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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Bright light of hope shines at Montreal's annual Tibetan cultural fair

January 6, 2014

By Peter Hadekel

January 6, 2014 - On a chilly weekend in late fall, the Canada Tibet Committee held the 25th annual Tibetan Cultural Fair and Bazaar at the Santa Cruz Church Hall in Montreal.

While it was cold outside, the atmosphere inside the bazaar was warm and welcoming as vendors sold Tibetan handicrafts, textiles, jewelry, clothing, beads and Buddhist artifacts while artists performed Tibetan songs and dances on stage.

It was an opportunity not only to shop for the holiday season but also to support the Tibetan people in their long struggle against Chinese oppression.  And it was an occasion to meet and chat with the merchants on hand, each with their own story to tell about the goods they sold and the journey that brought them here.

Tenzin Choegyal, from Toronto, was typical of many of the merchants attending the fair. He's been coming for the last eight years and he emphasizes how important the event has become, not only for himself but for the community at large.

 "A weekend like this is very important for my business. I sell handicrafts and I have a small store in Toronto. All my merchandise is made by Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India but it is tough to survive because of the Chinese goods coming in." 

His parents were born in eastern Tibet and escaped to India, where he was born. At the age of 21 he came to North America, first arriving in New York City and then settling in Toronto. "This event is very important as it brings awareness for Tibet to the community," he says proudly.

Next to his booth was a young merchant who was reluctant to give his name because his parents are still in Tibet and the Chinese crackdown is growing more severe.  His father was imprisoned by the Chinese in Lhasa at the age of 16.

"My father was in prison for 10 years. Later on my mother went to Lhasa, and they met there. I was born there and I escaped through Nepal to India at the age of 12." 

He recalls that it was a very difficult journey, requiring 27 days to walk through the Himalayan mountain passes. In the middle of the trip, the group began to run out of food. When they got close to the Nepalese border, there was a constant threat that soldiers and police might spot them and report them to Chinese security forces.

 "It was the first time in my life I had no food, but in my group everybody survived although many people had frost bite."

He arrived in Canada in 2007 and moved to Toronto, where he opened a handicraft store. But communicating with his parents back home has been difficult. Sometimes the phone call will not go through or he can hear somebody talking in the background so they can never discuss politics.

 "You can't mention the name of the Dalai Lama. They are scared. You feel like it's difficult to talk." 

Phurbu Risnewa, who sells Tibetan shirts, incense, prayer flags, shawls and jewelry, followed a different road to Canada. He was born in Tibet and escaped with his family through Bhutan when he was 11 years old. His father had a hard life, working on road construction crews in India.


Eventually, they settled near Dharamsala, where growing up in the 1960s young Phurbu studied traditional Tibetan music at TIPA - the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. He mastered several instruments and eventually was invited to play around the world, touring frequently in Europe and North America.

After living in Dharamsala for 30 years, "the Canada Tibet Committee invited me to Canada to teach Tibetan music and dance in 1989 and I stayed. I found a small job and made a little money to invite my family to come over."

Today, he visits India regularly to purchase the items he sells. He sees events like this as important in reinforcing a Tibetan culture that is under constant threat.  That culture is exemplified in some of the beautiful paper products sold by vendor Phurbu Tsering, who was born in Nepal of parents from western Tibet.

"We specialize in handmade Himalayan paper that is eco-friendly, greeting cards, prayer flag cards, notebooks in different sizes and sheet paper," he says. "Everything is with a Tibetan design.

There are meditation items, too, such as Tibetan singing bowls in different sizes and beads in sandalwood and rosewood.  "We have to look at all the sources very carefully because of all the Chinese goods." He goes back to Nepal every couple of years to visit relatives there and purchase authentic goods.

The paper comes from the Lokta tree, he explains. Some people call it Nepalese paper because the tree grows in Nepal also. "It grows four to six feet, you take the bark off the tree and you cook it and wash it, it's a very long process. Then you strain it and dry it.

"Later in five to six years, the tree regenerates. We have a history of this paper; our old prayer books traditionally used it. One of the largest libraries in Tibet, which has not yet been destroyed by the Chinese, has a printing press and they used a lot of this paper. It's durable, because insects don't eat it."  

Emma Inns, an Ottawa-based merchant, is not Tibetan herself but Tibet is very close to her heart. She has a store that sells Canadian-made fair trade clothing, jewelry and accessories that came from her vision of not supporting anything made in China. Bur she also has a business importing goods directly from Tibet.

"I lived in Tibet as a tour guide from 2003 to 2007.  I worked for an Australian company. We went into communities to find out if they wanted tourism and what would be a low impact way to bring tourists in to learn about the culture, the land and their lives, without affecting them in a negative way."

She stayed with nomad families, camped in their tents and helped herd their yaks. Gradually, she started her own microfinance programs to help women get out of poverty. Her first venture was buying a sewing machine and asking women in the nomadic communities if any of them wanted to learn how to sew.

"Six people showed up and we did a sewing class. We made a table runner and it was all on a loan basis. The next month I brought a group of tourists and asked: 'who wants to buy this?' We made enough money to get materials to make two more table runners. It's grown and grown and now we employ 120 people in three villages in Amdo." She also works with a big coop in Lhasa that is 100 per cent Tibetan and buys handicrafts from people in the TAR.

It's made a material difference in their lives, although the local people have had to learn how to deal with the influx of money. "When I was staying in the grasslands I saw a Yak hauling a massive TV on its back and I thought 'Oh No, I have made a mistake.' So we went back and I did some education about sustainable ways to spend this money and education about animals and livestock and land issues. So then we kind of revamped everything and now it's going really well." 

Emma works with a friend from Australia and together they are using proceeds from the sale of Tibetan goods to help finance badly needed surgeries for Tibetan youngsters. "I have pictures of these kids with really serious spine defects. It costs $300, it is a simple surgery that gives them a new beginning. My friend does the same thing I do in Australia and she raised the money to operate on three kids this year."

For Nyima D. Lhatritsang, the newly elected head of the Tibetan community in Montreal, the bazaar is a proud moment, As he sold Pashmina shawls, cotton tuques and home decoration items like masks and auspicious signs, he reflected on the fair's significance.

"It is not just an important event for the vendors but for the whole of the Tibetan people in Canada. This is a very good occasion for us to share our experience and culture with Canadians - a once a year occasion. For the vendors, it is a good opportunity to showcase their projects and get to know more customers. They can share their experiences with each other and get to know more people."

The human rights situation in Tibet is worsening but at events such as this, the bright light of hope burns strongly as the Tibetan community and their supporters come together.

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