Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo insinuated that a foreign influence registry is "a modern form of Chinese exclusion," prompting swift pushback from his fellow Chinese Canadians.
Woo tried to link the historical wrongs against Chinese immigrants with efforts to create a foreign influence transparency registry.
"100 years ago, as part of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Canada forced all Chinese people in the country to register or face deportation," said Woo. "How can we prevent this registry from becoming a modern form of Chinese exclusion?"
Some activists campaigning to right the wrongs of Canada's head tax on Chinese immigrants and the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 dispute the comparison.
"I can't see how he can complete his statement with a straight face," said Bill Chu, a veteran Vancouver activist who campaigned for head tax redress.
Woo said private member's bill S-237, which seeks to establish a foreign influence registry, would "require anyone with ties to an organization that could be under the direction" of foreign governments to register their position as a prerequisite for contacting Canadian officials.
He claimed that is "not the answer."
David Wong, a Vancouver architect and activist for redress, said the Chinese Immigration Act separated his grandfather from his great-grandfather and effectively barred Chinese immigration until 1947.
He condemned Woo's comparisons, calling them "odious."
"I just can't accept that from a person who's done nothing except use our common Chinese ancestry to leverage this sort of history towards whatever he's trying to do right now," said Wong.
Woo clarified that he supported registries if a "material" demonstration of foreign influence exists.
According to anonymous security sources, Chinese diplomats and their proxies actively worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered "hostile" towards Beijing during the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
The leaked, top-secret CSIS reports uncovered that China had used disinformation campaigns, undeclared cash donations, and international students to volunteer for preferred Liberal candidates.
But the spy agency clarified its report that Canadians friendly with China constituted non-ethnic-Chinese individuals who maintain relations with PRC officials in Canada and have close ties with federal politicians, not Chinese Canadians close to MPs.
Still, Woo expressed concern with registries dividing "Chinese Canadians into those who are acceptable and unacceptable."
For decades, Simon Fraser University professor and city program director Andy Yan's great-grandfather paid the head tax levied on Chinese immigrants.
Yan actively campaigned for redress and said he considered Woo's remarks constitute the use of race to deflect attention from critical issues.
"It's trying to conjure a racial panic while failing to recognize a multicultural, multiethnic reality of Canada," he said, adding that he considered it "disrespectful to what my great-grandfather went through."
In 2006, then prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to Chinese Canadians for the head tax and offered payment of $20,000 to roughly 400 survivors or their widows.
Allegations that China meddled in the recent federal elections have dominated political debate for weeks, procuring constant controversy as the federal Liberals filibuster a motion to request senior government officials speak to Chinese electoral interference amid claims that inquiries into the national security threat invoked anti-Asian racism.
Intelligence services urged senior Liberal Party staff to rescind Han Dong's nomination over alleged foreign interference, which he vehemently denies.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pivoted when asked about the allegations, citing a rise in anti-Asian racism predating the pandemic for that line of questioning.
"There are 1.7 million Canadians who proudly trace their origins back to China. Those Canadians should always be welcomed as full Canadians and encouraged to stand for office," said Trudeau.
"In a free democracy, it is not up to unelected security officials to dictate to political parties who can or cannot run."
Recently, Liberal MPs filibustered a parliamentary committee meeting to prevent Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, from testifying about allegations of Beijing's interference in past elections.
Telford has twice appeared as a witness before parliamentary committees — once during the WE Charity scandal and another time about a sexual misconduct allegation involving Canada's former top soldier.
Moreover, federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the intent of consulting Canadians on a foreign interference registry is to "broadly engage [everyone] in a conversation about how to protect our institutions from foreign interference in an inclusive manner that respects the diversity of our population and, of course, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
Mendicino signalled late last year that Ottawa wanted to hear about creating a registry from experts and the broader public — including those from affected communities.
International Trade Minister Mary Ng said lawmakers needed to ensure the registry is "not unfairly or unintentionally creating a cloud that hovers over an entire community."
Woo said his job partly entails meeting foreign government officials from China and other countries, suggesting the current focus on foreign interference is detrimental to the ability of officials to do their work.
On Thursday, he told reporters it was "deeply insulting" to ask if he had contacts with Beijing. "I don't like getting these attacks."
"I shouldn't have to feel any pressure. It's part and parcel of my job. But the recent reckless allegations have given pause to many of us about whether what we consider the normal course of meeting with officials with other countries is unacceptable."
Wong added the risk of guilt by association in meeting with Chinese diplomats, and "a lot of it is quite innocent."
"But people should do more homework before attending an event," he added.
"People are claiming that I am some kind of a foreign agent not because they have any evidence of arrangements between myself and a foreign state but because of my views," said Woo, according to Blacklock's Reporter.
"If someone like me can be labelled in such a way because of the views I express, imagine the thousands and thousands and thousands of other Canadians who could also be stigmatized."
"You have been dubbed as Beijing's man in the Senate, as China's mouthpiece in the Senate," said a reporter. "Do you have any ties with the Chinese regime?"
"I am not sure I want to dignify that question," replied Woo. "It is deeply insulting."
Chu added that anyone worried about being improperly tainted should ask "who caused this misunderstanding towards the entire Chinese community."
"There's historical or systematic racism," he said. "But that's not what we are talking about. "There's a new concern with China that's different altogether."
According to Blacklock's Reporter, Woo is a former CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation.
In 2020 he accepted a speaking invitation from the Canada-China Friendship Society, a club praised by the Chinese Embassy for "promoting mutual understanding and friendship" with the People's Republic.
The Friendship Society is loosely affiliated with the Communist Party People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, a Beijing state agency.
Woo's scheduled appearance at a $ 10-per-ticket event followed the arrest and detention of two Canadian consultants in China, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
"There is an urgent need to rethink and reframe Canada-China relations," the Friendship Society said in a statement. The Society noted Woo is "widely recognized as a leading thinker on international economic issues and Canada-Asia relations."
In 2017, he also accepted a Huawei Canada invitation to speak with the University of British Columbia students who'd won Huawei-funded scholarships to visit China, take Mandarin classes and tour Huawei corporate headquarters.
"Thank you, Huawei Canada, for supporting next-generation engineering and IT stars," said Woo.
Until 2021, he also held a membership with the pro-Beijing University of British Columbia China Council.
"We want the Chinese government to succeed," he wrote in a 2015 commentary in iPolitics, adding: "We support China's desire for a bigger voice in global and regional governance."