Bonsoir, Mr. Chair and honourable members. Thank you for the invitation to appear before you tonight.
I'm grateful for the opportunity to discuss my Tibet trip. I know it's an area of great interest for Canadians and it is at the forefront in our efforts to promote rights and freedoms in China.
I also welcome the invitation from the committee to provide an update on a few developments since my last appearance in February.
As Minister Champagne highlighted during his testimony to the committee last month, we need to be smart and coordinated when it comes to our relationship with China, and we need to work with others. Countries all around the world are evolving their approach to China and all recognize the complexity of the relationship. I think Canadians understand that there are times when we need to challenge China. We need to work with partners to hold them to account. At the same time, there are times when we need to co-operate economically and as we face global issues such as climate change. I'm tremendously proud of the work our embassy staff do every day to navigate this complex relationship.
Our government has clearly laid out my top priority, and that's the safety and security of Canadians, leading with the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as well as clemency for Robert Schellenberg.
Equally, the promotion and protection of human rights is an integral part of our work. We continue to raise both the arbitrary detention of Canadians and human rights issues with the Chinese government in public, in private and in collaboration with like-minded countries.
Our mission network in China has a host of programs that seek to empower progressive voices and shine a light on existing difficulties. For example, in the last month we've hosted a two-day event on women's empowerment to mark 25 years since the Beijing world conference on women. We've also engaged with children of migrant workers and with family members of human rights defenders.
We are concerned by the decline in civil and political rights in China. We, along with the international community, have raised our deep concerns publicly, and Canada has taken concrete measures following the imposition of the national security legislation in Hong Kong. We remain deeply concerned by the troubling reports of human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and the government has repeatedly raised our concerns, including most recently at the UN, alongside 38 other countries. We remain concerned by the continuous restrictions on the freedoms of Tibetans.
This brings me to the focus of this presentation, which is my visit to Tibet. I visited the Tibet Autonomous Region with nine other diplomats at the invitation of the People's Republic of China. In recent years, as you know, access to Tibet has become increasingly challenging, including for foreign government officials. Despite repeated requests, this was the first time a Canadian diplomat had visited Tibet since 2015. My visit was from October 26 to 30, and we visited the Tibetan capital of Lhasa as well as the Shannan prefecture.
I see the invitation in itself, coming after five years of consistent requests on our part, as positive. We were pleased that the Government of China extended this invitation, but I was also very aware that our visit would be controlled and focused on what they wanted us to see. The decision to participate was not taken lightly, and before doing so, I spoke with representatives of the Tibetan community in Canada, with Canadian academics who specialize in Tibetan studies and with experts around the world who work on human rights issues to seek their views. All agreed that it was important for me to participate given that so few have had access to the Tibet Autonomous Region in recent years.
We should also remember that few Tibetans have had the opportunity to connect with foreigners. I felt that it was important for Tibetans to see that outsiders still show up and care deeply about their situation, and for them to see that Canada cares. For these reasons, and as part of a broader engagement on Tibetan issues, I decided to go.
We had a very packed program over three days. Most activities would fit under the themes of economic development, environmental protection, education, culture and religion. What I saw was not the entire picture on any issue, but I nonetheless want to share with the committee what I was able to observe.
On the economic development front, I visited an industrial park with close to 140 greenhouses growing cash crops. I saw busy stores and markets selling Tibetan goods. I met a Tibetan businesswoman who ran a hotel, with Tibetans in management and at the working level. She told me numerous times that the hotel chain, being Tibetan-owned, needed more foreign tourists to come.
I visited a village where people had been resettled as part of a poverty alleviation program. There, I met a man and his family who were nomads, but he now works in the construction trade. I was able to see the beautiful Tibetan Buddhist shrine he meticulously built on the second floor of his house.
Chinese officials often talk to you in numbers and statistics. They point to government statistics, such as absolute poverty having been completely alleviated in the Tibet Autonomous Region as of 2019, or the fact they have close to 100% broadband access across the region. Our own assessment is that inequality remains a critical issue.
Resettlement and displacement of Tibetans are stark reminders that freedom of choice and the ability to live out one's cultural or other values are equally a measure of well-being or prosperity, as is material wealth.
Our group made other visits to places, including the Lhalu Wetlands, known as the lungs of Lhasa, and saw a conservation area teeming with wildlife. We visited the Lhasa experimental primary school, where I saw mostly Tibetan and some Han students being taught primarily in Mandarin, with some teaching in Tibetan, for example, classes in calligraphy, chess and opera. This school was impressive, but I recognized that most schools in Tibet were probably not of that caliber. It would be important to see schools in the rural areas, where almost 70% of the people live.
I visited the Tibetan Traditional Medical University and the Tibetan Thangka Academy of paintings. We visited cultural and religious sites, including the Potala Palace and Norbulingka. Both were profoundly moving, a reminder of the incredible religious and human accomplishments of the Tibetan people and of the importance of ensuring their rights.
At the Samye Monastery, we saw young monks studying. The visit was led by monks and we were able to speak with them. During my entire visit, top of mind were Canada’s concerns about the human rights situation affecting Tibetans, including restrictions on freedom of expression, movement, religion or belief, and the protection of linguistic and cultural rights.
I was able to raise these issues during official meetings and in side conversations with officials in Tibet. I raised specific cases of concern with Chinese authorities while there. I sought out opportunities to speak with local Tibetans. Those whom I met expressed great pride in their culture, and it was evident that the Tibetan language and cultural preservation remain very important to them. In speaking with officials, I advocated for unhindered future access to Tibet for UN agencies, academics, researchers and journalists, as well as return visits by other Canadian representatives.
While my visit to Tibet was short, I hope it opens doors to more contact with Tibetans inside China, and demonstrates that Canada is still very much engaged in the promotion of their rights and freedoms.
Though my appearance today is to be largely about my visit to Tibet, as I understand it, I want to further address the cases of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor; something which I know is very important to members of this committee and all Canadians. As I said earlier, this is my top priority.
This week, December 10, will mark the second anniversary of their arbitrary arrest and detention. We continue to call on China to immediately release both men. In October, after a hiatus of many months, and much effort by the embassy and the minister, we secured on-site virtual consular access with Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. I have since met with both of them on two occasions to confirm their health and well-being. The resilience and strength they have shown has been an inspiration to me, as I know it has been to many Canadians.
In closing, this committee plays a vital role to understand the difficult and complex nature of Canada’s relationship with China. It also plays a crucial role in the national conversation we are having about Canada’s evolving approach to China. The Canadian Parliament, the Canadian government and the Canadian people have a lot at stake in getting this approach right.
With that, I am happy to take your questions.
Merci . Thugs rje che.