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How the Dalai Lama became Canadian

How the Dalai Lama became Canadian

Canada officially adopted the Dalai Lama back in 2006, yet the relationship between Ottawa and Tibet’s spiritual leader goes much deeper.

Just the Basics

  • The Dalai Lama has been coming to Canada for decades, and was made an honorary citizen in 2006 - one of only six people to receive the nation’s highest honour

  • Ties between Canada and the Tibetan spiritual leader have waxed and waned depending on the degree to which successive Canadian government have tried to court China

  • China has increased its efforts to isolate the Dalai Lama from his Canadian supporters, in part by intimidating civil society actors and the Tibetan exile community in Canada

It is 2008 and Shenpenn Khymsar, 34 is about to have an experience he will never forget. Khymsar (and his haircut) are about to get a shout out from the Dalai Lama. Khymsar, a Tibetan-Canadian film maker and heavy metal musician, caught His Holiness’ attention while praying at a religious conference in India. After a brief chat with the Dalai Lama, Khymsar was surprised to be mentioned in the religious leader’s address. After alighting his platform, the Dalai Lama pointed to Khymsar and explained to the audience that “there is this young Tibetan-Canadian guy who is making this film. He has very funny hair, like punkish hair, and he’s very modern, but at the end he is also Tibetan.”

Khymsar and his faux-hawk are just one many links between the Dalai Lama and Canada; a relationship that spans decades and has often touched on important Canadian domestic issues. Khymsar also represents the nature of this relationship, the meeting of ancient traditions and hip modernity. Canada is home to generations of Tibetans that have either never lived in their homeland, or never known any other ruler than Beijing. A key element of the Dalai Lama’s work is to keep this - oft tenuous - connection between overseas Tibetans and their homeland’s traditions alive, as well as continually remind the international community of Beijing’s human rights abuses.

It is this emphasis on human rights that laid the groundwork for the Dalai Lama’s ties to Canada. The Dalai Lama first visited Canada in 1980, but he only really came to national prominence a decade later when he came to Ottawa to unveil Canada’s Human Rights Monument, the first structure in the world dedicated to the struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms. The Dalai Lama’s presence seemed appropriate to the unveiling committee, as he had just won the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year before. The fact that Canada’s own Lester B. Pearson had won the same award several decades prior only further highlighted the humanitarian similarities which Canada was keen to emphasize.

The unveiling took place just down the street from both Pearson’s own statue next to Parliament Hill, as well as the (then under construction) Peacekeeping Monument. Joining the Dalai Lama at the unveiling was John Peters Humphrey, the Canadian jurist responsible for the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After the ceremony, the Dalai Lama presented his Five Point Peace Plan - aimed at repairing Sino-Tibetan relations - to a parliamentary committee, appealing to Canada to help advance dialogue between the two sides.

Canada’s embrace of Dalai Lama part human rights promotion, part China bashing

Canada’s affinity with the Dalai Lama is partly due to feelings of commonality and shared values, but it would be remiss to overlook the fact that there has always been an invisible third party present in Canada’s dealings with the head of Tibetan Buddhism; namely, China. Canada’s invitation to the Dalai Lama in 1990 may have coincided with the opening of the Human Rights Monument, but it was no coincidence that the Dalai Lama was in Canada barely a year after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, an event which shocked the international community which had hitherto been cheering on China’s opening. By awarding the Dalai Lama (a perennial thorn in Beijing’s side) the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the selection committee was also sending a clear message to the Chinese government, namely that it had severely transgressed international norms. In extending an invitation, the government of Brian Mulroney was also clearly signalling its displeasure with Beijing.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is greeted on the steps of Parliament by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 2006 |  CANADA-TIBET COMMITTEE

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is greeted on the steps of Parliament by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 2006 | CANADA-TIBET COMMITTEE

Following the election of Jean Chrétien in October 1993 (incidentally only a couple months after the Dalai Lama’s latest visit) an interesting change occurred regarding the Dalai Lama. Chrétien and his government had (Chrétien recently volunteered to lead a mission to China to ease tensions; he has also suggested scrapping Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case) close ties with China. In the coming years, China would manage to shake off its pariah status, due in large part to its growing economic power and political clout. As such, Jean Chrétien refused to meet with the Dalai Lama while in office (they exchanged biographies during a forty-five minute meeting in 1990 when Chrétien has head of the opposition) - a first order faux pas for any friend of China - who in turn did not visit Canada again until 2004.

This tepid attitude regarding the Dalai Lama can be seen in the results of a questionnaire sent by the Canada Tibet Committee to Canada’s political parties in 2000. In response to questions about whether party leaders would meet with the Dalai Lama should he visit Canada, only the New Democratic Party (NDP), Bloc Quebecois and Canadian Alliance Party answered in the affirmative; the Liberals were non-committal and the Progressive Conservative Party did not respond. Similarly, on the question of promoting the commencement of negotiations between China and the Dalai Lama’s representatives in order to end the conflict in Tibet, the Liberals remained non-committal and PCs unresponsive. Once again, the NDP and Canadian Alliance said yes, and the Bloc Quebecois even had an explicit Tibet policy enshrined in their platform.

Nevertheless, the attitude of Canada’s two largest parties began to change in 2004 under Prime Minister Paul Martin, who became the first sitting PM to meet with the Dalai Lama (while Mulroney had green lit His Holiness’ visit back in 1990, he had not met with him in person).

“I met the Dalai Lama in my office, but I meet everyone in my office. I don’t know why I would sneak off to a hotel room just to meet the Dalai Lama. You know, he’s not a call girl.”
— Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Dec. 2007

The most dramatic change came in 2006 with the election of Stephen Harper, who quickly became the Dalai Lama’s most vocal supporter to reside at 24 Sussex Drive. 2006 also saw the Dalai Lama receive honorary Canadian citizenship - the nation’s highest honour, at the time making him only the third person ever to receive such recognition (joining Nelson Mandela and Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews during WWII). During the ceremony, Immigration Minister Monte Solberg spoke to the Dalai Lama: “Welcome to our great country. We will welcome you each and every time you return to Canada to share your message of kindness and compassion.” His Holiness was visibly moved, responding “now I am also a citizen of this country. I am honoured to receive this citizenship.”

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government officially complained, warning Ottawa that honouring the Dalai Lama in this manner would harm relations; in response Canada reaffirmed its recognition of China as the legitimate government of Tibet, arguing that the gesture was merely one of a deep personal respect for the Dalai Lama. Nevertheless, even if the motive was personal rather than political, it would be foolish to deny that the gesture had no political dimension nor any secondary message, especially given Harper’s hawkish attitude toward Beijing. 

The establishment of the Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education - the first institution in the world to bear the religious leader’s name - in Vancouver in the same year further demonstrates the sudden growth in bilateral ties. In citing Vancouver’s multicultural population as the grounds for the centre’s location, the Dalai Lama’s representatives were also sending a message to China. Despite the majority of the Tibetan community in Canada living in Toronto, Vancouver was likely chosen because it has the largest Chinese community in Canada, thus facilitating the Centre’s hearts-and-minds outreach program.

Stephen Harper: the Dalai Lama’s strongest champion

Harper’s embrace of the Dalai Lama led to a spate of visits by the Tibetan holy man to Canada - eight in total between 2004 and 2014. In 2007, the Harper government also agreed to resettle 1,000 Tibetan refugees, who began arriving in 2013. This gesture combined with the Dalai Lama’s sold out 5,000 seat event in 2007 showed that, “Canada [was] saying to China, like many other nations - for example, India - that human rights [and] religious freedom are important, and that there is such a field for which China has to adjust itself to the international community instead of imposing the kind of approaches which simply don’t fit the times,” remarks Jacob Kovalro, professor of Asian history at Carleton University.

That said, Harper’s December 2007 meeting with the Dalai Lama was questioned by some, with the PM quizzed during an interview why he had met the Tibetan leader in his office. In an (unintentionally) humorous reply, Harper gave late night comics some comedic gold by explaining that “I met the Dalai Lama in my office, but I meet everyone in my office. I don’t know why I would sneak off to a hotel room just to meet the Dalai Lama. You know, he’s not a call girl.” Harper was quick to follow up that “as I say, he’s a respected international spiritual leader.”

Fortunately, Harper’s poor choice of words did not dampen the newfound sense of camaraderie between Ottawa and the Dalai Lama, with the Tibetan holy man visiting Canada again in 2009. Harper’s scepticism of China had already firmly placed him on China’s naughty list; he was thus able to meet the Dalai Lama without risking much regarding relations with Beijing. Harper’s inattentiveness towards China tainted his first trip to China in 2009, the first by a Canadian prime minister in five years - a fact remarked upon by President Hu Jintao, who upbraided Harper for his failure to visit earlier. Such a reception did little to improve the Canadian government’s opinion of China, with Canada’s political establishment continuing to meet with the Dalai Lama on a regular basis. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama accepts a Canadiens hockey jersey in Montreal, 2009 |  CANADA-TIBET COMMITTEE

His Holiness the Dalai Lama accepts a Canadiens hockey jersey in Montreal, 2009 | CANADA-TIBET COMMITTEE

Between 2009 and 2012, the Dalai Lama made annual trips to Canada, a fact that did not go unnoticed by China, which in turn began to target civil society organizations in an effort to erode support for Tibet. For instance, in 2010 the University of Calgary was removed from China’s list of accredited universities, a move widely seen as punishing the institution for hosting the Dalai Lama the previous year. The following year, in the run-up to His Holiness’ 2011 visit, the Canada Tibet Committee was targeted by cyber attacks, specifically, forged emails embedded with Trojan viruses trying to infiltrate the organization’s computers and spy on their activities. 

Speaking on the issue in 2011 , Canada Tibet Committee director, Dermod Travis explained that:

“Canadians would never tolerate their fellow citizens trying to spy on them. We wouldn’t tolerate our government spying on us. And the Canadian government must not tolerate foreign citizens or governments harassing those working on lawful public events in Canada. It’s not unusual to see this type of heinous activity prior to a visit by the Dalai Lama, but rarely to this intensity. Regrettably, there are those who don’t seem to know that we live in a free society and the culprits behind these attacks need to hear loud and clear that we won't be intimidated by them.”

At the same time that China was increasing its pressure on supporters of the Dalai Lama in Canada, Beijing was also adopting a more conciliatory tone towards Ottawa. Part of the new Chinese charm offensive included permitting the Canadian ambassador to visit Tibet in 2011 and 2013. By allowing Canadian officials access to an otherwise tightly controlled area, Beijing was seeking to demonstrate that things in Tibet are not as bad as some claim as well as pay lip service to Canadian calls for transparency. With China’s economy growing apace, Beijing was eyeing Canada’s energy and agricultural exports. As such, China was seeking to improve relations with Canada and thus slowly wean Ottawa off of its connections with the Dalai Lama.

One such opportunity to drive a wedge between Canada and Dalai Lama came in September 2011 when the Tibetan spiritual leader, along with other Nobel laureates, sent President Barack Obama a signed letter expressing their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. With Keystone approval a major goal for the Harper administration and its Alberta support base, the Dalai Lama’s public opposition to the pipeline did not meet with approval from Conservatives. Interestingly, this disapproval appears to have been sufficiently evident, as a copy of the letter sent to Prime Minister Harper several weeks later did not include the Dalai Lama’s signature.

Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama visited Canada the same year, and was warmly welcomed to the 2012 World Parliamentarians Convention on Tibet in Ottawa, demonstrating that ties had not been damaged beyond repair. Prime Minister Harper, along with Jason Kenney, Maxime Bernier, David Emerson and Lawrence Cannon all continued, in their official capacity, to release regular statements of concern regarding the situation in Tibet. Canadian diplomats also raised the Tibet issue during China’s appearance before the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review in 2013. While Canada continued to pursue deeper economic relations with China, the Dalai Lama continued to approve of the effort of the Harper administration to champion human rights. “I think [Harper] managed it very well [...],” noted the Dalai Lama in 2012, “[...he] keep close relations with China, at the same time his own democratic value, he stand firms; that’s very good [sic].”

China’s courting of Canada pays dividends

At the same time, Beijing continued to woo Canada, resulting in Harper’s second trip to China in 2012; a visit which saw Beijing employ a far more conciliatory tone. It is here that one can begin to see a change in how the Harper administration interacted with the Dalai Lama, especially as exports to China (including the deluge of Chinese international students and tourists) increased sharply. The lure of China as a seemingly endless supply of money and the fear of losing access to said money played (and continues to play) a key role in China’s efforts to isolate the Dalai Lama. There has been a steep decline in the number of foreign heads of state meeting the Dalai Lama; from eleven in 2001, to just one in 2014. Countries such as the United Kingdom, France, South Africa, Denmark and Norway all snubbed his Holiness as Chinese pressure increased.  

His Holiness the Dalai Lama meets Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, 2007 | CANADA-TIBET COMMITTEE

“The Dalai Lama used to be the guy everyone wanted at their party. But since China’s emergence as an economic superpower, he’s become an awkward guest to invite [...] Around the world, governments are limiting their contact with him, in some cases because of direct pressure by China, and in other cases because of the chilling effect that pressure creates,” explains digital new outlet, GlobalPost. This pressure was demonstrated by a 2013 study by Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann at the University of Heidelberg, which found that states granting the Dalai Lama high profile meetings saw, at least, an 8.1 percent decline in exports to China for the next two years. Interestingly, follow up research by Charles Burton, a Canada-China specialist at Brock University did not find such a decrease in Canadian trade figures. This discrepancy may be due to the differing nature of Canadian exports to China, or that Canadian contact with the Dalai Lama was already sufficiently decreasing by this time to exempt Canada from punishment.

In any case, by the mid-2010s, the Canadian prime minister was quickly becoming one of the few heads of state to meet with the Dalai Lama. Even Canada’s outlier status began to change in 2014, as Harper did not meet with the Dalai Lama during his October 2014 trip to Canada. When commentators remarked on the PM’s absence, Conservative MP and chairman of the Parliamentary Friends of Tibet, Bernard Trottier explained that “we [Conservative MPs in the delegation] are there with [Harper’s] blessing, he’s well aware that we’re doing this. But then again it’s not a government initiative, it's a parliamentary initiative.”

This kind of hedging demonstrates the newer, more pro-China stance that the Harper administration adopted in its final years; a stance that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inherited (coupled with the Liberal’s pro-China legacy) and was building upon up until the Huawei affair scuppered relations in December 2018. It is also important to note that Trudeau has not met with the Dalai Lama as PM (he did meet his Holiness in 2004), nor has the Dalai Lama visited Canada since 2014. Granted the Dalai Lama retired from many of his official duties in 2011 and has not undertaken any international travel since 2017, but the trend of decreasing contact remains clear. There has been some interaction since the 2016 election, as when representatives of the Dalai Lama highlighted the 144 self-immolations of Tibetans that (as of 2016) had occurred in Tibet since 2009 as evidence of China’s increasingly harsh rule. Tibetan representatives in turn urged Canada to keep this trend in mind as Ottawa began to consider a potential free trade agreement with China. 

The Canada-Tibet Committee also called on Canada to include a human rights impact assessment as part of any potential free trade agreement with Beijing. The Dalai Lama’s special representative to Canada and the United States, Penpa Tsering also noted that Canada could make an important contribution in bringing China back to the negotiating table: talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama broke down in 2010 and have never resumed. More recently, the Dalai Lama also issued a four minute video message in June 2018 thanking Canada for its contribution to the Tibetan exile community over the past sixty years; the video was screened as part of the Thank You Canada celebrations on Parliament Hill organized by the Canada-Tibet Committee and the Parliamentary Friends of Tibet.

With Canada-China relations in free fall following the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in December 2018, China has increased its efforts to isolate the Dalai Lama from his Canadian supporters. In April 2019, a fake letter addressed to the Tibetan Association of Canada from Prime Minister Trudeau congratulating said organization made headlines. The letter, which included spelling and grammatical errors, voiced support for the controversial pro-China non-profit promoting Tibetan reunification with China. Six Tibetan organizations have also signed a letter against the operation of the Tibetan Association of Canada, claiming it does not represent the views of most Tibetans.

Speaking of unpopular views, the Dalai Lama himself has been at the centre of various social media storms in recent years. The Tibetan spiritual leader has praised European efforts to accept refugees but warns that long-term integration is not a realistic goal, as Europe’s Middle Eastern and African refugees should return home as soon as possible. Warning about an Islamization of Europe, the Dalai Lama stated that Europe was for the Europeans, a sentiment echoed by many far-right and anti-immigrant groups.

The Dalai Lama has also made repeated remarks concerning a potential female successor, stressing that she would not be very effective if she was not pretty. Repeated comments in 2014, 2015 and 2019 have led to a Twitter backlash, tarnishing the Dalai Lama’s reputation among many female supporters. In the wake of these incidents, it appears that the Trudeau government may have dodged a bullet by largely ignoring the Dalai Lama since coming to power. PM Trudeau has already had to deal with the fallout from his close ties to another foreign religious leader, namely the Aga Khan, so a second such fiasco would have further undermined Trudeau’s reputation, especially during an election year. 

The Bottom Line

The Dalai Lama’s comments concerning refugees and women are in stark opposition to the Trudeau government’s progressive, feminist credentials. Had Ottawa still been courting the Dalai Lama in recent years, this could have led many Liberal supporters (and others) to question why the government was feting someone who has publicly voiced views contrary to those of many Canadians. Many people tend to forget that the Dalai Lama is not an infallible, Yoda-like figure, but rather the head of a conservative religious hierarchy and pushing 90. He is also a product of his time, something which anyone with elderly parents or grandparents is well aware off, especially when they express opinions or use language (even in jest) that has not aged as well as they have.

Since his flight into exile in India in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama has become one of the most recognizable figures on the international stage, having won legions of admirers across the West in general, and Canada in particular. The Dalai Lama’s second visit to Canada in 1990 saw Canadian politicians begin a decades-long tradition of honouring the Tibetan spiritual leader’s commitment to human rights, echoing Canada’s own self-image as a progressive nation. Similarly, since the beginning, a second - at times unspoken, but never absent - facet of Canada’s relationship with the Dalai Lama was emerging; namely, lauding His Holiness as a means to send a message to China.

The Dalai Lama was invited to Ottawa in 1990 following the Tiananmen Square Massacre a year prior, and ties between the Tibetan holy man and Canada reached their apex during the sceptical (vis-a-vis China) Harper administration. Conversely, the Dalai Lama’s decade-long absence from Canada during the pro-China Chrétien government, and post-2014 during Harper and Trudeau’s rapprochement with China demonstrates how Canada withdraws contact when it is wooing Beijing. Despite the Dalai Lama’s honorary citizenship and Canada’s self-proclaimed humanitarian credentials, ties with His Holiness have - underneath the often genuine affection - been marked by a cold political calculus by Canada’s political leadership.


Title image courtesy of the Canada Tibet Committee

The long shadow of Canada's Chinese head tax

The long shadow of Canada's Chinese head tax

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