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Through unanimous vote on Resolution M-36, the Parliament of Canada recognized August 1 as “Emancipation Day,” the day when slavery was abolished in the British empire. This day was built upon the work of William Wilberforce, British MP from 1780-1825, and his colleagues. While not widely recognized as such, it is a significant and historical accomplishment by a non-government Member of Parliament.

The Canadian parliament should take some satisfaction in adopting August 1 as Emancipation Day, but now the real challenge begins and it’s time to choose. It is widely acknowledged that many of the goods imported from China, particularly the province of Xinjiang, are infected by some form of supply chain slavery.

This incontrovertible fact is backed by a myriad of reports, numerous studies, and conclusions by respected human rights advocates like my former colleague Irwin Cotler. Rather than admitting to this incontrovertible fact, the Government of China is putting some of its courageous corporate critics to a choice: criticize our supply chain slavery and you will be banned from selling goods in China.

Xinjiang Judicial Administration WeChat account, Hotan Prefecture, Xinjiang, 2017
Photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account, 04/2017, showing detainees at a camp.

A recent article in Canada’s Globe & Mail emphasized that companies dealing with China must choose between their ethics and preserving the bottom line. The article goes on to list numerous companies from numerous countries that sell product in China and are essentially forced to choose between doing business in China and criticizing China’s use of forced labour.

China has not been shy about punishing those countries and companies that criticize, including Norwegian salmon farmers, South Korean automakers, Australian vintners, and Canadian canola producers. In truth, China is forcing all nations to choose between their bottom line and their ethics. It is by no means clear how these decisions will play out.

It is obvious that nations who state their abhorrence to slavery and slave-based products will not only be put to the test and challenged by the Communist Party of China, but for the braver ones, they will be uniquely punished as China picks off vulnerable economies. Canada is among the most vulnerable.

The Government of China has so inserted itself into the very fabric of Canadian society that any unwinding will be very painful and difficult. Intellectual property, industrial property, oil and gas companies, and real estate holdings are either indirectly or directly owned and/or controlled by Chinese companies who must report back to their Beijing masters and thereby undermine the very essence of Canada’s democracy and economy.

It is all well and good to pass noble sounding resolutions, but if the Canadian government does not insist on ridding our society of the pestilence of slavery, we will become too weakened to respond. The consequences of which we will become a vassal state enslaved to the whims of Beijing.

When the Parliament of Canada passed by a vote of 266 to nil the resolution to recognize the Chinese treatment of Uyghurs as genocide, it was an act of genuine sympathy and anger at the enslavement of an entire population based on their ethnicity and religion.

The incontrovertible abuse of human rights was acknowledged by the Parliament of Canada in solidarity with the plight of the Uyghur people.

One aspect of China’s angry and irrational response was to sanction eight of my colleagues on the Subcommittee on Human Rights for daring to name the plight of the Uyghur people as a genocide. China’s even more ludicrous response was to say that these are “internal matters.” As if an ongoing genocide is merely an “internal matter” and that should be the end of it.

Once you allow a dependency you are compromised and ultimately you are a slave to the all-powerful and aggressive bully in Beijing. If you think that passing a resolution is merely being a “do-gooder”, respecter of human rights, leftie nice guy, think again. Condemning slavery in any country is in your own self-interest, the self-interest of your family, the self-interest of society, the self-interest of your co-workers, and the self-interest of corporate Canada.

The Canadian government has recently stepped-up its measures against China, including recalling the Canadian ambassador to China, imposing sanctions against Chinese officials, and imposing stricter import controls and other border measures. In my view, these are steps in the right direction but still more could be done, and should be done.

In 2018 I introduced the Modern Slavery Act in the Canadian Parliament to address supply chain slavery. The Bill died with the 2019 federal election but has since been re-introduced by my friend and very able colleague Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne in the Senate of Canada. The Bill has since moved to a Senate committee for study, a development that will hopefully galvanize public and corporate attention to the legislation.

The Bill would require that all large companies doing business in Canada ensure that their supply chains are free of goods produced by slavery. Each company would be obligated to report annually to the Minister of Public Safety and publish the statement online.

Failure to adequately ensure that their supply chains are free of slavery could result in significant fines and a potential ban on the importation of their products. This is in addition to the reputational damage that companies face, a risk that responsible companies are keen to mitigate.

While a somewhat more modest legislative measure than those already in place in countries like France, the Bill would be part of a growing panoply of legislation around the world and form part of a coordinated effort intended to stamp out this scourge.

The proposed legislation is not only an attempt to eliminate this gross abuse of human rights, it is also in Canada’s economic self-interest to do so. Put simply, Canadian workers and companies cannot compete with slave labour.

In addition to the hollowing out of middle-class work forces in North America in part due to globalization, we now face the dual challenge of goods produced at cheap cost because of slavery and the inability to produce our own goods. The pandemic has exposed North American supply chain vulnerabilities in ways not contemplated before.

Moreover, there is a growing concern among NATO nations that while China’s abusive labour practices continue to undermine its trade partners, its ever-increasing share of global GDP is a far more dangerous threat to global security. Their increase in military and cyber capacity is well documented.

While the COVID-19 crisis will continue to dominate both national and international conversations for the foreseeable future, the growing threat of China, the genocide of the Uyghur people, and associated issues of slavery must be addressed in international fora such as the upcoming G7 talks.

Failure to address issues like global slavery not only allows this most serious of crimes to persist, but it will also increasingly undermine economies that operate under the rule of law and compromise the sovereignty of trading nations.

It’s time to make a choice while we still have time to choose.

Written by the Hon. John McKay MP

The Hon. John McKay is the Liberal Member of Parliament for the riding of Scarborough-Guildwood in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


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