The Dalai Lama was in Ottawa to speak to 7,000 people at the Civic Centre in late April. He did not intend to bring controversy. It follows him anyway. For days there was speculation about whether Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader would meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the first time since 2006, when Harper was in the business of snubbing China’s ruling regime and gave His Holiness honorary Canadian citizenship. Now, Harper is conspicuously in the business of cozying up to China. He has steered clear of the ageless Buddhist cleric whose continued existence vexes Beijing. But in the end, wary of upsetting allies who like the old, anti-Communist Harper, the Prime Minister welcomed the Dalai Lama for a private “courtesy visit.”
The next morning as he prepared to address a crowd, the Dalai Lama told Maclean’s he has no patience for any notion of isolating China. “It is extremely important, close ties with Chinese government, for economy reasons. Canada needs Chinese market. China needs Canadian resources.” But also Canadian values. “Western nations, democratic nations, your principles—democracy, freedom, liberty—these must stand firm.”
Harper is still trying to find his way as he engages more closely with China. The political headaches are as potent as the economic payoff. On this Saturday morning, the Dalai Lama sounded like an ally, not another problem. “I think fairly speaking, whom to meet by Prime Minister is your business, not China’s business,” he said. “Chinese control over who you can meet, that’s interference into your own affairs. After all, the Canadian government made me honorary citizen of this country. So the Prime Minister is meeting another Canadian person.”
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