Wednesday, August 02, 2006

HHDL's Canuck Citizenship "Not Political"

Reported by The Embassy, Canada's Foreign Policy Newsletter

August 2, 2006

When the Dalai Lama visits Vancouver next month, his two-day stopover will be markedly different from his previous four visits to Canada because he will be granted honourary Canadian citizenship.

In June, the Canadian Parliament unanimously adopted a motion granting the Tibetan spiritual leader the honour.

In the past, Canada's top award to foreigners of exceptional merit has been granted only to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the Second World War, and Nelson Mandela, the former leader of South Africa.

The motion to grant honourary citizenship to the Dalai Lama was introduced by Tory MP David Sweet.

Two years ago, a similar motion by his colleague Jason Kenney, now parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, failed to garner enough support in the House.

But as the Dalai Lama steps on Canadian soil, observers are wondering if the move to grant honourary citizenship could signal a change in Canada's recognition of the one China policy.

Canada officially recognizes Tibet and Taiwan as part of China and not as sovereign entities.

On the Tibetan monk's last visit to Canada in 2004, then-prime minister Paul Martin refused to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader within any federal building.

David Kilgour, a former cabinet minister and MP, remembers that the Dalai Lama wasn't even given an official welcome when he arrived on Parliament Hill to address the Foreign Affairs Committee. "He met the Speaker in a side room," says Mr. Kilgour, who has been involved in meeting the Dalai Lama on his visits to Canada since the 1980s.

Mr. Kilgour also remembers a similar visit in 1989 during the years Brian Mulroney was in power when the Dalai Lama wasn't accorded an official government reception.

"When he was leaving, he had to go through the metal detectors at the airport, which of course he did with great humour."

Lauding the move to grant honourary citizenship to the Dalai Lama, Mr. Kilgour says he hopes it is the start of a change in Canada's foreign policy towards China on the Tibet issue.

However , Paul Evans, a professor at the Liu Centre for Global Studies at the University of British Columbia, argues that it is too early to know if the move is a policy shift.

"There are some ideas floating in Ottawa in Conservative circles for a radically different approach to China, but there's not been any indication that this is congealed or consolidated into a new policy," says Mr. Evans, who is also the co-CEO of the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada. "It's a moment of wait and see, there's nothing formal."

Jason Kenney, Parliamentary Secretary to the prime minister, told Embassy that granting honourary citizenship is a matter of recognizing an international icon for peace, and that the move is not a political one. "I don't think it is a matter of foreign policy," says Mr. Kenney. "It's a matter of honouring a Nobel Peace laureate who has become an example of non-violent conflict resolution."

Mr. Kenney also pointed out that the motion wasn't a government motion and that it was adopted by all parties in the House of Commons.

Last week, Zhang Weidong, political counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, warned that the decision could "harm" relations between Canada and China.

Mr. Kenney says he believes the economic ties between both countries are far too strong to be harmed by awarding honourary citizenship to an international dignitary. However, he said the Canadian government will continue to assert the respect of human rights while at the same time encouraging nations with appalling records to improve human rights for their citizens.

This is not the first time the Conservatives have put forth a motion that has provoked displeasure from the Chinese government.

While in opposition, a Conservative MP presented a private member's bill to strengthen economic and cultural ties with Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

Beijing also considers the Dalai Lama a separatist though the spiritual leader says he supports greater autonomy for Tibet within China.