Two steaks cook on top of an open barbecue. A plate, tongs and scissors rest on the right side of the grill.
This barbecue was manufactured in a Kitchener, Ont., factory, according to writer Christopher White. (Photograph courtesy of the author)

Topics: Ethical Living | Human Rights

My quest for a made-in-Canada barbecue showed me the prevalence of forced labour

Many goods sold in Canada have links to persecuted Uyghur Muslims. Why are we still importing them?

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All I wanted was a new barbecue.

Our old one had rusted out and was left behind in our move to Hamilton last year, so I headed to Canadian Tire looking for a made in Canada gas grill. There, I ran into a problem: their barbecues are all made in China. Even the Canadian brand Napoleon has a made-in-China line specifically for Canadian Tire. But why would the company that calls itself “Canada’s garage” and says that its goods are “made for life in Canada” not actually make its products in Canada? Unfortunately, no one was eager to answer this question for me. When I reached out to Canadian Tire and Napoleon, I was met with silence. I was even met with silence by Canadian manufacturer Broil King, who produced the barbecue that I eventually bought, even though I approached them with the good news story about their manufacturing in Canada. Crickets from all of them. It led me to wonder what was going on. And why a Canadian manufacturer had no desire to speak with me.


I quickly discovered that you cannot look at the issue of imported Chinese manufactured goods without running into the issue of forced or slave labour in their manufacturing. “It is Chinese policy to use forced Uyghur labour in their manufacturing. I have repeated many, many times that Canada is a dumping ground for forced labour goods,” says Mehmet Thoti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Project out of Ottawa. 

The Uyghur people are a persecuted Muslim religious minority from Northwestern China in an area referred to Xinjiang by the Chinese government and East Turkestan by the Uyghur people. The Uyghur genocide (as defined by Canada’s parliament) is one of the great crimes against humanity in this or any century. Multiple reports from organizations like Amnesty International, and The Uyghur Tribunal have shown that over a million Uyghyrs have been detained in overcrowded concentration camps, many subjected to torture. Uyghurs in China have been subjected to community surveillance, forced into residential schools as children, and sent across China to perform forced labour — to produce goods for Canadian consumers.  

Tohti pointed me to two studies, one out of the Kennedy Center at the University of Sheffield and one by Human Rights Watch, demonstrating that Chinese goods sold in Canada are made with forced labour. Electronics, apparel, auto parts, solar panels and, yes, barbecues are all made with forced labour and are a violation of the 2019 USMCA agreement against using slave labour.

He further pointed out that the government of Canada, unlike the United States, is doing nothing to stop importing forced labour goods. According to a report in CNBC, in the 10 months from June 2022 to April 2023, U.S. border authorities seized $961-million of goods made with forced labour.


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 Luke Reimer is a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency. In an email, he told me that “it is the responsibility of the importer to exercise due diligence to ensure forced labour is not directly or indirectly used in the production of goods it imports.” He also pointed me to Bill S-211, which “outlines the reporting obligations for companies with respect to labour practices in their supply chains.” The problem with the current legislation is that it requires companies to report on themselves. 

Reimer ended his email by saying that the government “announced its intention to introduce legislation in 2024 to eradicate forced labour from Canadian supply chains.” Until that actually happens Tohti says that the “CBSA is simply expecting those companies who are benefitting from Uyghur forced labour and making fortunes out of it, to come forward and tell of their crimes.”  

This promise of new legislation was echoed by Hartley Witten, press secretary and senior communications advisor to the federal minister of labour Seamus O’Regan. In an email to me Witten stated that: “Our government legislation will build upon the important transparency measures in Bill S-211 by ensuring that Canadian law not only has the tools to identify these goods, but has the teeth to act on them. It will send a clear message to the world: forced labour has no place in Canada.”

According to the documentation that I was directed to, the Uyghur Rights Advocacy project was not consulted on the proposed legislation, though all the big retailers were. To describe this as problematic is an understatement.

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Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, looked at the economic impact that these forced labour imports are having on Canada. “In 2023, Canada imported $89 billion of manufactured goods from China, we exported just $12.7 billion, which leaves us with a trade deficit of $76 billion, according to the government’s own numbers.” This trade deficit represents lost Canadian jobs and has caused ripples through the country, including its politics. Stanford steered me to the studies “The China Shock” and “On the Persistence of the China Shock” by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon H. Hanson, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both these studies showed the impact of Chinese imports on manufacturing and administrative jobs in the United States, and the results are devastating. 


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Drawing on his broader expertise, Stanford said that the disappearance of manufacturing jobs led to a decrease in overall health and a declining life expectancy. He also said that this likely aided in the rise of extreme right-wing politics, as politicians like Donald Trump provided everyday people with an outlet for their anger. While Canada has no equivalent studies, it is not hard to draw parallels, especially in our current political climate.

So what are we as citizens to do?

Stanford is adamant that “we need to do things differently and there are alternatives out there.”

Consumer pressure is one of these alternatives, and can be an effective tool for change. Perhaps it is time to look at boycotting one of those retailers who may be profiting from the misery of the Uyghur people. My vote would go to Canadian Tire as a start. After all, Canadian Tire describes itself as “Canada’s Store,” and how can you claim that when the vast majority of your goods are made in China and potentially tainted with forced Uyghur labour?

Meanwhile, I will cook on my new made-in-Canada barbecue, confident that its manufacture benefitted Canadian families and that no one has suffered because I bought it.

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Rev. Christopher White is a United Church minister in Hamilton.

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