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A private member’s bill to bar all imports from China’s Xinjiang region was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday as Canada debates how to stop goods made with forced labour from entering this country.

The Globe and Mail reported last week that, in the year since Canada changed its customs law to ban the importation of such products, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has intercepted only one shipment from China determined to have been made with coerced labour. That took place last month.

Senator Leo Housakos introduced the bill, S-204, which proposes to block all imports from Xinjiang in China’s northwest. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups, citing leaked Chinese government documents and testimony from detainees, say Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities have been subject to forced labour as part of China’s plan to control the Uyghur population in the region.

Mr. Housakos, who represents Quebec in the Senate, said he’s frustrated that Canada has done little to intercept goods made with forced labour from China. “In a year and a half, they’ve only confiscated one container,” he said. In 2018, Canada signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the successor to the North American free-trade agreement. As part of the new treaty, Canada vowed to stop the importation of products made with forced labour. It enacted the prohibition in mid-2020.

Mr. Housakos said his proposed geographic ban would make the job easier for border agency officials, who must screen millions of products each year.

Separately, a legal challenge will be heard on Dec. 6 in Federal Court in Ottawa over whether CBSA has the authority to bar all imports from Xinjiang on the assumption they are made with forced labour unless importers can prove otherwise. The agency informed a refugee group, the plaintiff, earlier this year that it lacked the power to do this.

Canadians in Support of Refugees in Dire Need, a group whose members include former MP David Kilgour, filed legal action this year after CBSA said it did not have the power under law to enact a presumptive ban on products from one region. The Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project has been granted intervenor status on the case.

Xinjiang produces a fifth of the world’s cotton, and researchers and critics say the Chinese government has committed grave human-rights violations there. China is also the world’s biggest producer of tomatoes, with much of its output coming from Xinjiang.

The United States has enacted a “reverse onus” ban, which means certain categories of goods from the region – such as cotton or tomatoes – are banned unless importers can prove they are not tainted by forced labour.

International trade lawyers said that as a general rule, Canada’s obligations under the World Trade Organization would prevent it from restricting imports from a particular region of China.

However, Canada can impose a form of import restriction under its Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA) in certain conditions. SEMA allows the government to apply unilateral sanctions where “gross and systematic human rights violations have been committed in a foreign state” or where “a grave breach of international peace and security has occurred that has resulted in or is likely to result in a serious international crisis.”

Canada used SEMA to block imports from Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally seized and annexed in 2014. And this still stands. Under this measure, it is prohibited for any person in Canada and any Canadian outside Canada to “import, purchase, acquire, ship or otherwise deal in goods, wherever situated, that are exported from the Crimea region.”

Toronto lawyer John Boscariol, head of McCarthy Tétrault’s trade and investment group, said banning all imports made in whole or in part in Xinjiang “would be a very aggressive move on Canada’s part, and go much farther than our U.S., U.K. and EU counterparts have.”

Toronto trade lawyer Cyndee Todgham Cherniak said the CBSA could be stopping imports from Xinjiang today and asking importers to demonstrate they are not made with forced labour. “My view is the CBSA has the power; they just aren’t doing it,” she said. She noted that the agency regularly stops goods leaving Canada and asks for proof they don’t require an export permit.

The Globe reported last week that Lululemon, official outfitter for Team Canada at the 2022 Olympics, is among dozens of international brands and retailers at risk of having cotton produced by Chinese forced labour in their supply chains. A new report by Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University analyzed supply chain connections identified through shipping records to show how cotton from the Uyghur region circumvents supply standards and import bans to end up on clothing racks around the world.

With a report from Reuters

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