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Feyisa Lilesa showed solidarity with the Oromo people – Ethiopia’s largest ethnicity – who have been demonstrating against government plans to expand the capital, Addis Ababa, into traditional Oromo farmland in Rio on Aug. 21.Matthias Hangst

When Ethiopian security forces killed dozens of peaceful protesters in a hail of gunfire last month, the Canadian government responded with a brief tweet to say it was "disturbed" by the deaths.

But Canada's Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan did not cancel his scheduled visit to Ethiopia.

Three days after the killings, he arrived in its capital and held a friendly meeting with Ethiopia's defence minister and prime minister, making no public comment about the government's actions.

Canada's muted response to the lethal crackdown on the biggest protests in Ethiopia's recent history is a sign of its continuing close relationship with the East African country.

Ethiopia is often among the first stops for Canadian cabinet ministers when they visit Africa, and it remains one of the biggest beneficiaries of Canadian foreign aid, receiving $108-million from Ottawa last year.

The Liberal government, which has promised a "re-engagement" with Africa, must decide how to engage with Africa's human-rights abusers, of which Ethiopia is among the worst.

The government in Addis Ababa has a long record of jailing and killing its critics, manipulating elections and using Western food aid to reward its supporters and punish its opponents.

The question many are asking now is whether the Liberals will turn a blind eye to these abuses as it tries to revive Canada's often-neglected relations with Africa.

The growing wave of protests against the Ethiopian government over the past 10 months, especially in the Oromiya and Amhara regions, has been the most significant in this authoritarian nation for more than a decade.

And they have spread to the Ethiopian diaspora around the world, symbolized by Ethiopian marathon runners who made protest gestures as they crossed the finish line at the Rio Olympics and elsewhere.

The protests reached Canada last Sunday, at the Quebec City Marathon, when the winning runner, Ebisa Ejigu, a Canadian resident of Ethiopian origin, clenched his fists and crossed his arms in an "X" sign above his head as he crossed the finish line.

The gesture is a sign of solidarity with the Oromo people, the largest ethnicity in Ethiopia, who have been demonstrating against government plans to expand the capital, Addis Ababa, into traditional Oromo farmland.

A week earlier, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa made the same protest gesture as he crossed the finish line at the Olympics.

He won the silver medal – and then refused to return home to Ethiopia, telling journalists that he is afraid of being imprisoned or killed for his protest actions.

"The Ethiopian government is killing my people," he told journalists.

"My relatives are in prison, and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed."

Ethiopian security forces killed more than 400 protesters in the Oromiya region – and arrested tens of thousands more – from last November until June, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

This was followed by the killing of a further 100 protesters last month, reports say.

Canada and other Western countries have long regarded Ethiopia as a useful ally in the fight against Islamist extremism in Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa.

Canada has been one of the biggest donors to Ethiopia in recent years, providing several hundred million dollars in development and humanitarian assistance.

The Liberal government could use this leverage to put pressure on Ethiopia to halt its killing of protesters, according to human-rights groups and Ethiopian-Canadian activists.

"We've been very concerned that the Ethiopian government has had a bit of a free ride from Canada and the international community," said Alex Neve, secretary general of the Canadian branch of Amnesty International.

He said it is "utterly unacceptable" that Canadian officials and cabinet ministers don't apply strong pressure on the Ethiopian government to halt the killing of protesters.

"It is absolutely time for Canada to make clear that this has to stop."

Aside from the short tweet of disapproval from the Global Affairs department, there is no record of public statements by the Liberal government about the killings last month.

But a Global Affairs spokeswoman said Canada is "deeply concerned" about the reported deaths of the protesters.

"Canada has raised these concerns directly with the government of Ethiopia, and will continue to do so," spokeswoman Jocelyn Sweet said in response to questions from The Globe and Mail.

"We continue to monitor the situation closely."

Renée Filiatrault, deputy chief of staff to Mr. Sajjan, said the issue of the killing of protesters was "raised in private bilateral conversations" during the defence minister's visit to Ethiopia.

"While I can't go any further, I can say that the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms is key to our foreign policy and was a topic of discussion in every meeting that we had," she said.

Some activists are urging the Liberal government to halt the flow of Canadian aid to Ethiopia and find ways to penalize the regime for its crackdown on protesters.

"Canada's aid to Ethiopia has been a failed experiment in turning brutal dictators into democrats," said Yohannes Berhe, an Ethiopian-Canadian human-rights activist.

"Spending taxpayers' money without any measure of accountability and without demanding true political reform is, at the very least, a wasteful endeavour, and at worst, tantamount to encouraging one of the most repressive regimes in Africa."

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