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Senator Peter Harder speaks with the media in the Foyer of the Senate in Ottawa on Nov. 29, 2019.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Trudeau government’s former representative in the Senate says a proposed motion in the Red Chamber to condemn China’s treatment of ethnic Muslim minorities as genocide smacks of “moral superiority and self-righteousness,” given Canada’s past conduct toward Indigenous people including in residential schools.

Senator Peter Harder, a former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs who later headed the Canada-China Business Council, recently spoke in the Senate to oppose a motion that would say the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims fits the United Nations’ definition of genocide. A similar motion has already passed the Commons, although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstained from voting.

Activists and UN experts have said a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been subject to mass detention in Xinjiang. China denies abuses and says the centres provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism in the remote western region. Reports have emerged about Beijing’s success in slashing the birth rate of Uyghurs and other minorities through mass sterilization, forced abortions and mandatory birth control.

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Senate motion No. 79, which has not yet been put to a vote, notes that two successive U.S. administrations have labelled China’s behaviour as genocide. It also proposes calling upon the International Olympic Committee to deny Beijing the 2022 Winter Olympics by relocating the Games to another country “if the Chinese government continues this genocide.”

The Dutch, British and Lithuanian parliaments have in recent months adopted similar motions recognizing the treatment of Uyghurs as genocide.

Mr. Harder, however, urged fellow senators to consider Canada’s conduct toward Indigenous people before they vote.

He noted that the debate is occurring after “the tragic discovery” of unmarked graves containing the remains of 215 children and “adds to the indictment of our centuries-long practice of residential schools, forced sterilization and what the former chief justice of Canada described as cultural genocide of our Indigenous peoples,” the senator said.

“This horrifying reality of our history stands in rather cynical contrast to the tone of moral superiority and self-righteousness contained in the motion before us tonight.”

The former Trump administration declared the repression of the Uyghurs to be genocide and U.S. President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said he concurs with that assessment. In addition, a March, 2021 State Department report on human rights issued under the Biden administration declares that “genocide and crimes against humanity occurred during [2020] against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.”

Mr. Harder, speaking to the Senate motion late last week, said this is not the way to engage with China.

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“We should get off our high horse and seek to engage more appropriately, not bellicosely and belligerently, with countries – not just China, but countries that we need to engage.”

Ottawa has already joined with the U.S., Britain and the European Union in imposing sanctions on several Chinese government officials for “gross and systematic human-rights violations” against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslims groups.

Senator Leo Housakos, the sponsor of motion No. 79, said that unlike China, Canada has acknowledged its atrocities. “China still doesn’t acknowledge what they are doing is ethnic cleansing.”

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Beijing’s use of technology to monitor, coerce and control a whole people is providing a how-to manual for other authoritarian powers to follow. “It’s writing the book on genocides of the future,” Mr. Mulroney said.

He said Canada’s shameful treatment of Indigenous people shouldn’t preclude Canadians from identifying and calling out misconduct elsewhere. “We call out the Uyghur genocide and question Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics not as a political statement but as a moral statement,” Mr. Mulroney said.

“Surely if we have learned anything as a country it is that you need to act swiftly against genocide anywhere.”

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Mr. Harder also said he worried that the motion declaring China’s conduct to be genocide could jeopardize the treatment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians locked up by Beijing after Ottawa arrested a Huawei executive on a U.S. extradition request.

In addition, he cited concerns that it could also inflame anti-Asian violence in Canada and hurt Ottawa’s ability to find common cause with China in fighting climate change and building stronger global trading rules.

Asked for further comment, Mr. Harder said Monday that Canada should be humble. “It’s not that we lack moral authority as much as we should speak with humility and acknowledge our own historic (and recent) failings,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “Regardless of the motivation of our governmental and church leaders at the time, history has shown that we were wrong.”

The Globe and Mail asked Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, for comment on whether he feels Canada’s conduct toward indigenous people – in particular, its record of residential schools – precludes Canadians from criticizing China. Chief Bellegarde’s office said that he was not able to respond Monday afternoon.

With reports from Reuters

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