Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne had to correct ambassador to China Dominic Barton on Thursday after the envoy told MPs a Uyghur-Canadian who has been imprisoned in China for 15 years is not a citizen of this country.
Huseyin Celil, a Uyghur activist who became a Canadian citizen in 2005, was arrested in Uzbekistan a year later and sent to China, where he is imprisoned. China refuses to recognize his dual citizenship and has barred Canadian officials from seeing him.
Mr. Barton was asked about the plight of Mr. Celil while testifying before Parliament’s Canada-China Committee on Wednesday evening and told MPs he isn’t a Canadian.
Mr. Barton said he had looked at the case and “because he is not a Canadian citizenship holder, we are not able to get access to him on the consular service side.”
In the Commons on Thursday, Conservative MP Garnett Genuis asked the Foreign Affairs Minister to set the ambassador straight.
“Everyone in this House recognizes that Mr. Celil is a Canadian,” Mr. Champagne said. “We are deeply concerned about Mr. Celil, Mr. Speaker, and we will continue to raise his case at every opportunity at senior levels. We will continue to call upon the Chinese government to give Canadian officials consular access in order to underline his well-being and offer him assistance, like we would do for every citizen.”
Mr. Genuis later told The Globe that Mr. Barton, who ran the global management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. for nine years, should apologize to the Celil family.
McKinsey and Co. under Mr. Barton’s leadership fostered strong business ties with Chinese companies.
Mehmet Tohti, a Uyghur-Canadian activist who was a founding member of the World Uyghur Congress, called Mr. Barton’s error troubling. "He’s not only forgotten, he’s not on the agenda,” Mr. Tohti said of Mr. Celil, who he added has a wife and four children in Burlington, Ont.
Mr. Tohti said Canada’s focus on obtaining the release of two Canadians imprisoned in China last year – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – has overshadowed cases such as Mr. Celil’s.
“The minister needs to instruct the ambassador to issue a clear clarification and apology so that the Chinese authorities understand what our position is and that we are serious,” he said.
Mr. Celil was arrested during a family trip to Uzbekistan in 2006 and handed over to the Chinese in 2007. He was convicted of terrorism charges in a trial that Canada denounced.
Former ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques said the Chinese allege Mr. Celil acquired Canadian citizenship illegally, which Canada contested. “They said he had left China illegally and had never renounced his Chinese citizenship, so they considered him Chinese.”
David Mulroney, another former envoy to China, criticized Mr. Barton’s handling of the matter this week.
“China doesn’t get to determine who is or becomes a Canadian citizen.”
Mr. Mulroney said China is very selective in how it punishes people for dual citizenship. “They ignore the fact that many, many Chinese citizens also hold Canadian passports, including the relatives of highly placed people. But they will pounce when they wish to make an example of someone.”
At Wednesday’s committee hearings, opposition MPs grilled Mr. Barton about his past business relationship with China and whether his family’s investments would influence his actions as envoy to Beijing.
NDP MP Jack Harris asked why McKinsey held a 2018 corporate retreat about six kilometres from an internment camp that holds thousands of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region.
Mr. Barton said McKinsey had had no idea there was an internment camp near in Xinjiang, even though what Beijing calls “re-education” centres had been widely reported in international media.
Mr. Genuis said he found it difficult to believe McKinsey was ignorant of what was happening to Muslim Uyghurs.
“The job of a company like McKinsey is to know what is going on in the world,” he said. “It really stretches credulity to say they had no idea of what was going on.”