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

Tibetans in Canada

Tibetan Immigration to Canada

In 1959, a national uprising by Tibetans against the Chinese occupation of their homeland forced thousands to leave their homes. By the late 1960s, close to 100,000 Tibetans were displaced and fled to India and Nepal.

The Indian government was unable to provide assistance to every refugee. As a result, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) became involved in the daily care of refugees. In 1966, the UNHCR began discussing the resettlement of Tibetan refugees with the Canadian government. The UNHCR hoped that Ottawa could resettle these refugees since many of them were agriculturalists. The international organization also sought group relocation of the refugees in order to meet their spiritual and cultural needs. Although the federal government refused any plan involving group settlement, Canada’s High Commissioner to India, James George, suggested to federal officials that Canada could still resettle a small number of Tibetan refugees.

A year later, an interdepartmental committee representing five federal departments was organized to consider the plight of Tibetan refugees and their admission and resettlement in Canada. In July 1970, the Dalai Lama was informed by Canadian officials that Ottawa would consider the resettlement of 240 Tibetan refugees. In its first year of operation, the Tibetan Refugee Program was to cost approximately $794,000. Within the Department of Manpower and Immigration’s Operations Division, the Immigrant and Migrant Services Section was responsible for the Tibetan Refugee Program. Through the Canada Manpower Centres, the Section focused its work on “adjustment assistance” for newcomers by providing financial assistance, counseling, referrals and help in securing employment.

In March 1971, the first Tibetan refugees arrived in Canada. This small group of newcomers to Canada became the first non-European refugees accepted into the country. At the time, the settlement of these refugees called for Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia to accept an equal number of refugees. Initially, British Columbia rejected the plan, forcing the other three provinces to accept more refugees. The Canadian government sought young couples who were already well-established. This initial group numbered 228 persons of which approximately 90 percent of whom were between the ages of 14 and 44.

The Tibetan refugees were settled in 11 municipalities across Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba. The federal government decided that the future acceptance of Tibetan refugees would depend on the successful settlement of this first group of 228 individuals. In Quebec, Tibetan refugees were offered language and job training. In other provinces, these same newcomers were often left with little or no assistance during their first several months in Canada. In the Prairies, Tibetan refugees worked as labourers on farms. Of the 128 refugees who later sought full-time employment, a majority worked in the service and crafts industries.

According to Professor Brian Given of Ottawa’s Carleton University, the Tibetan refugees “…have done especially well in the “caring professions,” such as working in hospitals or homes for senior citizens…” due to the Tibetan Buddhist values of compassion and respect for life.

Initially, many refugees struggled to adjust to their new environment since Canadian immigration officials disapproved of group resettlement. In Canada, Tibetan refugees often lacked contact with family in India and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. During the mid-1970s, annual Manpower and Immigration reports indicated that the 228 Tibetan refugees were “…progressing well in their new Canadian environment and seem[ed] to be settling happily.” After five years in Canada, almost all Tibetan adults were “…gainfully employed and able to feed, clothe, and house themselves adequately.” Several years later, Canadian Tibetans established community organizations to preserve their cultural and linguistic traditions.

By 1981, all the Tibetan communities in Canada had established associations through which they celebrated traditional holidays and managed language and dance schools for children. In 1987, Tibetans in Canada and their non-Tibetan supporters founded the Canada-Tibet Committee which would become a leading non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting the plight of the Tibetan people, Tibetan culture and Tibet’s sovereignty.

Throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the number of new Tibetans arriving in Canada rose significantly. According to the 2006 Canadian Census, the Canadian Tibetan community comprised more than 4,250 individuals, most in the Toronto which constituted over 75 per cent of the entire Canadian Tibetan community. On 17 October 2007, the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre was established in Etobicoke, Ontario. The centre is now open to members of the public and provides various programs and services including Tibetan language courses, performing arts and Buddhist philosophy classes. During this same period, negotiations were held between the Dalai Lama and the Canadian government for a second resettlement program to assist displaced Tibetans living in the northern India state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Tibetan immigration to Canada is often overlooked in Canadian immigration history. Although the community remains small – now approximately 7500 in total – our community paved the way for other refugee groups in Canada, by illustrating to federal authorities that they could successfully settle in their new country. The community’s second and third generations are now helping to preserve and promote Tibetan ethno-cultural identity in Canada through various organizations across the country.

Author: Jan Raska, “Tibetan Immigration to Canada,” Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 Blog, May 10, 2013, http://www.pier21.ca/blog/jan-raska/tibetan-immigration-to-canada.

Editing: Canada Tibet Committee, Jan 2014

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