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The only shipment of goods impounded by Canadian authorities since Ottawa banned imports made with forced labour in 2020 was later released after the importer successfully challenged the seizure.

This means Canada has yet to identify and seize a single shipment of foreign goods made under coercion despite a commitment to bar all such imports under the renegotiated NAFTA deal.

Last year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government touted this ban as part of its effort to address human-rights abuses in Xinjiang, China, where rights groups and media reports say the Chinese government has committed grave human-rights violations against the region’s largely Muslim Uyghur population, including forced labour.

In October, 2021, the Canada Border Services Agency seized a shipment of women’s and children’s clothing from China after it arrived in Quebec. The agency regularly cites this interception when asked by journalists to identify whether it’s stopped any imports made with forced labour.

But now the agency says the goods were ultimately allowed into Canada because the importing company convinced the federal government the clothing was not a product of forced labour. “Based on documentation submitted during the review process, it was determined that the goods at issue did not meet the terms of tariff item 9897.00.00 and the shipment was released,” Rebecca Purdy, spokesperson for the CBSA said in a statement.

The CBSA declined to identify the importer in question, citing confidentiality provisions in the Customs Act. The shipment was released to the importer in “late winter 2022,” according to CBSA spokesman Patrick Mahaffy.

Ottawa amended the Customs Tariff Act on July 1, 2020, to prohibit forced-labour imports in keeping with a pledge made under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the trade deal that replaced the North American free-trade agreement.

Canada’s failure to identify and seize any goods made with forced labour since then stands in stark contrast with the U.S. government’s record. Further, in fiscal year 2021 alone – from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021 – the United States intercepted more than 1,400 shipments of goods made with forced labour from a variety of countries, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

It was just last year that then-foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne said Canada did not want to be “complicit in the abuse of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.” Forced labour and forced relocation to work in other Chinese provinces, critics say, is the latest stage in a Chinese government-directed effort to exert control over Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which Beijing has described as being infected with extremism.

Lori Waller, communications officer for Above Ground, a human-rights organization that first learned of the CBSA’s release of the detained shipment, said Canada’s lack of success in identifying and seizing goods made with forced labour raises concerns about how seriously Ottawa is taking its pledge to bar imports of such goods.

“No one expects that, two years in, Canada is going to be blocking as many goods as the U.S. But none at all, not a single shipment? That suggests Ottawa hasn’t made enforcement of this prohibition a priority,” Ms. Waller said.

“Maybe more resources need to be invested. Maybe our customs regulations need to be changed to ensure stringent enforcement. Wherever the problem lies, it’s surely fixable.”

Liberal MP John McKay, who is sponsoring legislation to toughen Canada’s approach to forced labour, said Ottawa’s performance to date is disturbing. He called the contrast in seizures between Canada and the United States a “shocking differential” and one that cannot be accounted for merely by the far larger volume of trade between the U.S. and other countries, such as China.

Mr. McKay is the House of Commons sponsor for Bill S-211, which has already passed the Senate and would oblige all companies doing business in Canada to prepare annual reports for the Minister of Public Safety on their supply chains. Under the bill, each company would have to submit a report saying it has examined its supply chains and certifies they are free of forced labour. The certification would be signed by a senior executive at the company who would assume personal liability by signing it.

Ottawa defends its record to date by saying it takes time to assemble evidence to justify an enforcement action. The CBSA says Canada is still in the early stages of implementing the forced labour ban whereas the Americans have had a law forbidding such imports for many decades.

Last year, the United States also enshrined in law a reverse-onus rule that puts the responsibility on those shipping goods from Xinjiang to prove these items are free of coerced labour. That means the U.S. government officially regards all goods produced in whole or in part in Xinjiang as produced with forced labour and barred from entry unless importers can prove otherwise.

The CBSA has said it does not have the legislative mandate to apply a blanket prohibition against imports

Above Ground’s Ms. Waller said Canada needs to consider such a “precautionary approach” to imports from a particular region.

“If goods are most likely made with forced labour, then this should be reason enough to detain them. This wouldn’t set anything in stone; importers would always have the chance to show that they’re not products of slavery to have them released,” Ms. Waller said.

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