When it came time to stand and be counted, the “Little Potato” was nowhere to be found. Little Potato is the nickname that Chrystia Freeland told the world China’s leaders had given to Justin Trudeau. I’m sure she thought it was a term of endearment, while to most it sounds mocking and dismissive.
On Monday, Trudeau lived up to the name when it came time to vote on declaring China’s treatment of the Uighurs and other minorities as a genocide.
It’s not that Trudeau voted no and presented arguments as to why that would be the correct position. It’s not that he argued that while China is committing genocide it would be unwise for him as prime minister to comment on the matter.
What Trudeau did was simply remain silent along with the rest of his cabinet, they showed their true cowardice at a time when it mattered.
This is not the Canadian way.
I fully understand that economically, Canada is much smaller than China. I fully understand that two of our citizens are sitting in a jail because the dictators of Beijing decided they should be kidnapped. And of course, any move against China could come with the repercussions.
Yet simply remaining silent and weak as China kidnaps our citizens, attacks our industries, berates our media and threatens our government is no way to act or respond. This course of inaction will not free Michael Kovrig or Michael Spavor and it will not end China’s bullying tactics towards Canada.
Chinese actions against the Uighurs have already been described as a genocide by the United States under former President Donald Trump and under President Joe Biden. International human rights groups have done the heavy lifting of documenting the horrors — even a subcommittee of the House of Commons heard testimony firsthand on what is happening in “detention camps.”
“Detainees are abused psychologically, physically and sexually. They are forbidden from speaking the Uighur language or practising their religion. In an effort to assimilate and indoctrinate them, they are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, Chinese culture and traditions, as well as sing praises to the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese President, Xi Jinping,” the committee reported.
Canada cannot simply remain silent in the face of such evidence.
In 1961 it was Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who pushed for the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth over their adoption of apartheid. In 1985, it was Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who helped lead the Commonwealth and then the world in denouncing apartheid and implementing economic sanctions to bring about its demise.
“My government has said to Canadians that if there are not fundamental changes in South Africa, we are prepared to invoke total sanctions against that country and its regime,” Mulroney told the United Nations General Assembly in 1985. “Our purpose is not to punish or penalize, but to hasten peaceful change.”
Mulroney’s position was not the easy or the popular one, but it was the right one. He showed leadership on the world stage and leadership in bringing along our allies like the United States and United Kingdom – neither of which thought sanctions were the answer.
Where is that leadership today?
It certainly isn’t found in the prime minister’s office.
As Canadians, we should be proud of the fact that 266 MPs from all parties did vote to call out China’s genocide for what it is. The motion to do this was started by Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong, but supported by the NDP, the Bloc and even the Liberal backbenches.
Sadly, the only cabinet minister to make an appearance was Marc Garneau who said he was abstaining on behalf of the Government of Canada. We don’t record abstentions in our system — you are for or against a motion, there is no sitting on the sidelines.
It’s time for Justin Trudeau to get off the sidelines.