Facing up to our own sins doesn’t mean we must cringe before dictatorships

Canada is finally coming to terms with the harm done by residential schools, and the continuing damage to Indigenous peoples.

So does that mean we’ve lost the moral standing to criticize other countries, and other governments, for wrongs they’re inflicting on their people right now? Do our own sins mean we should just shut our mouths about oppression elsewhere in the world?

The Chinese government certainly thinks so. When Canada joined with other countries at the United Nations in seeking free access to China’s Xinjiang region to investigate alleged “genocide” against the Muslim Uyghur people, Beijing threw the residential schools issue in Ottawa’s face.

China said it’s “deeply concerned about the serious human rights violations against the Indigenous people in Canada.” In the past, Beijing’s spokesman went on, “Canada robbed the Indigenous people of the land, killed them and eradicated their culture.”

Therefore, goes the logic, shut up about the Uyghurs, or for that matter about Hong Kong, denial of democratic and human rights throughout China, the perversion of the justice system for political ends (see: the two Michaels), theft of foreign technologies, and all the rest of it.

This is a classic case of what’s known as “whataboutism” — a time-worn tactic employed by dictatorships and their apologists down the ages. During the worst years of Stalinist totalitarian rule in the old Soviet Union, for example, at a time when millions were being shot out of hand and millions more exiled to forced labour camps, the communist riposte came down to “what about the treatment of Black people in the American South?” Or “what about anti-union laws in western countries?”

In the case of China, it amounts to equating democracies struggling with the legacies of their past and the flaws of their present with a one-party state that not only oppresses Muslim minorities like the Ugyhurs but boasts that it’s all for their own good.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got it pretty much right when he dismissed Beijing’s self-serving and hypocritical criticism of Canada.

“In Canada, we had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he said. “Where is China’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission? … Where is the openness that Canada has always shown and the responsibility that Canada has taken for the terrible mistakes of the past?”

The answer, of course, is nowhere. That much should be clear to anyone who has followed recent events out of Beijing, where under President Xi Jinping the government has become increasingly intolerant of dissent and determined to get its way no matter what.

Yet some in Canada don’t seem to be able to keep this straight. Canadian senators, for example, voted down a motion last week saying China’s treatment of the Ugyhurs fits the UN definition of genocide. The Commons passed a similar motion weeks ago (with government ministers abstaining), but the senators handed Beijing a nice little propaganda coup. No wonder Beijing’s official spokesman was quick to praise them as “people of vision.”

Praise from Beijing is the last thing Canadian politicians should be looking for these days, and it’s disturbing that the majority of senators seem to think there’s something to be gained at this point by soft-pedalling criticism of China.

Even more puzzling was a speech by the leader of the Independent Senators Group, Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, a Trudeau appointee. In rejecting the genocide motion as a mere “exercise in labelling,” Woo cited Canada’s past treatment of Indigenous peoples and other minorities. And, he went on, Canada shouldn’t be “smug” about democracy because Chinese people believe their own system is democratic — but in a different way from ours.

To be fair, Woo insists he wasn’t actually arguing that the two countries are equivalent in how they treat minorities. Instead, he says, Canada should offer its past experience with minorities as an example to China of mistakes they should avoid, rather than just lecture Beijing.

At the very least, though, Woo and other senators managed to muddy the waters at a time when Canada should be clear. Facing up to our own wrongs doesn’t mean we should flinch before dictatorships that are unapologetically oppressing their own people.

We’re acknowledging hard truths about our own past. They need to hear hard truths as well.

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