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Canada's Special Relationship With the Dalai Lama

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Michael Kovac via Getty Images

On October 21-23, residents of Vancouver will once again welcome back to our country honorary Canadian citizen Tenzin Gyatso, who is more widely known as the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government has described the Dalai Lama as a "political exile cloaked under religion but engaged in splittist and peace-sabotaging attempts." They further blame the Dalai clique for causing some demonstrations in China. Over the years, Chinese embassies have "resolutely" opposed any country receiving the Dalai Lama or any form of official meetings taking place with him. It appears Chinese influence is considerable, with South Africa (reportedly denied giving a visa three times in five years), Taiwan, and Russia declining to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama. Thailand reportedly even rejected giving the Dalai Lama's sister a visa in 2010.

Despite these negative views on the Dalai Lama coming from a more assertive China (now reportedly the world's largest economy and our second largest trading partner) Canada has provided considerable support to the Dalai Lama and issues of concern to him.

In 2004, Paul Martin became the first sitting prime minister to meet with the Dalai Lama, although the meeting took place at the residence of the Catholic Archbishop of Ottawa and was described as "private" in nature.

In 2006, Parliament bestowed on Tenzin Gyatso honorary Canadian citizenship.

Going much further than Paul Martin, Prime Minister Stephen Harper met (in his Parliament Hill office) with the Dalai Lama in 2007 and in 2012. The Governor General also welcomed the Dalai Lama to Rideau Hall in October 2007 and there was a private meeting in 2009 in Vancouver.

The Canadian government further demonstrated its willingness to undertake potentially controversial actions when it announced in 2010 it would accept 1000 Tibetan refugees living in the Arunachal Pradesh region of India (China also lays claim to the region).

Canadian diplomats also raised issues around Tibet and religious freedom at the UN, including at the Interactive Dialogues on Religion and when China appeared before the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review in 2013.

A statement of concern about the situation in Tibet was also issued by Prime Minister Harper. Multiple statements were also issued by then Foreign Ministers Maxime Bernier, David Emerson, and Lawrence Cannon on the discussions that took place between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the People's Republic of China. As well, annual statements from Jason Kenney (minister for multiculturalism) on Losar usually contain a reference to the Dalai Lama.

While some statements have touched on encouraging dialogue and greater religious freedoms, perhaps the harshest description came in a 2012 speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society in London (UK), when Minister Baird characterized China's treatment of religious minorities, including Tibetan Buddhists, as "abhorrent acts" that "fly in the face of our core principles, our core values".

In spite of these actions and criticisms, Canada's ambassador to China was permitted to visit the Tibetan Autonomous Region in 2011 and 2013 (the Chinese government limits who can travel to the region). Not only has Canada-China relations survived, it has grown since 2005.

In recent years, the relationship between the Dalai Lama and Canadian parliamentarians has been quite warm. The one potential exception could be when the Dalai Lama joined several Nobel laureates in sending a letter to US President Obama opposing the Keystone pipeline in early September 2011. Perhaps this was an oversight by the advisors to His Holiness on the sensitivity of the issue, and its importance to Canada. Of note, the same group then sent a similar letter to Prime Minister Harper a few weeks later. This time, the Dalai Lama was no longer a signatory.

With a potential upcoming visit to China by Prime Minister Harper in November for APEC, it may be timely to review how the Dalai Lama described the Canadian prime minister's approach to China: "I think he managed it very well, keep close relation with China, at the same time his own democratic value, he stand firm, that's very good."

The prime minister's trip would also provide an opportunity for Canada to press for the resumption of substantive dialogue (the last formal discussions were in 2010) between the People's Republic of China and representatives of the Dalai Lama.

Although the Dalai Lama's visit to Canada this time will not be as high profile as when he attended the 2012 World Parliamentarians' Convention on Tibet (held in Ottawa and attended by many MPs, including Minister Kenney), it will nevertheless be interesting to see who greets him from the federal and BC governments when he arrives in Vancouver on October 21st.

Welcome back to Canada, Your Holiness.

  • Kanwal Kirshna / AFP / Getty Images
    This undated picture shows a painting by Kanwal Krishna dated probably in 1930s of a young Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso, born in 1935), the traditional religious and temporal head of Tibet's Buddhist clergy.
  • FPG / Archive Photos / Getty Images
    A speech by the 14th Dalai Lama, circa 1955.
  • Getty Images
    Jan. 21, 1957 at Palace Ground square, Kolkata, India: the Dalai Lama gives his blessing to a crowd gathered for a farewell ceremony.
  • Hulton Archive / Getty Images
    1959: His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, seated on his throne and wearing the gold peaked cap which is his crown, smiles while giving an audience in Lhasa, Tibet. An assistant monk stands at his side.
  • Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
    The Dalai Lama poses for a photo in October 1967 in India.
  • Getty Images
    In 1973, the Dalai Lama visited the SOS Children's Village of Hinterbrühl in Austria. In the photo, he stands by Hermann Gmeiner, the founder of SOS Children's Villages.
  • Ernst Haas / Getty Images
    Feb. 1974: the Dalai Lama officiates at the Kalachakra Initiation Ceremony held in Bodh Gaya (place of the Buddha) in the state of Bihar in northeastern India.
  • Gerry Penny / AFP / Getty Images
    The Dalai Lama poses with his wax portrait in the Grand Hall at Madame Tussaud's in November 1993 in London. The Dalai Lama brought a pair of his own glasses for the model on his one-day visit to London.
  • Steve Granitz / WireImage
    The Dalai Lama at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Beverly Hills, California on Aug. 2, 1996.
  • Michael Smith / Getty Images
    The Dalai Lama greets the media on Capitol Hill before meeting with congressional leaders on June 20, 2000 in Washington.
  • David McNew / Getty Images
    The Dalai Lama appears at the University of California Los Angeles to give a public teaching May 26, 2001.
  • Robert Patterson / Getty Images
    The Dalai Lama takes part in a Hongi, a traditional Māori greeting in New Zealand, on on May 27, 2002.
  • Mehmet Kaman / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
    The Dalai Lama speaks during a press conference while visiting Frankfurt, Germany.