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Tibetan Immigration to Canada

Asian Heritage Month offers all Canadians an opportunity to learn more about the history of Asian Canadians and to celebrate their contributions to the growth and prosperity of Canada.[1]

In May of each year we celebrate the contributions that Asian Canadians have made to our country. Today, I would like to briefly highlight the immigration history of one particular Asian Canadian community: the Tibetans.

Canada’s connection to Tibet dates back more than a century. In 1895, a Canadian Protestant missionary, Dr. Susanna Rijnhart, became only the second western woman to enter Tibet. Born in 1868 in Chatham, Ontario, Susanna Carson graduated later from Trinity College in Toronto with a medical degree. In 1894, she met Petrus Rijnhart who was on a lecturing tour across Canada, soliciting funds in order to return to Tibet and continue his missionary work. In September of that year, Carson and Rijnhart were married and soon after they departed for Tibet.

In September 1898, tragedy struck during their excursion to Lhasa. Bandits attacked their caravan, wounding one guide and stealing several horses. With the subsequent desertion by their guides, Petrus Rijnhart left his wife behind in search of assistance for the wounded guide. He was never heard from again. Susie Carson failed to reach Lhasa due to a lack of guides, resources and no remaining money.[2]

Canadian interest in Tibet has grown since the late nineteenth century and the migration of Tibetans to Canada only occurred several decades later. 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. Initially, displaced Tibetans were unwelcome in Nepal. As a result, a majority of those who fled their homes went to India.

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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

In March 1971, the first Tibetan refugees arrived in Canada. This small group of newcomers to Canada became one of the earliest examples of 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.[6] 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.[7] Of the 128 refugees who later sought full-time employment, a majority worked in the service and crafts industries.[8] According to Brian J. Given, 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.”[11] After five years in Canada, almost all Tibetan adults were “…gainfully employed and able to feed, clothe, and house themselves adequately.”[12] Several years later, Canadian Tibetans established community organizations to preserve their cultural and linguistic traditions.

In 1981, the Tibetan Cultural Society of British Columbia was incorporated. The organization’s objectives are to preserve and promote Tibetan culture and heritage in the Greater Vancouver region. Among its core activities are the strengthening of Tibetan community life, a language school and music and dance classes.[13] Six years later, 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.[14] Although a number of organizations now serve Canadian Tibetans, the community in Canada remains small.

According to the 2006 Canadian Census, the Canadian Tibetan community comprises over 4,250 individuals. Approximately 3,215 Tibetans reside in Toronto which constitutes over 75 per cent of the entire Canadian Tibetan community. Similarly, Calgary is home to approximately 300 Tibetan Canadians (7 per cent), while 100 individuals reside in Vancouver (2 per cent). Approximately, 85 per cent of the Canadian Tibetan community resides in Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver.[15]

On 17 October 2007, the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre was established in Etobicoke, Ontario. The centre is open to members of the public and provides various programs and services including Tibetan language courses, performing arts and Buddhist philosophy classes.[16] During this same period, negotiations were held between the Dalai Lama and the Canadian government for the resettlement of displaced Tibetans living in northern India.

Three years later, the Canadian government announced on 18 December 2010, that it would resettle approximately a thousand Tibetan refugees living in Arunachal Pradesh, India. Tibetans who fled their homeland after the Chinese occupation in 1959 and resettled in Northern India would be permitted to permanently settle in Canada. With Ottawa’s announcement, the Tibetan Cultural Society of British Columbia committed itself to resettle some of refugees in the Greater Vancouver region. Through the organization’s Project Tibet Society, sponsorships are to be established for displaced Tibetan applicants.

On 17 March 2011, Citizenship and Immigration Canada began to accept applications for permanent residency from displaced Tibetans living in Arunchal Pradesh who had already secured a sponsor in Canada.[17] Additionally, the Canada-Tibet Committee will ensure that each newcomer is supported by its “Group of Five” program, whereby new arrivals are looked after by five individuals in Canada. These groups will provide Tibetan refugees with accommodations, financial support, securing employment and adjusting to their new lives in Canada.[18]

Tibetan immigration to Canada is often overlooked in Canadian immigration history. Although the community remains small in Canada, many of its members were the first non-European refugees to be permanently resettled in Canada as part of a government-sponsored refugee program. The Tibetan refugees of the early 1970s paved the way for other refugee groups, 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 ethnocultural identity in Canada through various organizations across the country.

Read Jan Raska’s article, Humanitarian Gesture: Canada and the Tibetan Resettlement Program, 1971–5, published in the Canadian Historical Review.

Other Links of Interest:


  1. “Official Declaration,” Citizenship and Immigration Canada, accessed 4 April 2013, http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/multiculturalism/asian/declaration.asp
  2. “Carson, Susanna,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, accessed 4 April 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?Biold=40738; Wilbert R. Schenk, North American Foreign Missions, 1810-1914: Theology, Theory, and Policy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 305; Rijnhart, Susie Carson, With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1901), 191-397.
  3. Gerald Dirks, Canada’s Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism? (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977), 235-236; Valerie Knowles, Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006 [Revised Edition] (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2007), 212; Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy [Second Edition] (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 366-367.
  4. Freda Hawkins, Canada and Immigration: Public Policy and Public Concern [Second Edition] (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988), 451. See footnote 9.
  5. Ibid., 341.
  6. Sandro Contenta, “For Tibetan Refugees, Canada was Literally the New World,” Toronto Star 23 October 2010, accessed 4 April 2013, http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2010/10/23.
  7. Brian J. Given, “Tibetans,” In Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples, ed. Paul Robert Magocsi (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 1268-1269.
  8. Dirks, Canada’s Refugee Policy, 236.
  9. Given, “Tibetans,” 1268.
  10. Kelley and Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic, 366-367.
  11. Ibid., 583. See footnote 62.
  12. Knowles, Strangers at Our Gates, 212.
  13. Tibetan Cultural Society of British Columbia, “Our Background,” accessed 17 April 2013, http://www.tcsofbc.org/about/background/
  14. Canada-Tibet Committee, “About CTC,” accessed 17 April 2013, http://www.tibet.ca/en/about_ctc/.
  15. Statistics Canada, “Profile of Ethnic Origin and Visible Minorities for Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Divisions and Census Subdivisions, 2006 Census,” accessed 4 April 2013, http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2006/; Canada-Tibet Committee, “Tibet: The Issue, the Stakes,” Canada-Tibet Committee, accessed 4 April 2013, http://www.tibet.ca/_media/PDF/tibet_theissues_thestakes_200710.pdf. See page 6 “Key Facts and Figures.” Seventy Tibetans reside in Montreal constituting 1.6 percent of the overall community. Forty individuals call Ottawa (0.1 percent) home, while another fifteen individuals reside in Winnipeg respectively.
  16. See Programs/Services section of the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre website: http://www.tcccgc.org.
  17. Citizenship and Immigration Canada, “ Temporary Public Policy Concerning Tibetans Living in the State of Arunchal Pradesh in India,” accessed 17 April 2013, http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/department/laws-policy/tibet.asp.
  18. Colleen McKown, “Canada to Welcome 1000 Tibetan Refugees from Canada,” Tibet Post International 20 July 2011, accessed 4 April 2013, http://www.thetibetpost.com/en/news/international/1887-canada-to-welcome-1000-tibetan-refugees-from-india