last week, Woo said China's policy toward the Muslim minority in Xinjiang province is similar to the colonialism directed at Indigenous peoples in this country, and that condemning the Asian country in harsh terms would be "gratuitous" and "simply an exercise in labelling."
Citing allegations of China's mass arrest of Uyghurs on "terrorism" charges, the forced sterilization of Muslim women and the relocation of their villages, Woo said Canada "did all of those things, and we did them throughout our short history as a country, most appallingly to Indigenous peoples, but also to recent immigrants and minority groups who were deemed undesirable, untrustworthy or just un-Canadian."
Woo, who was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016, urged senators to reject a Conservative-led motion in the upper house that would denounce China's genocide against the Turkic minorities, arguing such a statement would be a "distraction" that would further damage already strained Canada-China relations.
Senate motion no. 79, which was introduced by Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos and seconded by Independent Sen. Marilou McPhedran, calls on the Senate to "recognize that a genocide is currently being carried out by the People's Republic of China against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims."
It also proposes calling on the International Olympic Committee to deny Beijing the 2022 Winter Olympics by relocating the Games to another country "if the Chinese government continues this genocide."
Woo said that while there may be legitimate concerns about the conditions the Uyghurs face, parliamentarians should avoid passing motions on sensitive issues like this because it would needlessly embarrass China or suggest Canada believes it is morally superior.
Canadians may be concerned about the Uyghurs, but our criticism should be made in the spirit of friendship and "out of a desire for China to succeed as a nation of many ethnicities," he said.
"The fact that China does not share our view of individual freedoms or, indeed, our interpretation of freedoms based on the Charter is not a basis on which to lecture the Chinese on how they should govern themselves," Woo said. He added that the Chinese would be appalled by some Canadian policies — such as medical assistance in dying.
Woo said that, in a recent conversation with an unnamed Chinese "interlocutor," he said that some Canadians understand that China's Uyghur policies are "motivated by the fight against terrorism," a "desire to provide employable skills for minorities" and the "need to modernize infrastructure and upgrade living standards" — but are troubled by the reported repression of religious and cultural rights.
"Canadians are saying to Chinese friends that we don't want them to make the same mistakes," Woo said.
Chinese happy with their form of 'democracy': Woo
He also said the Chinese are happy with their form of "democracy," pointing to a recent poll by an organization called Alliance of Democracies, a pro-democracy group led by former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The poll suggested that a majority of respondents from China are generally content with their system of government. In fact, Woo said, most Chinese poll respondents were happier with their political system than Canadians are with theirs.
Most experts agree that China, an authoritarian country run by the Chinese Communist Party's politburo, is not a democracy.
Woo — who leads the ISG, a group primarily composed of Trudeau appointees to the upper house — said Western-style democracy doesn't always produce positive outcomes and there is something to be said for the Chinese system, which he maintains can produce results for its people.
"We are learning the hard way that democratic elections and changes in government over decades have not consistently produced better outcomes for citizens in many industrialized economies," he said.
"I much prefer the vagaries of democratic choice to the certainty of authoritarian rule, but we cannot be smug. We also cannot deny that the Chinese state has its own claim to a kind of legitimacy, even if we don't like it."
Trudeau himself has rejected the comparison between the way Canada and China have handled official injustices. While Canada has recognized its past wrongs, the Chinese regime contends there is no evidence of mistreatment of Uyghurs — despite abuses reported by a number of sources, including a report from the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights.
'Where is China's truth and reconciliation commission?'
The subcommittee's report, tabled last fall, says that China's persecution of this Muslim minority — through mass detentions in concentration camps, forced labour, state surveillance and population control measures — is a clear violation of human rights and is meant to "eradicate Uyghur culture and religion."
"The journey of reconciliation is a long one, but it is a journey we are on. China is not even recognizing that there is a problem. That is a pretty fundamental difference," Trudeau said last week when asked about China's statement at the UN that it was "deeply concerned about the serious human rights violations against the Indigenous people in Canada."
WATCH: 'Pretty fundamental difference': Trudeau responds to China's statement at the UN:
"In Canada, we had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission," Trudeau continued. "Where is China's truth and reconciliation commission? Where is their truth? Where is the openness that Canada has always shown and the responsibility that Canada has taken for the terrible mistakes of the past, and indeed, many of which continue into the present?"
Trudeau said it's important for Canadians and the world to pay attention to the "systemic abuse and human rights violations against the Uyghurs."
In a tweet Tuesday, Housakos, the senator behind the motion, said he was "beyond disbelief" as he sat listening to Woo's comments about the matter.
"Indigenous people in Canada are not pawns to be used to silence criticism of other human rights abuses. They AND China's Muslims deserve better," the senator tweeted.
Housakos said there is no justification for the "atrocities" committed by the Chinese state against this Muslim minority, adding that the "undeniable" systemic repression of the Uyghurs has been well-documented by respected groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
He said Canadian attempts to justify China's actions or to act as "apologists" for the communist regime sends the wrong message at a time when Uyghurs need Western countries to stand in solidarity against their plight.
Another Trudeau appointee, Ontario Sen. Peter Boehm — a former senior official at Global Affairs Canada and Canada's former sherpa to G7 meetings — also talked down the value of a motion condemning Chinese genocide.
Boehm said a similar motion passed by the House of Commons in February resulted in "a lot of media and social media pizzazz afterwards, but it had no discernible impact ... other than to spark an angry reaction from the Chinese government."
He said foreign policy pronouncements should be left to the prime minister and cabinet, not the appointed upper house.
"The very public denunciations that we make will only reinforce an internal Chinese view of us as adversarial. If that's what we want to do, fine. But in the event, it is the people of China who will change that country's behaviour, and if we wish to influence them, I would suggest this is not the way," Boehm said.
"Poking China again is unlikely to change things."