OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government is facing increasingly frustrated and worried calls to help people leave Hong Kong for Canada as China continues to crack down on pro-democracy activists in the former British colony.
The exasperation follows Ottawa's suspension of an extradition treaty with Hong Kong in early July after Beijing passed a national security law for the territory.
Critics say the law is being used to crack down on democracy in Hong Kong and put it more firmly under the communist regime's heel, and violates Beijing's promise to maintain a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong after China took it over from Britain in 1997.
In early July, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself announced the treaty suspension along with a ban on the export of military goods before asserting that the federal government was looking at a variety of additional responses, including on immigration.
The hope for activists, human-rights groups and others at the time was that the measures were the first in a series of actions aimed at supporting the people of Hong Kong, particularly those trying to fight China's increasing control of the territory.
"They suspended the extradition agreement between Hong Kong and Canada, which was a great step and I thought signalled a really positive direction for where we were going to be moving forward," said Ai-Men Lau of Alliance Canada Hong Kong.
Almost two months later, however, neither Trudeau nor his government has made any new pronouncements on Hong Kong despite Chinese authorities' having conducted several waves of arrests as part of a crackdown on pro-democracy activists and media.
That stands in contrast to Britain and Australia, both of which have announced some measures to make it easier for people to leave Hong Kong and make new lives in those two countries.
"As the prime minister said, we will continue to support the many connections between Canada and Hong Kong while also standing up for its people," said Mathieu Genest, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.
"Canada is exploring measures beyond those announced — including exploring immigration options — and we will have more to say in due course."
Lau and others say they have been hearing the same message from the government for weeks even as Beijing has treated pro-democracy activists and others who have criticized the Chinese government's actions in Hong Kong increasingly harshly.
That includes the arrests of 12 people over the weekend after the boat they were travelling on from Hong Kong to Taiwan was intercepted by the Chinese coast guard and the arrest of media tycoon and free-speech advocate Jimmy Lai earlier this month.
"It is getting really dire in Hong Kong," Lau said. "This government needs to act now, and we've been saying that for months. I just don't understand why there's such a delay on it."
The concern is that as the federal government hesitates, Chinese authorities will make the already difficult task of leaving Hong Kong even harder, particularly for those who have spoken out against Beijing.
"The biggest challenge that refugees from Hong Kong are increasingly going to face is: how do you get out?" said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, which is among those asking Ottawa to do more.
"The prospect of fleeing across the border is not an option. Obviously fleeing across the border is fleeing into the mouth of the dragon. That is not an option here."
Among the recommendations that have been made to the government is making it easier for Canadians to bring family members here from Hong Kong, measures to attract students and skilled workers who want to leave, and opening the doors to asylum-seekers.
"Every single immigration stream that we have, we could do something," said NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan, whose family immigrated from Hong Kong when she was nine years old.
"And I've been saying to the government: Do anything. But so far they have done nothing, and that is such a shame. It's just so astounding that the Trudeau government has chosen not to provide that lifeboat to the people of Hong Kong."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press