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Tibetan Profile provided courtesy of the 1984 Alberta People Kit

  One of Canada's smallest communities is also one of its most dynamic. Today there are 600-700 Tibetans living in Canada, almost half of whom arrived as refugees in 1971 and 1972. Their exodus was a direct result of assimilation efforts and religious and political restrictions imposed on Tibet by the People's Republic of China, after the Chinese invasion beginning in 1949. Today, a Tibetan government operates in exile, and many activists continue a decades-old battle to return the small mountain community to the Tibetan people.

Called the "Roof of the World", Tibet is the highest region in the world with an average elevation of 4,000m. It is situated on a high plateau surrounded by mountain passes that lead southward to India and northward to China. Tibet's geography, which shares Mount Everest with Nepal, no doubt played an important role in molding the country's unique cultural characteristics.

The Tibetan language is related to Burmese-a member of the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family-and numerous dialects are spoken by over five-million people worldwide. The Tibetan script was invented sometime in the 7th century, allowing Tibetans to record their history in writing for the first time.

Buddhist historians recorded that by the mid-8th century Indian Buddhism had replaced Bon-shamanism as the dominant religion of Tibet. Later, many Tibetans also adopted Chinese Buddhism. Inevitably this resulted in debate and conflict, until 794 when King Khrisrong Ide-btsan declared the Indian School of Buddhism as the country's official religion. This would only be one dilemma, however, that the Tibetan people would face. Over the next 400 years Tibet would be ravaged by internal warfare. In 1207 the country came under the rule of the powerful Sakya Lamas who were supported by the grandson of Genghis Kahn-Kublai Khan. 

Today, most Tibetans are Mahayan Buddhists, a form of Buddhism known for its tradition of "living teachers" or Lamas. Belief in their reincarnation emerged in the 14th century. The Mongol Khans gave the title "Dalai" to the lama Sonam Gyatso in the late 16th century, recognizing him as the third incarnation of Gedun Trufpa. "Dalai" is a Mongol word meaning "ocean" and its usage implies that the Lama's wisdom is as wide and as deep as the ocean. The title was later applied to Sonam Gyatso's two predecessors.

By the middle of the 17th century, the fifth Dalai Lama, with support from a powerful Mongol patron, became the temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet. The "Great Fifth" Dalai Lama ruled the country by virtue of the treaties he entered into with the Chinese emperors of the Manchu dynasty.

European contact had an enormous effect on Tibet's history. Tibet was visited by the British East India Company near the end of the 18th century as the company sought trade concessions in the region, but the Tibetans permitted no incursions into their kingdom. In 1903 British forces under Colonel Francis Younghusband entered Tibet to enforce a trade agreement that the British government had made with China in 1890.

The year 1911 saw the Chinese revolt against their Manchu leaders. In the Tibetan capital of Lhasa the Chinese garrison mutinied against its Manchu officers, and was later driven from the country by Tibetan forces. The 13th Dalai Lama then governed Tibet, which remained an independent state until the Chinese invasion of 1949. The Chinese gave the 14th Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama nominal control of the country, while they implemented communist land reforms. These reforms proved so unpopular that Chinese Premier Chou En-lai later temporarily rescinded them. Within seven years opposition to the reforms was so great that the Chinese tried to pressure the Dalai Lama into deploying Tibetan troops to quell the rebellion. When the Lama refused, he was forced to flee to India, whereupon Chinese forces crushed the opposition movement, killing 100,000 Tibetans and forcing 80,000 to flee as refugees. The Dalai Lama has remained in exile ever since. To date, the Chinese occupation of Tibet has result in the deaths of over 1.3 million Tibetans.

An agreement between the Dalai Lama and the Indian government resulted in a land grant for Tibetan refugees. Several organizations, including the Canadian International Development Agency, aided the resettlement program. In 1971, Canada joined a number of European nations in permitting the emigration of Tibetan refugees who had been living in India. Most of the 300 refugees moved to Ontario or Quebec, although 88 chose Alberta, settling on beet and potato farms near Taber and Vauxhall before moving on to Calgary, Lethbridge and British Columbia.

The language barrier encountered by older Tibetans in Alberta has been overcome by the younger generation who have grown up studying at Canadian schools. For those looking to find out more about the Tibetan language, the Religious Studies Department at the University of Calgary offers classes in classical Tibetan language, and the Faculty of Continuing Education provides a course in "Tibetan for Travellers." The Tibetan Youth Association, a branch of the Tibet Youth Congress, provides young Canadian Tibetans with additional community support. A desire to preserve their language and culture has also led to the organization of the Tibetan Community of Alberta, incorporated in 1977. The community has worked to ensure there are adequate resources for the community, such as meeting spaces and arts and cultural organizations. Likewise, the Marpa Gompa Meditation Society in Calgary is a charitable organization that promotes, practices and studies Tibetan Buddhism. In Edmonton there is a Dharma Centre with many links to Alberta's Tibetan community.

In 1980, Tibetans in Alberta organized a visit to the province by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who gave a series of well-attended lectures on Buddhism. The Dalai Lama's birthday on July 6th is a special occasion in the Tibetan community, as is their New Year's Day and National Uprising Day (March 10th), which commemorates the events that took place in Lhasa in 1959. In 1989, the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of the Tibetan people.

Tibetans in Alberta maintain close ties with their compatriots in other provinces and countries, including the Office of Tibet located in London, England. Many receive the monthly Tibetan magazine Sheja, published by the Information Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, India and the Tibetan Bulletin Online, the official English journal of the Lama's central administration. In 1992 the Canada Tibet Committee instituted the Canada Tibet news network online to link Tibetans around the world. Today, a democratically elected "parliament-in-exile" has representatives from all regions that are home to Tibetan refugees.

Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding their arrival, Tibetans have brought to Canada a distinct culture, sharing with Canadians not only their history, but also their hopes for the future.
 


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