A former Canadian diplomat who spent decades in China is questioning Canada’s decision to deport 49-year-old Yang Wei, a Chinese political dissident with a history of mental illness who came to Canada as a refugee and later committed a number of violent assaults.
Yang was deported Wednesday, according to lawyers, after he was declared a “danger to the public” by Canadian immigration officials because of his criminal past, including the 2010 assault of a Toronto bus driver whom Yang stabbed at least 13 times with a knife.
But according to Charles Burton, who served as counsellor of political affairs in Canada’s Beijing embassy in the 1990s and early 2000s, Yang’s removal is problematic, perhaps even a violation of his basic human rights, because of his diagnosed history of mental illness and the risks he faces in China for his political beliefs.
Burton also questions whether broader political considerations on both the Canadian and Chinese sides might have played a part in Canada’s decision to remove Yang and China’s willingness to take him back.
Burton continued: “My opinion, which I think is shared with others who have knowledge of the circumstances … has been that if (Yang) was returned to China, he would likely face a harsh incarceration on political grounds.”
Yang came to Canada a ‘damaged person’
No one disputes the fact that Yang is dangerous.
After coming to Canada in 2003, he committed a series of violent acts, immigration records show. He was then diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2012.
In addition to stabbing the Toronto bus driver, Yang was convicted in 2007 of one count of assault with a weapon after he threatened a Rogers store clerk with a meat cleaver. Then, while on probation, Yang was again convicted of a weapons-related charge, immigration records show.
According to federal court files, Yang was issued two deportation orders in 2009 and 2014 because of “serious criminality.”
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But before he came to Canada, Yang was active in China’s pro-democracy student movement. This included distributing pamphlets calling for the overthrow of China’s authoritarian regime after Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on student protesters at Tiananmen Square.
According to Federal Court files, Yang claimed to have spent three years in a Chinese prison after he was convicted for political activism. During his time in jail, Yang alleged he was mistreated by other prisoners.
After his release from prison, Yang joined a pro-democracy political party in southern China in 1993 before escaping to Thailand in 1999, where court filings show he was declared a refugee by the United Nations Refugee Agency prior to being resettled in Canada.
But that wasn’t the end of Yang’s story.
According to Leslie Morley, the lawyer who represented Yang when the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) was working to have him declared a danger to the public, Yang’s early years in Canada were marred by poverty and disturbing memories of the past.
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Struggling without any family members in Toronto, unable to speak English and often living in homeless shelters, Yang was unable to build a meaningful life in Canada, Morley said.
“When you experience persecution as Yang had done — that is, three years in the penitentiary in China and all that goes with that — you don’t come out the same as you went in,” Morley said.
“When you do get out, it’s not over,” he said. “You’re haunted on an ongoing basis by the memories of what happened to you.”
Public vs. private risk
Yang’s removal to China comes at a time of heightened tensions between Ottawa and Beijing.
The arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou last December and her possible extradition to the United States has led to a months-long diplomatic dispute between Canada and China that’s seen officials on both sides make claims of political interference and wrongful arrest of their citizens.
And while Yang’s case has no direct ties to this ongoing dispute, the timing of his deportation has Burton wondering whether Canada’s decision to remove him now wasn’t, at least in part, intended as an effort to improve relations between the two countries.
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Burton also questions why China would want Yang back — given his tendency to commit violent crimes — if it wasn’t the Chinese government’s intention to imprison him for his political beliefs upon his return.
“My feeling is that the Chinese government wants Yang returned,” Burton said. “And that’s why they’ve facilitated the matter in this way, which is not typical of their practice.”
Canadian officials did not respond directly to questions about Yang’s case, citing privacy concerns. They also did not say whether Canada received assurances from China that Yang would not be harmed following his removal.
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) did, however, say that the process for declaring someone a danger to the public is conducted without political interference and that removals occur only after due process has been exhausted.
“IRCC senior decision makers have the delegated authority to form a danger opinion,” wrote Shannon Ker in a written statement. “They are independent from the minister of IRCC and their decisions are not influenced by political or diplomatic considerations.”
Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, also denied the claim that political factors may have led the CBSA to remove someone from Canada.
“The allegation that a removal was done for political reasons is false,” Bardsley said.
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And while Bardsley acknowledges that deporting a refugee to a country where there is a proven risk of harm could have consequences, he says the government must weigh the risk against the danger to Canadian society if that person is allowed to stay.
Morley, meanwhile, agrees the government does not take this type of decision lightly. But he does believe Yang is at risk.
He also says Yang’s case is an example of why Canada has a responsibility to provide vulnerable refugees with adequate health care and legal services after they arrive in Canada and why early intervention in cases involving mental illness is so important.
“Not every refugee is necessarily going to be in a situation to land on their feet and to rise up the ladder of success,” Morley said. “Some of them are broken people and sometimes even worse than that.
“The baggage they carry with them creates a disturbed person that may present some risks to people around them,” he said. “This is the most difficult kind of situation to resolve.”