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Long read: Paul Evans on China and the Canadian Tragedy

Paul Evans
UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs professor Paul Evans at his retirement celebration at UBC’s Institute of Asian Research. Photo by Ng Weng Hoong.
A leading voice on Canada’s Asia engagement, Evans reflects on his 43-year adventure in academia and foreign policy advisory work
Basking in the warm tributes of friends, colleagues, students, and a former prime minister no less, Paul Evans delivers a retirement speech laced with references to mistakes, failures, and “a tragic undertaking”.
Did the former Canadian academic and foreign policy adviser just rain on his own sending-off parade? Tragic undertaking of what and for whom? The notion sits incongruously in the context of the occasion and the setting of a beautiful, unseasonably sunny autumn day at the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus just outside Vancouver.
What Evans did was pull off another contrarian moment that was a signature of his 43-year career combining academia with foreign policy advisory work. He has delivered a dose of reality check through understatement and light humour to engage the audience. It is a skill honed from decades of addressing difficult international relations issues to audiences, both at home and abroad, especially in Asia.
Amitav Acharya, an international relations expert and professor at the American University in Washington, D.C., starts the evening by grading Evans’s performance in Canada’s efforts to engage policymakers, academics, and influencers in Southeast Asia.
“I haven’t really seen…anyone who has commanded the kind of admiration and respect as Paul Evans.
“That is not an empty claim because it is earned on the back of years and years of very serious engagement.”
“Masterful” is how retired UBC political science professor Brian Jobs describes Evans’s ability to work with a range of diverse personalities pushing different perspectives to advance “collective mutual understanding.”
Jobs witnessed his former colleague perform networking duties outside the regular academic and diplomatic circles. “In Jakarta, Paul surprises street vendors, taxi drivers, and hotel attendants by asking about and expressing interest in their lives,” said the international security expert, who travelled with Evans to Asia as part of Canada’s engagement work in the early part of the century.
Back home, an “alarming number of bikers with big tattoos” has also received the Evans treatment, recalls Timothy Cheek, a UBC professor on Chinese politics. During a stopover in Squamish, 65 kilometres north of Vancouver, Cheek observed how “he just wanders right over and starts ra-ra talking to them.”

The dawn of engagement with Asia

Evans was seemingly made, and timed, for Asia. His career coincided with its geopolitical and economic rise, even though nothing was guaranteed when he ventured into the region as a University of Alberta political science graduate in the 1970s. His gentle personality and natural empathy for others eased his youthful passage into the region’s diverse societies with their varied experiences with conflicts and Western colonial rule. In 1975, Vietnam’s rag-tag army had defeated the mighty war machine of the United States, fanning fears of a communist takeover of the rest of Southeast Asia. A year later, Evans was in the People’s Republic of China, in time to experience the country’s familiar return to strife and turmoil following the death of founder Mao Zedong.

Mesmerized by what he had experienced and sensing the adventure of a lifetime, Evans chose China for his doctorate degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1980, it was the only university in Canada to offer advanced studies of Chinese foreign policy, he recalls. By then, Deng Xiaoping, firmly in charge in Beijing, had begun freeing up China from decades of Maoist isolation and stagnation.

Deng laid the foundation for China’s rise as a superpower. His reforms, helped by the generous support of the U.S. and its allies fighting a potentially losing Cold War against the Soviet Union, were rocket fuel for the Chinese economy.

From 1980 to 2020, China’s economy grew by an annual average 11.4 percent to become a US$14.7 trillion monster by the time of the COVID pandemic. In 1980, its gross domestic product (GDP) was less than 0.7 percent the size of America’s. Forty years later, it was 70 percent. Over those four decades of expansion, China’s share of the world’s GDP surged from 1.7 percent to 17.3 percent. No major economy has grown at that rate for that long to that size in recorded history.

weng gdp

When China awakes from her sleep, she will shake the world, someone apparently said, although that quote was wrongly attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.

China certainly shook Canada.

In 1980, 25 million Canadians produced a GDP of US$275 billion, surpassing the output of 980 million Chinese by 43 percent. Fifteen years later, China’s economy had caught up to the size of Canada’s. By 2020 when COVID, geopolitics, and Beijing’s retreat to statism combined to finally end China’s high-growth era, its economy had expanded to nearly nine times the size of Canada’s. This surge in disparity in economic power between the two countries over a mere 15 years would completely upend their bilateral relationship, a factor that Canadian policymakers and analysts may not have fully appreciated. With the sense of its new economic power, China began shaking the world with its new geopolitical weight.

Evans has seen the good and bad of China’s rise from various angles: as a Canadian, a scholar of politics and international relations, an adviser to the Canadian government, and as a bridge builder, friend, teacher, and mentor to people on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

Paul Evans enrolled in a PhD program just after Deng Xiaoping (above) consolidated power in China.

“He was the tall young man who sat ramrod straight in this chair who listened intently, knew when to nod, projected a sense of calm and focus, and spoke quietly,” said David DeWitt, another former colleague and professor emeritus at York University in Toronto.

“Paul had the ability to understand the perspectives of our various hosts and show genuine empathy even when critical, a vital factor as we launched into track two diplomacy.”

Evans might have become a dedicated China scholar, complete with a fluency in Mandarin, had it not been for one of those “mistakes” he spoke about that gave him an  unlikely path into Harvard University in 1977.

“In 1976, I was in China and planning to stay on longer. But something happened. I wrote a letter to John King Fairbank, the historian at Harvard (University),” he recalls. Unexpectedly, Evans received an invitation to visit the university, met Fairbank himself, and ended up writing his PhD dissertation on possibly the most renowned Western expert on China of a generation. The research paper was expanded over the next decade and published as Evans’s biography (1) of Fairbank in 1988.

“I met Fairbank on the day he retired,” said Evans. “I got to work with him and learned how the China field had developed in the U.S.”

The “mistake”—Evans also calls it his Harvard education—influenced his decision to study China from the perspective of international relations. Fairbank introduced to Evans the concept of the “sociology of knowledge” that placed China as the subject of a bigger, broader, and historically evolving story, rather than as a specialty subject on its own.

This shift proved crucial as it gave Evans a broader view of the emerging China question that would have practical application as he took on advisory work on Asia for the Canadian government.

“I’m not a China specialist, but people think I am because I talk about China,” he said in an interview.

“If I had been a China specialist, I would have been of no value. Lots of people know about China, but what I was able to do was put China in the global Canadian context, and also in the context of Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific.”

Evans Trudeau
Under former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada became the first western industrialized country to establish diplomatic ties with China. Photo by Chiloa.

Trudeau 1.0 and the Pacific nation

Evans also met and interviewed Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada’s greatest engager of modern China and Asia. Canada’s 15th prime minister, and father of the current prime minister, was a political and intellectual trailblazer for his audacity in positioning Canada as a Pacific nation.

After decades of often tortured debate, Canada became the first major Western country to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1970. Canada had done so nine years ahead of the United States. Sadly, China’s gain was Taiwan’s loss as the small island state soon lost the world’s recognition as part of the deal with Beijing.

Why did he do it?

“Trudeau senior was a strategist,” Evans said. Ideology and sentiments did not drive his motivation for engaging China, even though Trudeau had seen the world’s largest communist state close-up through his two visits in 1949 and 1960. The (anticipated eventual) buying power of a billion consumers was certainly a consideration, but it was secondary.

Trudeau concluded that China, an ancient civilisation with 22 percent of the world’s population in 1970, would always loom large on the world stage. Any attempts to continue isolating it from the multilateral institutions that shaped the global order would be a strategic mistake.

According to Evans’ 2014 book (2), Trudeau believed that many of the world’s major issues “will not be resolved completely or in any lasting way unless and until an accommodation has been reached with the Chinese nation.” (Page 24)

Trudeau acted on those convictions on becoming prime minister after leading the Liberal Party to victory in the June 1968 election. His government started talks with China (3) to establish diplomatic ties despite strong opposition from conservatives in both Canada and the United States. He challenged the truism that Canada was solely an Atlantic nation, an assumption deeply embedded in the Canadian consciousness on account of its historical, political, and cultural ties with Europe, and proximity to the U.S.

In April 1970, the Department of External Affairs published a 215-page report, “Foreign Policy for Canadians”, (4) that began a thoughtful discussion about Canada’s place in the world. Twenty-five years after Canadians had contributed to Nazi Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, Canada started to sense its middle power position was “doomed to disappear”. Its influence had waned amid the challenges brought on by the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and Canada’s growing dependence on the U.S. economy (page 7).

In a call for new directions, Mitchell Sharp, the secretary of state for external affairs (or foreign affairs minister), who oversaw the report, introduced the radical concept of Canada as a “Pacific power” with reach into Asia, then home to two-thirds of the world’s population.

“By virtue of geography, history and present interest, Canada is a Pacific power,” the authors bravely asserted on page 11. It spoke of the long but under-appreciated history of Asian peoples in Canada, the influential role of Canadian missionaries in China, the growing Asian population in British Columbia, and the post-war politics as well as the economic potential of the Asia Pacific region.

The authors also seemed ambivalent as further down on the same page, they conceded: “Canada’s influence in the Pacific is not that of a great power.”

“Foreign Policy for Canada” was an aspirational document of its new leader’s grand vision for the country to reinvent itself on the world stage.

To achieve Pacific power status, the authors made the hopeful call for “constructive policies and interrelationships” and “imaginative solutions” that would create opportunities for Canada in the region. (Page 143).

Four months later, the Trudeau government showed what it had in mind. On October 13, 1970, Sharp made the stunning announcement in the House of Commons that Canada and China had established bilateral diplomatic ties. Concluding 20 months of difficult negotiations, Ottawa also agreed to Beijing’s demand to recognize its government instead of the one in Taipei as the sole official representative of China.

As Canada’s longest-serving prime minister after the Second World War, Trudeau had long periods in power, from 1968 to 1979, and from 1980 to 1984, to influence the country to look East.

He succeeded. His imprint on Canada’s Asia engagement continued long after he died in 2000. The governments of the eight prime ministers that followed him would chart their respective courses on Asia and experience vastly different fortunes on the China file.

Pal Evans
Engaging China by Paul Evans was published in 2014.

Canada, the Pacific nation?

Of the four Conservative prime ministers who dealt with China after the establishment of diplomatic ties, Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper were the most important and closely watched. As opponents to the Liberals, they were seen as the most likely to amend or even reject Trudeau’s approach to China.

Mulroney, who governed from 1984 to 1993, surprisingly affirmed the Liberals’ path, even telling Parliament that he intended to “pursue the policy set out by my predecessor, Mr. Trudeau, with which I agree”. (Evans, page 33).

Harper was the wild card as he was not known to have any experience or depth of knowledge about Asia. Wedged in between Mulroney and him were two Liberal and one (short-lived) Conservative prime ministers who continued with engagement. Given Harper’s alignment with the pro-war neo-conservatives in the U.S. and the religious right in Canada, he started office in 2006 on a predictably hawkish footing, offering perhaps the greatest hope for a new direction on China. He vowed to pursue a “principled” foreign policy that was not beholden to “the almighty dollar” (5). He slammed the Liberals for having “compromised democratic principles to appease dictators, sometimes for the sake of narrow business interests.” (Evans, page 60).

Three years later, Harper began compromising beyond anyone’s expectations. It had taken him a while, but the reality of Asia’s rise had sunk in by 2009. Asia’s booming economies, especially China’s, stood in stark contrast to the dark mood in the United States which was reeling from the self-inflicted wounds of its subprime housing crisis (6) and the illegal multi-trillion-dollar wars (7) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans were joined by the Europeans who had conjured up their own sovereign debt crisis to collectively plunge the world into the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. By the time Harper took office in February 2006, China’s economy had already surpassed Canada’s in size. He had little choice but to turn to Asia.

On his first official visit to several Asian countries including China in late 2009, Harper shamelessly parroted Pierre Trudeau’s description of Canada as a Pacific nation (8). “A new era for Canada rises in the East,” the Globe and Mail (9) reported of Harper’s gushing verdict of his tour. The glowing self-appraisal backed by a lucrative Chinese tourism deal (10) for Canada compensated for the humiliation of a public scolding (11) that he had received from China’s Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing.

From a steady flow (12), China’s Almighty Yuan began pouring into Canada’s oilpatch. China’s move also encouraged other Asian countries to join in the oil rush into Alberta and British Columbia provinces.

In 2010, Sinopec (13) paid US$4.65 billion for a small stake in the Syncrude oilsands project in Alberta. In January 2011, the Chinese energy giant signed up for Enbridge’s proposed C$5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline infrastructure (14) to export up to 525,000 barrels per day of Alberta’s oilsands to Asia. Weeks later, PetroChina (15) took a 50 percent stake in Encana’s C$5.4-billion natural gas project in Alberta. By the end of 2011, B.C. was touting a planned windfall C$1.36 billion investment by Chinese entities in two coal mining projects (16). A year later, the Harper government approved the biggest and most controversial deal of them all: CNOOC’s takeover (17) of Calgary-based oil producer Nexen. The C$15.1 billion tag represented the largest acquisition of a foreign company (18) by a Chinese firm.

Amid the frenetic pace of deal-making, a smitten Harper even began a serious push for a free trade deal (19) between the two countries in 2012. Who could have seen this coming from Canada’s most anti-China prime minister since the Korean War in the 1950s?

Harper’s sacrilegious about-face made him an even bigger target of criticism than any Liberal leader on the China file. Some Conservative party loyalists began to turn on him.

“There are people inside my caucus who have concerns about asset sales to China,” Rob Anders (20), a Conservative member of parliament in Calgary, told reporters in 2012. Numerous polls showed most Canadians were strongly opposed to China’s communist government buying up assets and influence in Canada. The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) was starting to split, most evidently in Harper’s home base of Alberta, where the province’s capital-starved oil and gas companies were crying out for new investments, even if they were from China.

The CPC rebels found common ground with their ideological enemies on the left. Both the federal NDP (21) and Green Party proved to be even more fearful of China on the full range of national security, human rights, environmental, and labour issues.

“This cements our relationship to China as a compliant resource colony,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May (22) in referring to Canada’s signing of the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPPA) with China in September 2012.

The agreement gave Chinese firms “more power to shape Canada’s energy markets as well as challenge the politics of this country than Canadians themselves,” claimed the Tyee columnist Andrew Nikiforuk (23). “And you can thank Prime Minister Stephen Harper for this economic treason.”

If this was “economic treason”, Harper wasn’t done yet.

In 2013, Malaysia announced that it would be making a “gargantuan” US$36-billion investment (24) in western Canada to produce and export liquefied natural gas to Asia. A Chinese state firm would be a key supporter of this massive project. On account of this being the single largest standalone investment in Canadian history, Harper flew to the Malaysian capital of Putrajaya for a proud photo-op (25) with his counterpart, Najib Abdul Razak.

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Abdul Razak (left, with Stephen Harper) is now in jail.

Unknown to Canadians, this was another pie-in-the-sky proposal (26) dreamt up by Prime Minister Najib and his allies who controlled the country’s finances. The project’s US$36-billion cost represented 12 percent of Malaysia’s GDP in 2012. What country bets 12 percent of its income on building a project from scratch in a high-risk industry in a foreign land halfway across the world? Harper’s lack of Asia knowledge was exposed. He had swallowed the gargantuan story hook, line, and sinker, but he wasn’t alone. The Canadian media, just as ignorant about Asia and suspicious of China, were also taken in by the smooth-talking politician from a country they knew very little about. Today, Najib is sitting in a Malaysian jail, nearly midway through a 12-year sentence (27) for committing money-laundering and abuse-of-power crimes worth billions (28).

The golden period of China engagement?

The Harper government countered the critics of its Asian gold rush strategy by talking up its efforts to uphold human rights, free speech, and national security protection.

To Premier Wen’s scolding in 2009, Harper gave this quick defiant response (29):

“Trade is a two-way street, so too is dialogue. Our government believes and has always believed that a mutually-beneficial economic relationship is not incompatible with a good and frank dialogue on fundamental values like freedom, human rights, and the rule of law.”

He repeated the message (30) on a follow-up trip to China in 2012.

David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, was glowing in his endorsement of Harper’s handling of relations between the two countries.

“If ever there was a golden period in Canada-China relations, it is now,” he declared in 2010. (Evans, page 72).

 Explaining it to this reporter, Evans said Mulroney pointed out that the Harper government was able to secure a record amount of business from China even as it engaged the regime on human rights and democracy issues. This was some accomplishment.

Astonishingly, the Chinese government seemed to agree even after Harper had delivered a diplomatic slap with his absence at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. His refusal to “pay tribute” was duly noted amid the gathering of 80 other world leaders (31) in Beijing.

Evans White House photo by Eric Draper
George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush joined then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi at a China-U.S. basketball game at the Beijing Olympics. White House photo by Eric Draper

“There is no conflict of fundamental interests between us,” said China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi (32) in a speech in June 2009 on relations between the two countries.

“Rather, we share broad common interests and a good foundation of cooperation. Under the current circumstances, there is more reason for our two countries to enhance cooperation and work together to promote early recovery of the world economy and effectively meet all global challenges with a view to bring greater benefits to people of the two countries and the world.”

Beijing showed it still cared enough for Ottawa’s goodwill to endorse Harper’s China strategy. But the fantasy didn’t last, punctured in part by an unlikely source once trusted as Harper’s foreign policy adviser.

Three years after stepping down as ambassador, David Mulroney sharply downgraded his opinion of Harper’s China policy from “golden period” to “inadequate and inconsistent” (33). In throwing his former boss under the bus, Mulroney probably did more damage to his own credibility than Harper’s. In his 2015 book, Middle Power, Middle Kingdom, the former ambassador further muddied himself on a completely unrelated but major topic at that time. He joined in the populist scapegoating of Chinese immigrants and their money for Metro Vancouver’s perennial mismanagement of its housing market. Like most commentators on the bandwagon, Mulroney overlooked quantitative easing and a host of other macro-economic factors by bending to his negativity toward ”the Chinese” (34).

Harper, the golden beneficiary

If Harper’s nine years in power were a golden period for Canada’s China ties, he was more likely the beneficiary of a convergence of events rather than its creator. The National Post captured Harper’s China peak in 2014 with a headline proclaiming the dawn of “a new era of cooperation (35)” in bilateral ties. He spoke about how he could lecture Xi Jinping, who became China’s supreme leader in late 2012a, on human rights and still came away with more business deals.

Evans offers a different perspective. For him, the golden period, if there was one, had begun much earlier and had run for longer than the Harper government’s term from 2006 to 2015.

“There already existed a mythology inside the government of Canada, both liberal and conservative, that after the opening of diplomatic ties in 1970, the Chinese listened to us,” he said.

“By the 1980s, Canada was getting trade deals, and helping China. We’re not a great power but we had influence with the Chinese. We could get access to them when we needed to at whatever level, it was new.”

“I was running a lot of programs, even as a very minor player and as an academic. Most of these were in the early and late 1990s. For many, that was seen as the golden age.”

The events of June 4, 1989 in Beijing gatecrashed the golden age. Nearly two decades of the Pierre Trudeau-inspired honeymoon in bilateral ties abruptly ended when Chinese soldiers fired upon and killed a large gathering of young people in Tiananmen Square. In crushing the protests against government corruption and human rights abuses, the Chinese Communist Party had shown its ruthlessness toward the people that it purported to look after.

“The golden age was damaged, the so-called special relationship. Tiananmen Square set things back,” said Evans. Led by the U.S., the West imposed a range of embargoes and trade sanctions on China to punish the regime.

Evans Mulroney
After becoming prime minister in 1984, Brian Mulroney (seen with wife Mila) maintained a policy of engagement with China.

Tiananmen occurred when Brian Mulroney, no relation to David, was prime minister. Ottawa “condemned the Chinese government in the strongest term”, imposed a long list of actions, and recalled the Canadian ambassador from his Beijing posting. (Evans, page 39).

But the Conservative government never gave up on engagement.

Foreign minister Joe Clark, who had earlier served as prime minister from 1979 to 1980, made that priority clear.

“We have not become, and will not become anti-China. We must try to avoid measures that would push China towards isolation,” he said. (Evans, page 40).

Ironically, it was the Liberals, under John Turner, who denounced the decision as “moral turpitude.”

Tiananmen turned out to be a short-lived interruption in Canada-China relations. Engagement resumed three years later, albeit in a different format on less rosy assumptions.

“We were doing more things in 1992 with China than we were doing in 1989,” said Evans. “We were one of the first countries (to impose sanctions) and we imposed only minimal sanctions, and we were one of the first countries to eliminate those sanctions.”

Why did engagement persist?

In between Mulroney, who resigned in 1993, and Harper, Canada had three prime ministers. Conservative Kim Campbell’s short reign was ended by Chretien’s Liberals in the November 1993 election. Chretien stepped down in December 2003 and was replaced by his Liberal rival Paul Martin who then lost the January 2006 election to the Conservatives under Harper.

The two liberal prime ministers stayed the course on engagement, but with a clearer understanding that Canada would not be able to immediately change China’s behaviour. They viewed the unpredictable rising superpower as a strategic partner whose cooperation was necessary for Canada’s pursuit of its own goals.

“Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien both saw opening China’s economy as a necessary precondition for reducing international tensions and inducing domestic political change,” wrote Evans in 2011 (36).

“Paul Martin emphasized a new international architecture as a way of deepening China’s commitment to international practices and standards.”

Evans concluded his essay with an open question: “To change China or to live with it?”

For Harper, it was both options plus something extra on the side. He sought to change China as well as live with it while attempting to make lots of money from engagement. Since Canada was an energy superpower (37) or an emerging energy superproducer (38) with the natural resources that China badly needed, engagement meant that he could lecture Xi Jinping in exchange for Alberta’s oil and B.C.’s natural gas.

The verdict on Harper’s China policy is that he left bilateral ties in an uncertain state as his engagement attempts were shallow (39), compromised (40), and shrouded in secrecy (41) Harper was an Atlantic man at heart and soul forced by circumstances to deal with Asian countries that he had little interest in or affinity for. But he did keep his appetite for China’s business after leaving office.

Evans did not meet Harper when he was the prime minister.

“I ran into him in a hotel in China when he was then in his post-prime ministerial role and was into commercial activities in China,” said Evans.

Justin Trudeau met Chinese president Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2017. Photo by Adam Scotti/PMO.

Trudeau 2.0: the China nightmare

If Pierre Trudeau was the creator and beneficiary of the original golden period of Canada-China relations, his son, the current prime minister, is the impoverished heir feeding off the residuals of a nightmare relationship.

Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015 on a wave of optimism that he would restore some of the past glory and global standing of his father’s Canada. China would be his main launchpad to redefine Canada’s middle-power relevance to the world. The Trudeau name was going to open doors in Beijing and make Canada the China whisperer on the world stage. Another golden age was beckoning, so it seemed.

lnstead, China turned into a series of political disasters for Canada and a personal nightmare for Trudeau through most of his eight years as prime minister.

China went along with Trudeau-mania in his first year as prime minister, evident in the warm chemistry he shared with Premier Li Keqiang in their initial two meetings in Beijing (42) and Ottawa (43) in 2016. Trudeau was going to “help China” improve its image and would “very favourably” consider joining the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a potential rival to the U.S.-led World Bank. In return, a grateful China would reward Canada with more business deals. It wasn’t that difficult, was it?

Trudeau’s China fantasy was in full psychedelic bloom during his September 2016 visit to Beijing where he continued Harper’s practice of lecturing Xi Jinping (44) in person and China in public (45). Those would be his last lectures to the Chinese on Chinese soil.

2017 turned out to be a pivotal year for China that Canadian politicians and analysts may not have fully appreciated. Something snapped inside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership that saw Xi Jinping transition into a snarling wolf warrior on the world stage.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war and relentless barrage of accusations and racist insults against China had hardened Chinese attitude toward the West. The Chinese leadership concluded that the West was trying to destabilize China through Hong Kong’s growing pro-democracy movement and the Uyghur fight against oppression in Xinjiang. Xi began a crackdown on corruption in the Chinese military that included a ruthless purge of senior officers suspected of plotting against the regime. China openly bullied its smaller neighbours in territorial disputes in the South China Sea (46) by increasing land reclamation works throughout the year.

Speaking on the 20th anniversary of China’s reclaiming Hong Kong from the British, Xi warned (47):

“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government… or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible.”

Regarding Xinjiang, Xi called for the creation of a “Great Wall of Steel” (48) to suppress a potential uprising among the ethnic Uyghur population protesting human rights abuses and the detention of as many as one million people in retraining camps.

Perhaps the most important development in China in 2017 was his success at elevating and expanding his powers inside the CCP toward the end of his first five-year term.

Xi wasn’t just preparing for his second, and supposedly final, term as the country’s supreme leader, he was eyeing history. He saw his role as steeling China for a protracted struggle against the U.S.-led global order that the CCP believed was built on colonial injustice and oppression for over a century. He sold himself as the man to restore China to its former imperial glory at the centre of world affairs, and that he must be given as much time as possible to do the job.

Veteran China watcher Willy Wo-Lap Lam (49) was probably the first to call out Xi’s game plan: the 65-year-old son of a Mao Zedong loyalist was plotting to return post-Mao China to Maoist strongman rule with himself as the new, upgraded Mao. At the party’s 19th National Congress in October 2017, Xi scored two monumental goals (50) crucial to his eventual push five years later for an indefinite stay in power. He secured the military’s all-important backing and Congress’s unanimous vote to enshrine his very own ideology, Xi Jinping Thought (XJPT), into the CCP’s constitution.

China’s sharp hardline turn in 2017 was the death sentence for Trudeau’s China strategy. Ottawa appeared not to realize the significance of China’s adoption of XJPT as its new ideology. China 2.0 would no longer put up with the ideas, much less the lecturing, of the outdated global liberal order of Trudeau 2.0. His government could not have picked a worse time to ramp up efforts for a free trade agreement (FTA). Ottawa insisted Beijing accept “Canadian values” in a “progressive” trade agenda that prioritized labour, gender, and governance issues. XJPT ideology has little room for what it sees is fluff talk over issues that are not regarded as business-related. Trudeau spoke of defending Canadian values in a “respectful way” without realizing that the Chinese felt he had disrespected their values and interest.

evans trudeau
After 2017, the prime minister’s office stopped sending out photos like this to the media. Photo by Adam Scotti/PMO.

Trudeau’s failed attempt (51) to kickstart FTA talks in December 2017 was the beginning of a series of his China defeats.

From 2018, bilateral ties grew toxic over an incredible number of old and new disputes: Meng Wan Zhou (52) and the two Michaels (53), Hong Kong (54), Xinjiang (55), Taiwan (56), Tibet (57), COVID (58), intellectual property theft (59), espionage (60), Canada’s ban on Huawei (61) from its 5G network, and the mutual expulsions (62) of diplomats. Ottawa abandoned the FTA altogether in September 2020, with foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne accusing Beijing (63) of practising what he called “assertive, coercive diplomacy”.

The following year, Canada began bitterly denouncing China for interfering (64) in its domestic politics. When the mainstream media unanimously backed the opposition Conservative Party in charging that it had lost the 2021 election on account of Chinese manipulation, Canada’s fallout with China was complete. There was no one left in Ottawa to defend engagement.

Trudeau’s China nightmare became personal when an openly agitated Xi Jinping scolded him on camera (65) at the G20 summit in Indonesia in November 2022. Ten months later, Trudeau made the shocking comment that there was no room for “rapprochement” (66) with China.

Canada’s engagement efforts with China had gone from total optimism to total despair under the same prime minister in a matter of eight years.

The making of the Canadian Tragedy

Canada’s 23rd prime minister will be remembered as a tragic, lonely figure who oversaw the precipitous decline in his country’s international standing at the same time that his marriage was collapsing. Justin Trudeau could not stop both tragedies from happening.

While he bears some responsibility for a fading Canada, he also had the misfortune to run into a new generation of hardline foreign leaders contemptuous of his outdated progressive views. China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Russia’s Vladmir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed bin Salman, and Donald Trump, the U.S. president from 2016 to 2020, have little use for liberal middle-power players in the new multi-polar world. Canada’s role was relevant as long as the U.S. was the main global power and developing countries like China and India were in the minor league.

Trudeau’s political demise (67) is now in clear sight. His government’s unexpected quarrels with Israel and India in 2023 have added to his miserable record with China. The Canadian economy is hurtling toward a recession, and groaning under record deficits and debts amid rising interest rates and an unaffordable housing crisis that has gone nationwide under his watch. His domestic approval rate (68) has plunged from an all-time high of 65 percent in September 2016 to 31 percent in October 2023, according to the Angus Reid Institute.

On the world stage, Canada finds itself excluded from new international initiatives (69). It is distrusted on intelligence sharing (70) among Western allies who also complain Ottawa is not paying its fair share on military expenditures (71). In 2020, Canada lost to smaller states Norway and Ireland for a seat on the United Nations Security Council (72) that Trudeau had coveted as a channel to influence world opinion. Harper’s Canada tried in 2010 and was beaten by Portugal. The self-proclaimed Pacific nation is not taken seriously by the Pacific community on account of its numerous failures (73) to sustain regional initiatives. Canada found little support from other nations during its recent diplomatic disputes with India (74) and Saudi Arabia (75).

The comment by the Pierre Trudeau government in 1970 that the middle power role is “doomed to disappear” is looking prescient six decades on with Canada under a government led by his son. A change of government might delay the doom’s arrival at best but not stop it.

“Most of us who are academics who wanted to do something international realize overtime that it is a tragic undertaking. You’re not going to be successful. You might be for a while but you’re going to lose,” Evans said in a sombre tone toward the end of his retirement speech.

He probably captured the despairing mood of many of his international relations colleagues, but he might also have spoken for policymakers and Canadians at large bewildered by their country’s drift in an increasingly chaotic multi-polar world.

“The concept of tragedy in international relations is that it ultimately deals with unsolvable issues.

“If you want justice, if you want progress, you might be able to do it within a state. But among states, it’s almost as if it’s a game that is biased in the direction of bringing out violence, bringing out nationalism that pits people against each other.”

Paul Evans with Angel Liu, Director General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vancouver at the celebration of Taiwan’s 112th National Day at the Fairmont Waterfront, Vancouver on October 6, 2023. Photo by Ng Weng Hoong.

The Canadian Tragedy is multi-dimensional

Two days after his retirement party, Israel and Hamas launched into another war against each other with far greater ferocity and ambition than ever to threaten the Middle East and beyond. The war has deep roots in centuries of unsolvable issues.

Canada, like much of the West, is feeling the shock waves at home, its pro-Israel status quo under challenge as never before. If Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre takes over as prime minister, as suggested by various polls, the war’s divisive impact on multicultural Canada will be among the key priorities on a long list of unsolvable issues inherited from his predecessors.

Poilievre is not known for his experience, expertise, or interest in foreign affairs, particularly on Asia. As prime minister, will he finally throttle back on Canada’s six-decade-long struggle to become a Pacific nation? The last four major governments under Pierre Trudeau, Stephen Harper, Paul Martin, and Jean Chretien invested heavily in building a relationship with China, but were the returns worth it?

India is not going to save Canada’s Pacific dream either. Poilievre will inherit Trudeau’s latest diplomatic crisis (76) following the murder of a Sikh Canadian leader who had threatened India with his support for Khalistan separatism. Not even a new government in Ottawa can restore bilateral ties after Trudeau went public with his accusation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government was involved in the murder. This could become another unsolvable issue, now that the U.S. is backing (77) Trudeau’s claim against a rising India.

But the blame should not be entirely on the prime minister. How did the Canadian establishment not foresee this crisis given the unresolved Air India bombing case of 1985 and India’s constant accusations that Canada is harbouring what it calls terrorists? How did the Globe and Mail, Global News, and the PostMedia group, with their army of “investigative journalists” and award-winning columnists, not realize that India’s grievance would be more deadly and politically explosive than the China Threat? The politics surrounding the 1985 bombing of an Air India plane (78) that killed all 329 people on board, the worst terror attack in Canadian history, are far from over.

How will a Poilievre government handle other hot-button human rights, labour, and environmental issues with Asia led by China and India now too powerful to bother with Ottawa’s opinion? Throw in Southeast Asia’s 700 million people and the combined 230 million in Japan, the two Koreas, and Taiwan, does Canada have any clear plan or the capacity, with its 40-million population, to fully engage the region?

The Tragedy of Superficial Engagement

Increasingly, the verdict is no, starting with the simplest requirement for frontline engagement. According to an August 2022 study, the vast majority of Canadian diplomats have poor local language skills and knowledge (79) of the countries in which they operate. The study (80) by the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) points to institutional complacency in Ottawa’s political establishment. On the China file, there is a lack of specialist knowledge and language capability despite decades of Canadian politicians, diplomats, and analysts paying lip service to engaging the rising superpower.

“To its credit, Global Affairs has identified China as one priority area where more subject-matter expertise and career concentration is needed, both in the foreign ministry and more broadly across government, and where, by implication, a ‘generalist’ model is no longer adequate,” wrote career diplomat Ulric Shannon, the study’s author.

This conclusion is not a credit to Global Affairs, but an indictment. That China as a priority area had to be stated in 2022 casts doubt on Canada’s past claims that it was serious about understanding or engaging the world’s second largest superpower. In retrospect, Harper’s inconsistent and uncertain approach toward Beijing was both a symptom of this malaise and a cause of his government’s missteps in China.

Trudeau took the full blow of superficial engagement. His China disasters were accidents waiting to happen, the cumulative effects of Canada’s misreading of Beijing that finally ran out of luck with the explosive surge in Chinese nationalism. Might Trudeau have reduced the damage had he been better advised about the new angry China under Xi? If so, it would have required better human intelligence and sharper reading from the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

Canada’s foreign policy machinery could have tapped into the country’s pool of well-educated Asian talents who have a much better feel for the region than currently exists in Ottawa and the diplomatic corps. It did not. This gaping blind spot impeded Canada’s decades-long aspiration to be a Pacific nation.

Shannon confirms this with another hindsight observation:

“Given its unique advantage of having one of the world’s most diverse populations as its talent pool, there is no excuse for the Canadian foreign service not to grow into one of the world’s most interculturally savvy, knowledgeable, and networked diplomatic services.

“This level of ambition is a choice, and it will not happen by mere dint of immutable demographics. Rather, it will require purposeful human resource policies and workforce strategic planning, and, more importantly, a shift in corporate culture that acknowledges the unique competencies needed in the diplomatic profession.”

Now, check out Foreign Minister Melanie Joly’s 17-member panel (81) that delivered Canada’s much anticipated Indo-Pacific Strategy (82) in November 2022.

“This is a whole-of-society effort,” declared Global Affairs Canada in launching its latest effort to engage Asia.

No, it is not.

There are no representatives from Canada’s 1.8 million ethnic Chinese population, who are among the country’s most equipped with the knowledge and lived experience of the region.

The panel’s composition exposes an unspoken bias. Would a panel advising on the Middle East exclude Canadians of Jewish and Arab origins? Imagine a South America panel without anyone with deep ties in Brazil and Argentina, or an Africa panel without African Canadians. Or, one on the U.S. that deliberately has no one with an American background.

Why would Foreign Minister Joly look to two immigrant citizens from Guyana (!), a retired army general, two champions of women’s rights, and several white people to advise on Asia, but not a single ethnic Chinese Canadian with extensive experience from that region? The minister and her advisers have sent a powerful signal that they do not trust Chinese Canadians.

The same criticism applies to the other channels that supposedly inform Canada’s decision- and policy-making processes on matters related to Asia. Canada’s mainstream media is a prime culprit of bias as I have noted in, “Canada at risk (83) as media struggles with Chinese conundrum”:

“Most times, the Chinese are ignored in the public discourse except when a villain is needed to hang for Canada’s unending housing crisis or money laundering problems. They are poorly represented in Canada’s politics, media, corporate world, academia, and mainstream cultural scene.”

In its 2023 survey (84), the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) found that Asian representation in the Canadian newsroom has been in decline over the previous three years.

“Asian journalists saw the biggest overall decrease over all three years of the survey. In 2023 they made up 7.4 percent of journalists, while in 2022 they made up 7.7 percent of journalists and in 2021 they made up 10 percent of journalists,” it said in a statement.

“White journalists hold 84 percent of supervisor roles and 82.5 percent of the top three leadership positions in newsrooms. In 2022, 77 percent of newsrooms employed no Indigenous or visible minority journalists in the top three roles.”

Canada’s intelligence and national security agencies are also woefully short (85), with their mono-cultural supporters mocking (86) the call for increased diversity as a woke-driven political fad. The opponents of diversity fail to see that Canada’s security and well-being depend on understanding the multicultural, multipolar nature of both domestic and world politics today. In 2017, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services (CSIS) was forced to settle a $35-million lawsuit (87) filed by a group of former employees, who are mostly non-white Muslims. In her 2023 book, Agents of Change, former CSIS agent Huda Mukbil (88) gives a detailed account of the group’s successful action against systemic racism and discrimination by the organization’s mostly white management.

Melanie Joly
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has been dealing with the consequences of poorer relations with China.

The Tragedy of Demonization

A handful of senior journalists in Global News (89) and the Globe and Mail (90), fed by an anonymous source(s) with access to some intelligence files, recently dominated the national news cycle with their sensational China Threat stories. The lack of quality Asian representation in the media and intelligence organizations combined with their senior managements’ mishandling of the resulting narrative have been very damaging to Canada’s interest. It has led Canada’s political, security, and opinion leaders to obsess over China at the expense of the far more pervasive threats from far-right influencers in the country’s mainstream organizations (91) with ties to extremist groups in the U.S. and Europe.

Yaroslav Hunka, a surviving member of Hitler’s Nazi militia that was allowed to immigrate to Canada, was recently feted by all members of the Canadian Parliament. Hunka received a standing ovation from the countries’ main political parties, exposing the long and deep influence of the European far right in Canada. His brazen appearance along with the Freedom Convoy’s (92) ability to inflict heavy damage on the Canadian economy in 2022, and threats to Trudeau’s safety (93) provide further evidence that Canada is at far greater risk from right-wing groups with foreign ties than from other sources, including China.

According to the media’s “investigative journalists”, China has captured Canada’s elite in government, business, academia, and cultural associations, and has enormous influence over Canadian public opinion.

Contradicting these allegations, Canadians’ opinion of China has plunged over the past decade. According to PEW Research (94), Canadians’ negativity toward China surged from 45 percent  in 2013 to a record 79 percent in 2023. Angus Reid Institute found that most Canadians want Ottawa to treat China as either a threat or an enemy (95).

The media and their regular “expert” sources have yet to explain how the CCP is both distrusted and influential at the same time. If the CCP is so unpopular, how did it persuade Canadians to elect supposedly pro-Beijing candidates whose goal is to undermine Canada?

Weng 3

As a result of the manufactured mass hysteria over China, mainstream Canada has been given reason to fear the diverse ethnic Chinese population in their midst. This is the message from Michael Chong, the Conservative Party’s foreign affairs critic, and its former leader, Erin O’Toole, who insist that the CCP swung the “Chinese vote” for the Liberals in the 2019 and 2021 Federal elections. Chong, O’Toole, the Conservative Party, and their media supporters have made the case that 1.8 million Chinese Canadians think and act alike and are somehow beholden to Xi Jinping. The scapegoaters will not dare describe the 25 million white Canadians (96) as members of a monolithic “Caucasian community” susceptible to Ku Klux Klan propaganda nor will they attempt to box Jews and Indigenous people into one-dimensional stereotypes. But Canada’s Chinese are fair game with Chong’s accusation lending weight as he is partially Chinese.

Mainstream Canada has a tradition of demonizing the country’s Chinese and Asian populations going back to the 1800s. This habit showed up repeatedly during Canada’s recent struggles with issues linked to housing, the opioid crisis, money laundering, organized crime, SARS, and COVID. This Canadian tragedy of scapegoating adds an unexplored layer to Canada’s history of difficult engagement with China. The othering of Chinese Canadians from the mainstream and its impact on Canada’s foreign policy toward Asia deserves detailed research by political scientists, sociologists, and journalism schools.

The target for demonization today extends beyond “the Chinese community”. Those who promoted engagement in the pre-Xi Jinping era in the belief that they were helping both China and Canada are at risk of being retroactively tarred as “agents of influence”.

Like his China-scholar mentor John Fairbank who was targeted by Joe McCarthy as a communist sympathizer during the 1950s, Evans has found himself on the whisper list as a “pro-Beijing influencer.” In 2020, the Globe and Mail (97) reported that he was among the country’s “high-profile opinion leaders identified as helpful to Huawei.”

In less troubled times, this citation might have been considered a sign of career success. Not so in 2020 when the corporation is China’s leading telecommunications company that many in the West believe is part of the CCP’s espionage machinery. Huawei was at the centre of the bilateral crisis involving Meng Wanzhou and the two Michaels.

More recently, a former student, Cameron Ortis (98), was convicted on charges of leaking official secrets under Canada’s Security of Information Act when he was a top RCMP intelligence officer. Ortis had sold information to criminal gangs with ties to the Hezbollah terror group. In his reporting of the trial, the self-acclaimed “investigative journalist” Sam Cooper repeatedly mentioned that Evans taught Ortis (99) at the UBC. Was Cooper trying to make a point?

Canada’s China Tragedy

Yuen Pau Woo (100), Evans’s former colleague at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, is also on that list. They were among a group of Canadians who a decade ago were still sought out by Ottawa to boost China engagement as a top foreign policy imperative. Today, they are in the firing line, branded as sell-outs, and worse, as potential fifth columnists for Beijing because of the turning of the political tide. Woo, now a Senator, has been accused of parroting China’s talking points and representing its interest on a range of issues from the oppression of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs and the silencing of human rights activists both at home and in Canada, to enabling espionage activities and intellectual property theft. Woo has been given the Cooperist (101) treatment, the knock-off Canadian version of McCarthyism.

For Evans, the attacks have extended beyond social media to a threatening phone call and anonymous letters.

“I get calls occasionally, some of them anonymous, some of them from people I know, calls saying “we’re watching you”.

How does he deal with them?

“I don’t,” he said. “I hang up, or when they’re written, I dismiss them. I just keep a ‘fan mail’ file for my own purpose.”

Report to the police?

Evans: “No. ‘We’re watching you’ in itself is an ambiguous threat.”

There were also letters to the UBC president, “that this guy should be removed because he’s a CCP mouthpiece,” Evans says, pointing to himself.

It’s not just Canada or the West that are responsible for today’s poisoned geopolitical environment. China must take plenty of the blame too. At the height of its powers recently, China began serving up Xi Jinping’s self-worshipping ideology concocted from the ideas of dead Communist leaders Mao, Lenin, and Marx mixed with Confucianist nationalism to challenge the West. Xi torched Trudeau 2.0’s offer to build a new golden age in bilateral ties and the opportunity to negotiate China’s role in the new multipolar world. His angry focus on China’s Century of Humiliation at the hands of foreigners conveniently overlooks the country’s self-inflicted humiliation from the countless civil wars, strife, famines, and disasters throughout its 5,000 years of history. Xi himself suffered through one of those times when bad domestic policy caused tens of millions of Chinese people to starve to death. He also overlooked Canada’s bold decision to supply wheat (102) to Mao Zedong’s pariah China, when no other major countries would, thus saving the lives of many millions more Chinese in the early 1960s.

Given its track record, China is likely, at some point, to return to strife and turmoil. China may even realize that it needs the world again, except, that there will probably be no dovish liberals and middle-power Canada to plead the humanitarian case for engagement.

For all his grand plans, Xi won’t be in power forever. Many of China’s 1.4 billion people have tasted the good life for over four decades and are not fully convinced by the supreme leader’s decision to ditch the West for a new Long March toward conflict and decline.

The tragedy cuts both ways.

Canada, caught up in its own China Threat stories, is systematically cancelling a generation of China engagers by treating them as fifth columnists. When Xi is gone, Canada will be without its liberal middle ground to make sense of the new China that will follow. Instead, it will be stuck with the continuing alarmism of the two sets of warmongers in the CCP and the US War Machine.

“The concept of China as a friend is off the table for a long while,” said Evans, reflecting on how far bilateral ties with Canada have fallen.

“The friendship idea goes back a long way, and it was some of our missionaries who essentially put that idea in play. Then there were academics and others, some of them fellow travelers, who believed in the mission, the social revolution that could be OK.”

The middle power role greatly diminished after reaching its high point in the 1990s, Evans observed in a 2016 paper (103).

“The fortuitous circumstances—including great power forbearance—which combined to produce the special middle power moment in the aftermath of the Cold War are gone,” he wrote. He described the middle power nation’s attempt to work across the clash of national interests and bridging international orders as a “mission impossible.”

In choosing to retire, Evans, who turned 72 in June, said it was the right time, and not because he felt pressured by his critics and the media noise about the China Threat.

“I’m not knocked out by those guys, but at least on the China file, we have entered a dark decade.”

He accepts the reality that his influence has passed its peak, just as the Pierre Trudeau vision of Canada’s China engagement is long gone.

“The ability to be a respected voice in policy circles in Ottawa on both the diplomatic or the bureaucratic fronts amid the partisan politics is very difficult in present circumstances.

“I’m seen as an embodiment of the engager approach which is accurate. I still believe in it. Right now, this is a hard time to be an engager.”

But Evans isn’t done yet.

“I’m not bailing out,” he insists. He will continue his engagement work with Asia and China in his contrarian way.

Joe Clark, the Conservative leader who was briefly Canada’s prime minister (1979 to 1980), was among the well-wishers at Evans’ retirement party. Clark was the foreign minister under the Brian Mulroney government who gave Evans and his colleagues the platform in 1990 to devise Canada’s Asia strategy.

Evans speaks highly and fondly of Clark: “Joe was the most widely read, empathetic foreign minister that I’ve ever worked with. I worked with seven or eight.”

Mulroney assigned Clark the task of initiating a major review of China policy, which was undertaken by a team that consulted Evans and other academic specialists.

The person who really managed that just died. Earl Drake (104) was the assistant deputy minister for the Asia Pacific region,” said Evans. Drake, who passed away last September at the age of 95, was the ambassador to China during Tiananmen.

In his virtual appearance, Clark encouraged Evans to continue his service to the country now that the retired professor is outside the confines of bureaucracy.

“The good news is that those contributions need not stop if you get away from others,” was Clark’s parting message. That sounds like further encouragement for the Asian engager, not that he needs it, to continue where he has just left off.

Paul Evans 2.0 awaits.

NOTES: Current exchange rate US$1 to CAD$1.35


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Obituary, Earl Drake passed away on September 22, 2023

Ng Weng Hoong is a Vancouver journalist focused on China and Chinese issues. This article originally appeared on his Substack account.

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Ng Weng Hoong

Ng Weng Hoong

Ng Weng Hoong is a Vancouver journalist focused on China and Chinese issues.



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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation). With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.