Campaign to help canola takes aim at wrong target

The grassroots Suits and Boots campaign that was so successful in helping to pressure federal politicians into changing Bill C-69 could well have the opposite effect in targeting China over its ban on Canadian canola.

The not-for-profit organization founded by Edmonton businessperson and former Conservative party leadership candidate Rick Peterson lobbied for changes to the environmental bill, as did many western voices, resulting in almost 200 changes approved May 16 by the Senate.

China has stopped receiving Canadian canola — valued at more than $2 billion annually — ostensibly because of pest issues, but it’s believed the move is a pressure tactic to force Canada to release Meng Wanzhou, an executive with Chinese state-owned communications giant Huawei, who was detained in Vancouver in December for extradition at the request of the United States.

Suits and Boots is a digital campaign that encourages people to contact officials directly. In this case, farmers are being encouraged to email Chinese officials based in Canada with their concerns.

Unfortunately, the image Suits and Boots is choosing to promote its effort is so provocative that it is more likely to damage Canada’s efforts to resolve the dispute than help. The campaign’s website features a photo of “tank man” — the iconic image of a man standing in front of a line of tanks during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. Accompanying that is an image of farmers standing in a canola field in front of tanks painted with the Chinese red star.

The website says, “Canada is now having its own ‘Tank Man’ moment.”

In Canada, this is straightforward free speech. In China, it is not. The Chinese are still intensely sensitive about the Tiananmen Square uprising, in which hundreds of people were thought to have been killed when the government clamped down. Mimicking this image is likely to have an inflammatory effect.

China is so sensitive about imagery that depictions of Winnie the Pooh are being censored because of comparisons to the appearance of President Xi Jinping. That is how China’s government responds to public opinion.

It’s understandable that farmers who feel frustrated and helpless want to express their thoughts, and they absolutely should — to Canadian officials.

Relations between the two countries are exceedingly delicate at the moment. China has charged two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, with violating national security, which carries the death penalty. It’s thought that this is a pressure tactic to force Canada to release Meng.

Emailing Chinese officials, who are named on the website, naturally feels like standing up to a bully.

But every day that Meng isn’t released, Canada is standing up to a bully by refusing to alter the nation’s legal system through political and economic pressure from a government with a history of violating rules-based trade and human rights.

Federal officials are attempting to address the issue on science, arguing Canada’s canola does not have a pest problem. Industry officials agree with that approach. But thus far, it has not been effective.

Canadian officials must be more vocal in their explanation of what is being done in order to convince farmers of their intentions.

A canola working group, which consists of industry and government officials, is preparing a strategy and federal officials are trying to market canola in other countries.

As well, changes to agricultural support programs are in the works to help farmers during the dispute, although some argue the supports do not go far enough.

Suits and Boots has a good idea in mobilizing the considerable weight and credibility of farmers’ voices, but that would best be aimed at Canadian officials to ensure the issue remains at the top of the government’s agenda.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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