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Canada is facing criticism for not publicly reproaching China over its treatment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, where the authorities have placed large numbers of the mainly Muslim ethnic group into internment camps for political indoctrination.

In response to questions from human-rights activists in New York this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t mention China, Xinjiang or the Uyghur people. Mr. Trudeau said he raises human rights “every single time I sit down with any world leader,” before pointing out Canada has a poor track record when it comes to treatment of its Indigenous peoples. “We recognize nobody is perfect,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland then said she had raised “the issue of the Uyghurs” in a meeting this week with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

“We who live in freedom do have an obligation to stand up for people who don’t,” Ms. Freeland said. But she declined to publicly criticize China, saying it’s easier to stand up for others “when there are lots of countries with us.”

Rukiye Turdush, an Ontario woman who is a leader in the small Uyghur community in Canada, said she is “disappointed” with the Prime Minister’s response. “Canada has already apologized to Indigenous people, and is in a very good position to give China good lessons,” she said, offering an alternative message for Mr. Trudeau: “We had residential school problems in the past, and we learned from our mistakes. That was totally wrong. We hope China can learn a lesson from our experiences.”

Opposition MP Peter Kent called the Canadian responses “virtue signalling bafflegab.”

“The Prime Minister’s moral equivalence of China’s brutal oppression of a minority community with Canada’s challenges with our Indigenous peoples might work in a UN salon, but I find it repugnant,” he said.

The Chinese government denies the internment camps exist, saying it is battling extremism in Xinjiang and has protected human rights there by ensuring stability. Researchers estimate about a million people have been taken to the prison-like camps. Former detainees and instructors have described harsh conditions inside the camps, including too little food, mental pressures that have driven some to attempt suicide and unexplained deaths.

Canadian officials have raised concern about the internment camps in Beijing and at the United Nations. In a statement, Ms. Freeland’s spokesman Adam Austen said: “We are gravely concerned about the lack of transparency and due process in the cases of the many thousands of Uyghurs detained in so-called ‘re-education camps,’ which continues to call into question China’s commitment to the rule of law and which violate its international human rights obligations.”

But merely raising human-rights issues with China has “done little to stem Beijing’s growing abuses, including arbitrary detention, torture and repression of Turkic Muslims on an unprecedented scale,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said. “Canada and others need to not just speak but also act – impose sanctions, agree not to return any Turkic Muslim refugees to China, take the lead in forming an international coalition of concerned governments.”

Two former Canadian ambassadors to China expressed sympathy for Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Freeland. “The situation in Xinjiang has reached a level of seriousness that puts it beyond the influence of any of China’s partners working alone,” David Mulroney said. “It is difficult for the government to do more. What else could be done?” Guy Saint-Jacques added.

The trouble for Ottawa, the former ambassadors said, is that China’s economic might has made it difficult for individual nations to stand against Beijing. “China has been successful at silencing many Western countries, unfortunately,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said. He suggested Ottawa ask China to agree to receive a UN delegation to investigate.

“China has correctly determined that by moving forward aggressively they can effectively dismantle, with impunity, any and all aspects of Uyghur culture that they consider to be problematic,” Mr. Mulroney said. “We should be involved in a full-blown effort to raise awareness and build pressure.”

But, he added, “I am not holding my breath. China is mounting the most aggressive and far-reaching assault on religious belief and believers of modern times, but even the Vatican is choosing to keep silent rather than alienate Beijing. Very depressing.”