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Neal Dolan: Canada can’t afford to stay silent on China’s residential schools for Uyghurs

Commentary

Two words to chill Canadian hearts appear in the Sept. 1 United Nations report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang: “residential” and “school.”

The document confirms the worst that has been reported since the New York Times first broke the story in November of 2019 about a large network of prison-like camps maintained in western China for the purpose of “re-educating” Uyghurs and other Islamic ethnic minorities.

Just as Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald believed that Indigenous cultures rendered Canada’s native peoples intractable to the norms of an emerging modern commercial nation so, it seems, does China’s President Xi Jinping hold that Islam per se fosters violent opposition to China’s secular Marxist state: “As soon as you believe in it,” Xi said in one of the secret party leadership speeches leaked to the New York Times, “it’s like taking a drug, and you lose your sense, go crazy and will do anything.”

Xi shares Macdonald’s view, moreover, that the best antidote to such cultural intoxication is to forcibly separate susceptible individuals from kin and community. The state program of “de-extremification” compels Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims to reside away from home for a time in barbed-wire compounds under armed guard while Chinese Communist Party values are instilled by the harshest of means.

Comparative cultural genocide is a bleak study, but as is so often the case, Chinese demographics dwarf Western ones. Whereas roughly 160,000 Indigenous people were sent to Canadian residential schools in the 110 years of their institutional life span, the UN estimates that between 1 and 2 million people, possibly as much as 20 percent of the population of Xinjiang, underwent residential “retraining” between 2017 and 2019.

China claims to have since closed the centres, presumably due to international pressure. But the new UN paper shockingly reports that since 2019 the number of Xinjiang residents incarcerated in conventional prisons has risen in direct proportion to the numbers putatively no longer detained in re-education camps.

In the Chinese camps the period of residence has been comparatively brief — anywhere from two to eighteen months, depending on the perceived depth of the person’s “subjective malice” towards the state. And in China the residents are adults rather than the growing children who were so cruelly uprooted and re-educated in Canada. But the methods used in China have been intensive, violent, and technologically enhanced — drawing upon, in Xi’s own words, “all the organs of dictatorship.”

The UN report relates horrific details supplied by former residents about frequent torture, systematic rape, sexual assault with electric wands wielded by police guards, forced labor, compulsory sterilization, and required ingestion of pills that produce a kind of brain fog. Perhaps needless to say, residents have not been permitted to read the Koran, to say prayers, to grow beards, or to observe any Muslim rituals. They are instead made to sing “red songs” for hours on end: “We were forced to sing patriotic song after patriotic song every day, as loud as possible and until it hurts, until our faces become red and our veins appeared on our face.” Even after leaving the camps, the former residents and their families have been required to periodically host protracted visits to their homes by new “family” members delegated by the state to ensure continuing fidelity to “correct” ideas, values, and behaviours.

All these horrors have been perpetrated in the name of schooling. An Orwellian web of wooden education euphemisms seems to have reached as far and wide as the network of watch-towered camps. The residences themselves are called “Vocational Education Training Centers.” In a government white paper and in response to UN questions, the Chinese government characterized them as “schools by nature,” which “deliver a curriculum.”

To be forced to go them is to be sent “to study.” The prevailing Maoist pedagogical approach goes heavy on “political teachings” and “rehabilitation by self-criticism.” Gratitude is stipulated as the appropriate response for “this chance for free education that the party and government has provided to thoroughly eradicate erroneous thinking.” To come out alive from this traumatizing ordeal of cultural erasure is to “graduate.”

The response by the Canadian government and leading Canadian institutions to disclosures about Canada’s residential schools has been robust, if tragically belated. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has initiated something of a national reckoning on the matter, especially in schools and universities. But the response to the Xinjiang situation has been far less fulsome, notwithstanding its scale, severity, and comparative temporal immediacy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did publicly scold China when word first got out; several Chinese officials were sanctioned; and in early 2021 parliament voted unanimously to “chastise” China for nothing less than “genocide.” But public discussion soon got mired in semantics when Trudeau himself voiced reluctance to apply the term “genocide,” and little has been said publicly about the new UN report’s authoritative confirmations of appalling, large-scale, and ongoing human rights crimes.

Such comparative reticence prompts a difficult question. Is there not some inconsistency, not to say hypocrisy, in performing ceremonials of public remorse about human rights crimes committed in the past while responding cautiously to similar offenses being committed in the present on a far larger scale, albeit in distant places?

As a significant trading partner with China and as the university educator of large numbers of Chinese citizens, Canada would seem to be in a position not only to speak out, but to actively intervene in a more meaningful way. Any policy decision affecting Chinese trade carries weight with China’s leadership, and the Chinese upper classes would certainly take notice if deprived of a preferred option for educating their children abroad. Could it be that ever-increasing dependence on China’s money is inhibiting Canada’s response?

Readily available public figures show that China is Canada’s second leading trade partner and trending upward. And nearly 20 percent of University of Toronto’s annual revenue, to speak of just one large Canadian university, comes from the more than thirteen thousand Chinese nationals who are paying the full $60,000 tuition charged to international students.

Hesitancy to reconsider such economically advantageous relationships is understandable from a purely pragmatic point of view. But in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose report calls for “virtually all aspects of Canadian society…to be reconsidered,” such reserve seems starkly morally compromising. And the compromise will become yet more discomfiting in the not unlikely event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and the ensuing “sinification” of its people advocated by hardline Chinese scholars.

Will University of Toronto, for example, be able to speak out properly if China threatens to abruptly deprive this great institution of 20 percent of its revenue by recalling its students overnight?

The reports from Xinjiang provide a horrifying preview of just what the “sinification” of Taiwan might look like. And they provide a portrait of President Xi as a leader at ease with such brutal dictatorial measures. It would be better for Canada to begin to speak and act now than to atone again when it’s too late.

Karen Restoule: How to commemorate Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Commentary

Today marks the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day to honour survivors and deceased children of Indian residential schools, their families, and their communities, and to ensure public commemoration of the history and ongoing legacy of residential schools. 

In its introduction last year, many questioned the need to mark this as a federal statutory holiday with concerns as to whether the day would be respected and marked with reflection and atonement or whether the day would be treated flippantly as a “day off”. We witnessed a somewhat typical response aligned with other national holidays: some went about their day without much thought, some recognized the intent of the day without support for making it a national holiday, and others support the national holiday but forewent commemoration, ceremonial, or learning activities in favour of a long weekend trip

Curious, I took to a search engine to see the top searches related to the day for this year. I was encouraged to find that nobody was asking “what” the day is in the top searches. It seems that many, if not most, know what the day is for. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there were many related searches as to how one could get engaged.  

In discussing the search results with friends, one put it to me clearly: “Honestly, and maybe I’m just an idiot, but one of the main questions for someone like me is how should I properly and respectfully mark the day, and in a tangible way—especially in comparison to National Indigenous Peoples Day?”

I can appreciate the confusion.

National Indigenous Peoples Day, observed on June 21 of each year, is a day for Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples. It was introduced in 1996 through the Proclamation Declaring June 21 of Each Year as National Aboriginal Day, since then renamed National Indigenous Peoples Day. It was established in response to calls from Indigenous leadership and a 1995 recommendation set out by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.  

As reflected in the proclamation, June 21 was selected to align with a day of significance for Indigenous peoples—the summer solstice. It is this day that Indigenous peoples honour the Sun as it takes its place at the highest point in the sky. It is the day most filled with light and one that has been celebrated for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples who gather to give thanks for the bounty that has been provided by Mother Earth. 

National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, on the other hand, is a day to ensure public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing legacy of residential schools. It was introduced in June 2021 and is an official federal holiday. It is also considered to be a government response to one of the calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

September 30 was chosen to recognize Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters, an Indigenous-led commemoration that came out of a 2013 reunion of residential school survivors who had attended the St. Joseph Mission Residential School in British Columbia. A spokesperson for the reunion, Phyllis Webstad, who was forcibly removed from her family at six years old and brought to the residential school in 1973, shared her story of how she was instructed to remove her favourite orange shirt gifted to her by her grandmother and change into the residential school’s uniform. She never saw her orange shirt again.

What many, myself included, struggle with on holidays like these is the lack of clarity around societal expectations. I can appreciate that it might feel the events and decisions have not necessarily been within our control. This type of holiday tends to have a heavy focus on building knowledge and creating awareness and leaves little instruction as to what steps can be taken to correct our course and better position ourselves moving forward. To help clarify, I believe our responsibility as citizens of this country is to take up the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report in 2015, it issued a call to Canadians to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation” in tangible ways. The short document, which can be found here, offered clarity on how to do that with 94 separate calls to action.

While these are essential to moving us in the right direction, they should not be seen as a checklist of items that, when completed, guarantee us a reconciled state. Reconciliation requires the sharing of truth, apology, and commemoration—all of which acknowledge and redress past harms. It requires, like a marriage, an ongoing commitment to continuing to learn about and respect one another, an ongoing commitment to renewing that relationship every year, and a willingness to want to make it work—not only for the betterment of Indigenous peoples but for the benefit of the country as a whole. 

The question becomes: what range of power and influence do you hold? And are you honouring your leadership in those roles? What opportunities exist within your range? I once described this as, “Doing what you can within your hug range.” And if your wing span is wider than the norm, bonus for us! Take action on what is within your range of responsibility and accountability, and whatever isn’t, influence it. And while a demonstration of support and commitment to reconciliation on September 30th is welcomed, it’s the follow-through on real, tangible initiatives on every other day of the year that are most important. 

For instance, we have recently seen some exceptional advancements on large-scale projects like the precedent-setting deal that saw Hydro One and First Nations across Ontario coming together to launch an industry-leading equity partnership model on new capital transmission line projects with a value exceeding $100 million. Or like Enbridge, who recently announced an agreement whereby 23 First Nation and Metis communities will acquire an 11.57 percent interest in seven pipelines in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta for $1.12 billion, making this the largest energy-related Indigenous economic partnership transaction in North America to date. 

Maybe you’re not a corporate shark who is in a position to sign off on multi-million dollar deals with Indigenous communities. Or maybe you’re at the very beginning of your learning journey. That’s okay. We all start somewhere. Wear an orange shirt. Buy the orange sprinkled donut at Tim Horton’s. Pull together your friends and colleagues for a book club and read that bestselling novel written by an Indigenous author. Hire an Indigenous caterer. Watch an Indigenous produced and directed film. Purchase birthday gifts from Indigenous artists and designers. Make a commitment to procure products and services from Indigenous businesses. 

Revisit your own assumptions about your surroundings from your living room by checking out www.whose.land to learn more about Indigenous communities in your region, or whether there was a residential school in operation near where you live now. Maybe you grew up down the street from a residential school and you didn’t know it. 

In any event, regardless of where each of us is on the journey to reconciliation, the challenge is still there. Let us reflect together, on a day set aside for just that. Take what actions are achievable. 

As Justice Lamer of the Supreme Court of Canada put it in his 1997 decision in Delgamuukw: 

“Let us face it, we are all here to stay.” 

So, let’s put in the work to make this work.