In 1985, in a hallway outside the United Nations General Assembly, Brian Mulroney added a few words into his speech. Words that had been taken out by officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
He marched into the hall and put Canada on the right side of history. He called out apartheid for what it was. He threatened economic relations within the Commonwealth over it. He did not follow Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, Canada’s two closest allies, as neither of them were willing to take the same stand at that point.
This moment, like that one, is a time for Canadian leadership. As then-Prime Minister Mulroney said a few years later: “The movement in favour of human dignity is now irreversible.” And it must be again.
There is genocide going on in Xinjiang. The Chinese embassy in Washington bragged on social media recently about forced sterilization measures being undertaken, going so far as to refer to Uighur women as “baby-making machines.”
The assumption underpinning that horrific statement by an official agent of the Chinese government is they object to the creation of more Uighur Muslim children. No other conclusion could possibly be drawn.
No one wants the athletes to pay the price, but we would sully the value of this important global event by turning a blind eye to the genocide in Xinjiang by the Communist regime. We would not have held the Olympics in Rwanda as Tutsis were being slaughtered. We would not have held the Olympics in Belgrade after Srebrenica and it is an absolute farce to think we should hold them in Beijing now.
China is committing genocide. It has established a police state in Hong Kong. It has kidnapped two Canadians and held them hostage, without cause or due process for two years.
There will be those who say that we shouldn’t inject politics into the Olympics. Or who argue that if the world had boycotted the 1936 Olympics, we wouldn’t have benefited from Jesse Owens. The American’s track and field victories at the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany meant a Black man took the podium with four gold medals, in powerful contrast to Hitler’s vile policies of white supremacy.
That important moment, however, did not prevent those Olympics from being a two-week celebration of a regime that would shortly begin the mass extermination of European Jews.
There will also be those who repeat the tired line that alienating China will only encourage worse behaviour. Underpinning this plea for engagement is not some abiding concern for a stable world order. It is the cold, hard, addiction to a marketplace of over a billion people. That is all. Are we prepared to hang a “for sale” sign on our values as a nation or should the recognition of human dignity be irreversible?
Recently we learned that Canadian athletes are being told what they can and can’t say in China so that they don’t become the target of state security forces. In 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in Mexico City. If our athletes already face restrictions to their speech in China during the Games, what might the Chinese state do to athletes in 2022 who use their podiums to show solidarity with Uighur Muslims?
But not in China.