Tibetan refugees first arrived in Canada in the early 1970s. Subsequent cohorts arrived after the late 1990s and in 2013. According to the 2021 Canadian census, there were 9,350 Tibetans living within Canada, the majority of whom reside in the Greater Toronto Area.
By 1951, the People’s Republic of China annexed the Tibetan Plateau. Under the increased threat of violence, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, sought peaceful coexistence with the occupying force. However, a revolt erupted in the capital city of Lhasa on 10 March 1959. In the wake of the uprising, the Dalai Lama consulted the state oracle who divined that it was no longer safe within the capital city. On 17 March 1959, he began his escape across the Himalayas into India. Upon hearing the news of the Dalai Lama’s flight, tens of thousands of Tibetans fled and sought asylum in India. Life within refugee camps was marked by extreme hardship. Many Tibetans died from malnutrition and illnesses. Later on, more died as the community participated in road construction work mandated by the Indian government.
In 1966, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees reached out to Canada to create a refugee resettlement program. The Dalai Lama wrote an appeal to Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. He advocated for the resettlement of Tibetans within Canada. In India, Canadian High Commissioner James George heeded the Dalai Lama’s call and campaigned for the resettlement of Tibetans. In December 1968, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau wrote to the Dalai Lama. In 1970, Canada offered to resettle 240 refugees. (See also Refugees to Canada.)
According to Tibetan oral history, the Canadian official in charge of immigration and refugees in India, Cliff Shaw, worked alongside Noedup Rongae to interview hundreds of Tibetan refugees. Canada’s immigration system selected candidates based on Canada’s labour needs, candidates’ language skills and education. These criteria limited resettlement opportunities. Many Tibetan refugees also lacked surnames or birth certificates. This meant that many were incompatible with Canada’s existing screening process. The small number of approved candidates came from all walks of life. The group included road construction workers, farmers, merchants and nomads.
Resettlement in Canada
Between March 1971 and August 1972, 228 refugees touched down at airports in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary. Each group was accompanied by a Lama representative of their particular tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. According to oral history from the Chyssem Project, Tashi Namgyal of the Sakya school was resettled in Calgary. Gyatrul Rinpoché of the Nyingma school settled in Winnipeg, Karma Thinley of the Kagyü school in Lindsay and Khenrab Gajam of the Geluk school in Montreal.
Refugees’ experiences varied greatly between each provinces’ resettlement programs. (See Canadian Refugee Policy.) In Quebec, newcomers were transported to the Centre d’orientation et de formation des immigrants (COFI) on Montreal’s South Shore. There, Tibetans spent six months receiving French language lessons. They also took lessons teaching the basics of the “Western lifestyle.” A detailed reports by the COFI revealed social workers’ feelings of paternalism toward Tibetans. The latter were perceived as both exotic and backwards. The social workers viewed traditional customs such as using butter to protect the face and hair from the cold as markers of poor personal hygiene. Once the integration program was completed, officials moved families to the towns of Drummondville, Farnham, Granby, Saint-Hyacinthe and Longueuil. (See also Quebec Immigration Policy.)
In Ontario, officials elected to offer vocational training to the newly arrived Tibetans. The cohort was split between three towns: Cobourg, Lindsay and Belleville. In Alberta, Tibetans were settled in Taber where for three weeks Lethbridge immigration officer Jim Kanashiro guided them through a language and life-skills course. Upon completion of the course, Tibetans were resettled on Japanese Canadian-owned farms. Life on the farms proved to be extremely gruelling. The Tibetans faced isolation, substandard living conditions and a lack of opportunity to learn English. In Saskatchewan, refugees were resettled in a home provided by the federal government and offered language classes. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, Tibetans lived in pre-rented motel rooms. Later, they transferred to subsidized townhouses managed by the Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation. Unlike in other provinces, an interviewed Tibetan mentioned that the resettlement program in Manitoba was developed in consultation with the community. The program thus combined language lessons with part-time work where Tibetans could practice their English.
Culture and Politics
Across provinces, Tibetans struggled with culture shock and grief. Community members contended with their new jobs in factories and as cooks and cleaners. Nonetheless, they strived to maintain their cultural identity. They founded cultural organizations across Canada such as the Tibetan Community of Alberta (1972), the Tibetan Cultural Association of Quebec (1974), the Tibetan Cultural Association of Ontario (1978) and the Tibetan Culture Society of British Columbia (1981). The community gathered to observe traditions such as Losar (the Tibetan New Year) and Trungkar (the Dalai Lama’s birthday).
In 1987, the Canada Tibet Committee (CTC) was founded in Montreal by Thubten and Carole Samdup. The CTC raised awareness of human rights violations occurring within occupied Tibet. Interviewed community members mentioned that they also began advocating for the resettlement of a second refugee cohort to Canada. Starting in the late 1990s, the second resettlement cohort began. Many Tibetans chose to settle in Toronto, which would become one of the largest communities of Tibetans in North America. In 2007, after being awarded honorary Canadian citizenship in 2006, the Dalai Lama urged Ottawa to accept a third refugee cohort which arrived in 2013.
In June 2018, Bhutila Karpoche became the first person of Tibetan heritage to be elected to public office in North America as the Ontario provincial MPP of the riding of Parkdale-High Park in Toronto. Known colloquially as “Little Tibet,” the neighbourhood of Parkdale is home to many Tibetans. The community’s presence is reflected in the numerous Tibetan-owned restaurants and shops. Weekly gorshey (dance) events also take place. These traditional circle dances are observed in the context of Lhakar (White Wednesday) ― a practice which emerged in the wake of the 2008 protests inside Tibet. The protests amplified Tibetan identity through cultural and political activities. In 2019, Karpoche presented Bill 131 seeking to recognize July as Tibetan Heritage Month in Ontario. The bill received royal assent in September 2020.
On 7 June 2019, the Chyssem Project — an oral history project which seeks to record the lives of the first Tibetan cohort to resettle in Canada — was established. It was founded by Dicki Chhoyang, who herself arrived in Canada as a child in 1971, and Rignam Wangkhang, son of Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang. Many first Tibetans would go on to become devoted community leaders, forging new pathways for the broader Tibetan community. One such example is Dr. Tashi Rabgey, who became the first Tibetan Rhodes Scholar in 1991.