Canadians are obviously delighted that the two Michaels, Kovrig and Spavor, are back home from their unjust detention in China for 1,020 days. But what about the third high-profile Canadian still in prison there?
There’s not a peep about Huseyin Celil, who has been in prison far longer, since 2006. The only difference between his case and that of the two Michaels is that he is a new Canadian, he is Muslim, and he is not white.
Celil — pronounced Je-lil — has not had a single Canadian consular visit all those years. Contact with his mother and sister in China was cut off five years ago by the Chinese authorities. We know nothing about his condition. We don’t even know if he is alive.
But we don’t seem to care. He is seemingly at the bottom of the Canadian totem pole.
He has been an advocate for his people, the Muslim Uyghurs, China’s most persecuted minority. He was jailed in China. He escaped to Canada in 2001 after he was recognized by the United Nations as a refugee. After he became a Canadian citizen in 2005, he and wife Kamil went to Uzbekistan to see her family. He was grabbed by the regime there and handed over to China.
And what of the federal opposition leaders, especially Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh for their relative silence? Not much was ever expected of Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois, he who took great offence at even being asked in the leadership debate about the discrimination embedded in the Quebec law known as Bill 21 that is directed at religious minorities, especially Muslims.
On election night Monday, when O’Toole was making a pitch for the continued relevance of his defeated Conservative party, he said this: “Whether you are Black, white, brown or from any race or creed, whether you are LGBT or straight, whether you are an Indigenous Canadian or came to Canada five weeks ago or five generations ago … whether you worship on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, every day or not at all — you are an important part of Canada.”
And what of the Canadian media?
They kept up an exemplary vigil about the two Michaels but have hardly bothered about Celil’s fate. The only news stories we’ve seen over the years have been mostly those prompted by Amnesty International and other human rights groups. No anniversaries or other landmarks were noted from the front pages, as for the two Michaels.
Our political as well as media establishment have not caught up with the evolution of pluralistic and multicultural Canada. “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” — Trudeau’s formulation — sounds an empty slogan in the context of Celil.
In 1985, when an Air India jet was blown up over the Irish Sea, killing all 329 on board, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney dashed off a note of condolence to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, on the assumption that the victims were Indians. In fact, most were Canadians. Immigrants, especially non-whites, weren’t then considered quite Canadian even if they had become fellow citizens. That had prompted a Bob Dylan-esque anguish from me: How long must a man live in Canada /Before they call him a Canadian? / The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
Here we are 36 years later being reminded that the Canadian hierarchy is still more or less intact.
The Michaels are home, in return for the release of Meng Wanzhou from Vancouver. A straight swap, despite all the highfalutin talk, from both Canada and China, of the rule of law and protocol. Only a notch better than the “creative incompetence” John Manley, former Liberal deputy prime minister, mischievously suggested in 2018 to get out of the mess of America’s making. But the Trudeau-arranged swap is a whole lot better than “getting tough” with China, as conservative ideologues have been hollering for months, without ever saying how.
Dominic Barton, Canada’s obviously very capable envoy to China, spent three weeks in Washington last spring, trying to persuade the U.S. to drop its extradition request for Meng for alleged breach of American sanctions on Iran — as vindictive and ineffective as the never-ending American sanctions on Cuba. Did Barton include Celil in his diplomatic manoeuvrings?
A greater question looms. How to deal with China?
China has worked its way back to its historic economic prominence. The U.S. and others obviously find it hard to swallow. Thus, all the tough talk, a new cold war and a whole lot of hypocrisy over human rights, especially in Hong Kong, which Britain and the West exploited for 99 years, discovering democracy only on the way out in 1997.
Thus also, the new submarine deal between the U.S., Britain and Australia, a deal that Canada was mercifully left out of.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, John Diefenbaker sold wheat to Russia. In the 1980s Pierre Trudeau opened the West’s relations with China. Neither had any illusions about the cruel regimes in Moscow or Beijing. Similarly, we need to chart an independent path, rather than take orders from Washington in a new ideological warfare.