On Tuesday, following the issuing of a joint statement by 44 countries demanding a probe into the violation of human rights by China in its Xinjiang region, Beijing struck back with a call for a UN investigation into Canada. The charges? Human rights violations against Indigenous people in China.
According to reports, senior official at China's mission to the UN in Geneva Jiang Duan said, "Historically, Canada robbed the Indigenous people of the land, killed them and eradicated their culture... We call for a thorough and impartial investigation into all cases where crimes were committed against Indigenous people, especially the children."
This statement was delivered by Jiang on behalf of a group of countries that included such presumably shining beacons of human rights as Russia, Belarus, Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Who are the Indigenous people of Canada?
Apart from the Inuit and Métis, Canada is home to 630 First Nation communities that together represent 50 nations and 50 Indigenous languages. First Nations refers to any of the Indigenous peoples of Canada officially recognised as administrative units by the federal government or functioning as such without official status. These communities are said to have established homes and trade routes in modern-day Canada between 1,000 and 500 BCE.
On 21 June, Canada celebrates National Indigenous Peoples Day.
(1/3) Today is #NationalIndigenousPeoplesDay in Canada - a day to recognize and celebrate the diverse cultures & achievements of First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation across Canada. pic.twitter.com/ntdlj1TPgq
— Canada in India (@CanadainIndia) June 21, 2021
Following Canada's independence from the British Empire in 1867, it began to exert its influence over the Indigenous peoples, with such instruments as the so-called 'Indian Act' of 1876. Still upheld with Amendments in Canadian law, this piece of legislation limits the self-governance of First Nations peoples, their control over their lands and services they use, such as education and healthcare.
Unlike Beijing that refuses to even acknowledge that there's something amiss in Xinjiang, Ottawa in 2007, set up Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, aimed at addressing injustices meted out to Indigenous communities. Eight years later and after interviewing around 6,500 witnesses, the commission released its findings in the form of a six-volume report.
Canada-China relations have been on the rocks for a while
While the first diplomatic contact between the two countries can be traced back to 1942, bilateral relations between Canada and the People's Republic of China were officially established in 1970. Incumbent prime minister Justin Trudeau's father Pierre became the first Canadian prime minister to visit China in 1973 and it set in motion warming of ties between the two countries.
Over the next few decades, Canada would infrequently irritate China by criticising its human rights record and awarding honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama, relations would remain on an upward trajectory. Aside from the signing of crucial bilateral trade, investment, development and legal agreements, Canada was at the forefront of the process to bring China into the World Trade Organisation's fold.
The arrest of Globe and Mail journalist Nathan VanderKlippe by Chinese authorities in the Xinjiang province in 2017 arguably began the slide as far as Sino-Canadian relations are concerned. Failed trade agreements and the blocked sale of a Canadian construction firm to a Chinese State-owned enterprise exacerbated matters. However, the further worsening of bilateral ties was just around the corner.
On 1 December, 2018, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was detained by Canadian authorities at Vancouver International Airport. The arrest came at the behest of the US, which sought the extradition of Meng for violating American sanctions against Iran. Chinese retaliation was swift, with two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, being detained a week later in China on suspicion of endangering national security.
This was considered to be the nadir of the relationship. Until now.
What is the latest flashpoint between Canada and China?
Over the past couple of years, Canada has been more overt in its criticism and condemnation of China's treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province (ranging from dubbing Bejing's actions genocidal to imposing sanctions) and the draconian Hong Kong National Security Law (ranging from condemnation to scrapping treaties).
The latest provocation, as far as China is concerned, comes in the form of Tuesday's communiqué titled 'Joint Statement on the Human Rights Situation in Xinjiang' and signed by 44 nations including the UK, Israel, Japan, the UK, the US and of course, Canada.
The statement as delivered by Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations in Geneva Leslie E Norton reads, "Credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uighurs and members of other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uighur culture."
Referring to reports of 'torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilisation, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents by authorities', the statement calls on China to 'allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers'.
Based on China's track record of tit-for-tat actions, this statement is reliable believed to be the reason Beijing is now demanding a probe into Canada's human rights record. It remains to be seen just how far this demand goes.