The big headline in the U.K.’s Guardian Tuesday morning was “Canada votes to recognize China’s treatment of Uyghur population as genocide.” The headline was only slightly expanded in the first sentence of the article, which read in part, “Canada has become the second country in the world to describe China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority as a genocide …”
So it is clear that, to at least a part of the international press, Canada (which in any other context would mean “the government of Canada”) is on record as naming and condemning a genocide in China.
The Guardian, however, also noted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet — with one exception — did not “attend the vote.” Nor does it wrestle at all with the fact that only one cabinet minister, Foreign Affairs chief Marc Garneau, “showed up.” And he showed up only to abstain from the vote “on behalf of the government.”
First, a minor point, but a necessary one. Garneau, along with by far the larger number of parliamentarians, did not “show up” in any normal sense. We have a Zoom Parliament these days, after a full year and a bit under the increasingly various and contradictory rules and practices of the COVID regime. Canadians are getting most of their parliamentary proceedings — when Parliament is functioning at all — out of something that resembles the mock home basement TV shows that were a feature of SNL back in the day. The practice diminishes — especially on so serious a matter as the China vote — the seriousness and necessary dignity of our national deliberations.
The practice diminishes … the seriousness and necessary dignity of our national deliberations The second point is on the vote itself. From the Liberal government’s perspective, what can one make of it? Everyone Liberal member who is in the backbench was free to vote how they chose. And they all voted that the treatment of the Uyghurs is a genocide. Now it may well be that is how all of them would have voted without prompt or cue from their leader and his cabinet. It is also plausible that they were allowed to vote “freely” with the tacit understanding that their leadership, cabinet and PM would like them to vote that way. It would give the latter “room.”
Trudeau has made much of his sensitivity on cultural and human rights issues — it’s part of the Liberal code. Also the prime minister, having shown no hesitation in pronouncing on the word “genocide” in the Canadian context, the country’s historical record with Aboriginal peoples, was facing some challenge as to why he would not pronounce on a present-day persecution — some say involving a million members of a minority — by a Communist-ruled country.
The backbencher vote gave some cover to the Liberals’ — shall we call it ambiguity — on a pure human rights issue. The backbencher vote also gave them cover for the next election campaign, whenever it comes. The Liberals will be free to claim, and they will, that “We allowed the vote, and most of us said Yes it was a genocide, and we told China so.”
But then there’s this other matter. The cabinet and Mr. Trudeau, even on Zoom, didn’t show up for the vote at all. I find this quite strange. This was a rare vote on a most significant issue. I’d go so far as to say it’s the government’s most significant international moment to date. It wasn’t some UN speech on general matters, or marking some international “day.” Real people in their hundreds of thousands are in camps enduring all kinds of terrible treatment at this very moment, and the Canadian government was stating what it thinks of the matter.
Abstain if you wish: but stand up, in person and individually, for your abstention. Instead, they sent lonely Marc Garneau, via Zoom — surely he could have personally gone to the Commons — as their stand-in to glide past the moment. It was, at best, undignified.
The overall impact is satisfactory to no one. As the Guardian noted, the government, i.e., in this case the majority of the House, voted that it was a genocide. And so China will read the vote. The Liberal cabinet abstained, presumably to give them the opportunity to say – in private and off the record, you may be sure — to the Chinese government, we really didn’t mean it. Which will not work at all.
Essentially the Liberals want to have their own citizens believe they stand up to tyranny; to the tyranny itself they want to maintain an ambiguity. There is an old saying in popular idiom: you cannot have it both ways. On this issue the government is neither “hot nor cold,” and there is a Biblical quotation on that state which I will leave readers to look up.
Would your concern for their welfare prompt you to try to walk around the genocide issue? What would you be doing that the current Liberals are not? Be specific.