04/27/2012 03:56 EDT | Updated 06/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Dalai Lama meeting supporters in Ottawa

The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, is in Canada this weekend for a convention of world parliamentarians on Tibet.

Conservative, Liberal and NDP parliamentarians are taking part in the conference, along with academics and experts on China and Tibet. Actor Richard Gere, a longtime supporter of Tibet, is also speaking at the conference.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with the Dalai Lama Friday afternoon in his Parliament Hill office for about 20 minutes. It was not their first meeting: The two met on one of the spiritual leader's previous visits to Canada, in October, 2007, drawing a rebuke from the Chinese Embassy.

Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair met with the Dalai Lama Friday afternoon, a spokesman confirmed, along with a small group of MPs from all parties.

China claims Tibet as part of its territory, and Canada officially recognizes China as the government of Tibet.

Canada has been trying to increase its trade with China and could soon begin exploratory talks to eventually negotiate a free-trade agreement. But Harper said during his February, 2012, trip to China that the country can expect him to continue to advocate for improved human rights conditions.

In 2006, the House of Commons voted to give the Dalai Lama honourary Canadian citizenship. That move also drew criticism from China.

Tibet is an autonomous region of China. The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in northern India since 1959.

Gere said Canada has been helpful to Tibetans by opening its doors to them and refugees from other countries, but that he senses "a slight pulling back, shall I call it that, maybe of the kind of support that the Tibetans have felt embraced by Canada, and I would hate to see that happen."

Gere told reporters that Canada is a major player with China and that it is possible for countries to deepen their economic relationships while still being vocal about what he called a totalitarian state.

"It's a big world, they need the rest of the world, but if every country is worried about their own special deal with the Chinese, of course it's very easy for the Chinese to influence sometimes to an extent that they will own a country," he said.

Gere said it was a positive thing for Harper to schedule a meeting with the Dalai Lama but that it should be held in public instead of privately in Harper's office.