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NBA player calls out Trudeau for Canada’s inaction on Uighur ’genocide'

Free agent, human rights activist Enes Kanter Freedom says he was snubbed by Prime Minister's Office

Basketball player and human rights fighter Enes Kanter says he wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the plight of China's Uighur population but only got a a form letter response in return.

Basketball player and human rights fighter Enes Kanter says he wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the plight of China's Uighur population but only got a a form letter response in return.

Photo:  CBC


NBA star and human rights campaigner Enes Kanter Freedom says he is frustrated with what he calls a lacklustre response from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to his calls for more action to help Uighur Muslims in China.

The basketball player, who is currently a free agent after being cut by the Houston Rockets earlier this year, said he wrote to Trudeau last month to encourage the Liberal government to take a harder line on China at a time when the country is allegedly committing a genocide against a Turkic minority in the country's Xinjiang province.

He said all he got in response was a form letter from someone in the correspondence unit and he's feeling snubbed.

In an interview with CBC News, Kanter Freedom said he doesn't think his letter actually made it into Trudeau's hands.

The response I got didn't actually address any of the specific points I raised. I know if he had actually read it himself, I would've gotten a more thoughtful response, he said.

He cares. I believe he cares about human rights not just in Canada but around the world. If he carries a heart, there's no way he wouldn't respond to me.

Kanter Freedom said he's partnered with senior U.S. congressional leaders and top European Union officials (new window) in his fight against China's human rights abuses but there hasn't been a robust response from the Canadian government so far.

He said the decision by Trudeau and his cabinet ministers to abstain on a House of Commons motion last year officially declaring the horrors in China a genocide was another disappointment.

Canada represents freedom, democracy and human rights and yet it's not taking any real action on China. There's a genocide and the whole world knows it, simply condemning it is not enough, Kanter Freedom said.

Justin Trudeau, put yourselves in the shoes of these people. If your wife was in a concentration camp would you really think the status quo is enough? It's really unacceptable, he said.

Diplomatic boycott won't save lives: Enes Kanter

Kanter Freedom was feted by Republican leaders (new window) in Washington, D.C. last month, with some crediting his advocacy for the passage of a new U.S. law that effectively bans imports from Xinjiang, where Uighur slave labour is alleged to be pervasive.

That U.S. law, which Kanter Freedom has championed with support from Democrats and Republicans alike, bans imports from the Xinjiang unless people or companies are able to prove that the commodities or materials are produced without slave labour. U.S. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law (new window) in December.

In his June 15 letter to Trudeau, Kanter Freedom urged the Canadian government to take similar action against imports from Xinjiang.

He said Canada and the U.S. are economic powerhouses and, if they move in lockstep to ban goods from the troubled region, it could force big companies, like Nike, which once had part of its supply chain in Xinjiang, to rethink doing business with China.

Kanter Freedom, left, takes part in news conference with Sen. Leo Housakos, right, inu June calling on the Canadian government to ban imports of goods made with forced labour in Xinjiang region of China.

Kanter Freedom, left, takes part in news conference with Sen. Leo Housakos, right, inu June calling on the Canadian government to ban imports of goods made with forced labour in Xinjiang region of China.

Photo: (The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand)

At the very least, Kanter Freedom said, Trudeau must do something significant to signal Canada won't tolerate China's abuses, which allegedly include torture, rape, forced sterilization and abortions, state surveillance and the internment of Muslim minorities in concentration camps in the country's northwestern province.

It's genocide. That's how I would explain it. The situation is really bad and a diplomatic boycott — that's not going to save lives, Enes Kanter said, adding it's money that China cares about most.

He urged Trudeau to adopt Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos's Senate bill as government policy, which goes a step further than what was passed through Congress south of the border.

If adopted, S-204 would ban the import of all goods manufactured or produced wholly or in part in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Kanter Freedom said the bill would stop Canada from inadvertently financing forced labour of Uighurs and the human rights abuses of the Chinese Communist Party.

The U.S. State Department has said Chinese authorities use threats of physical violence, forcible drug intake, physical and sexual abuse and torture to force mostly Muslim detainees to work in factories producing garments, footwear, carpets, yarn, food products, holiday decorations, building materials, solar power equipment, consumer electronics, bedding, cleaning supplies, face masks, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other goods.

According to U.S. estimates, more than one million Muslims, including Uighurs, ethnic Hui, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, ethnic Tajiks, and ethnic Uzbeks have been jailed in state-run internment camps where forced labour is a central tactic used for repression.

Des barbelés devant un drapeau de la Chine.

This photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows the Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, south of Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region. - A recurrence of the Urumqi riots which left nearly 200 people dead a decade ago is hard to imagine in today's Xinjiang, a Chinese region whose Uighur minority is straitjacketed by surveillance and mass detentions.

Photo: Getty Images / GREG BAKER / AFP

Most private member's bills — introduced by individuals rather than the government — do not receive ministerial backing, parliamentary time or proceed through all the parliamentary stages needed to become law.

With Trudeau's support, S-204 would have a fighting chance, Kanter Freedom said.

In response to his call for action, a manager from the prime minister's correspondence branch told Kanter Freedom in a June 25 letter that the government is deeply concerned by horrific reports of human rights violations in China and it is advancing measures to address the risk of forced labour from any country.

Kanter Freedom said the response, which was three paragraphs in length, reads like a copy-and-paste job — pre-written lines used to answer general queries about China.

The Prime Minister's Office referred questions about Kanter Freedom's letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly.

Forced labour bill

In a statement, a spokesperson for Joly said the government thanks Mr. Kanter Freedom for his work and advocacy on this issue.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rob Oliphant met with Mr. Kanter Freedom in Ottawa on June 6, 2022 to discuss human rights in Xinjiang. PS Oliphant reiterated that the government of Canada takes any allegations of genocide extremely seriously and we remain deeply disturbed by reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang, including the use of arbitrary detention, political re-education, forced labour, torture and forced sterilization.

The spokesperson said the government has already levied sanctions against four Chinese officials and one entity for their participation in gross and systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang and has repeatedly called on the Chinese government to give UN officials unfettered, and meaningful access to Xinjiang.

While the government has been cool to Kanter Freedom and Housakos's proposed Xinjiang import ban, Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan has said the government is concerned about forced labour around the world — and it's willing to take steps to address it.

Last month, O'Regan said he would back a bill from Independent Que. Sen. Julie Miville-Dechene, which forces Canadian firms to confirm that none of their products or components are made in sweatshops employing children or by people forced to work excessive hours for free or for paltry pay.

Kanter Freedom said he's become a China hawk because he's sickened by what's happened to his fellow Muslims in that country.

He said his advocacy is likely to blame for his stalled basketball career. He was cut after his pointed criticisms generated controversy in China, which is home to tens of millions of NBA fans — a cash cow for the league and its owners.

I love the game and I'm not considering retirement but I won't rest knowing that, on the other side of the ocean, millions of people are losing their loved ones. This is bigger than myself, bigger than the NBA or basketball and bigger than my next paycheque, he said.


John Paul Tasker (new window) · CBC News · Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.