OTTAWAŚWhen is it okay to ban someone from playing "O Canada" in our nation's capital? When the clothing they wear might upset Chinese communists.
That's exactly what happened at the Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa on Friday evening.
Having invited the Tian Guo Marching Band to perform "O Canada," and "The Maple Leaf Forever," the band was barred from the stage mere minutes before the opening ceremony was to begin.
Band members were told that if they wanted to perform, they had to remove their hats, scarves and jackets that display the words "Falun Dafa."
However, soon after that the band was informed that their performance was cancelled altogether and the police were called.
The problem? The Chinese embassy had a tent at the festival, and festival organizers were concerned that the presence of the band, which is composed of Falun Gong practitioners, would "upset" embassy officials.
Band member Shizhong Lei was present when Louise Thibault-Little, program director for the festival, received a phone call after which she immediately became "agitated and upset."
"She said, 'we just found out that you guys are Falun Gong' and said that wasn't the name we registered with and that we had failed them. She said, 'the Chinese Embassy is hereŚwe don't want to upset them,'" says Lei.
But because the band was scheduled to open the ceremony and there was very little time, Thibault-Little, who was not available to comment for this report, said the band could perform if the members removed their clothing that display the words "Falun Dafa."
However, soon afterwards Thibault-Little changed her mind again, says Lei, and informed him and others that the band would not be allowed to perform at all.
After the police arrived, Thibault-Little told them that Tian Guo had not been invited to participate in the ceremony, says Anna Zhang, the Tian Guo coordinator who had arranged for the band to perform at the festival.
"I have all the emails I exchanged with the program coordinator, and our May 2 date was posted on the festival Web site. It states clearly on our website that we are all Falun Gong practitioners and I sent them the link."
Falun Gong has been targeted by the Ottawa Chinese embassy in the past, and letters have been sent to government officials asking them not to support the group.
In 2002, Falun Gong practitioners were refused permission to participate in the Tulip Festival's flotilla parade on the Rideau Canal, but due to public pressure the organizers reversed their decision and allowed the group in the parade.
The Chinese Embassy supported the festival that year, and practitioners alleged they were rejected due to the embassy's influence.
According to the Falun Dafa Association, through its consulates and embassies the Chinese regime "has repeatedly utilized various means," especially the heads of pro-Beijing groups, to instigate hatred toward Falun Gong in overseas Chinese communities.
International human rights lawyer David Matas says China has been waging a "global campaign" of harassment and bullying against Falun Gong.
"The incitement to hatred which generates the persecution against the Falun Gong within China has become a primary message that embassies of China bring to the rest of the world."
The Canadian Tulip Festival is sponsored by federal, provincial, and city governments. In addition to the opening ceremony, Tian Guo was scheduled to play at Dow's Lake on May 3, 11 and 18. Those dates were also cancelled.
At a press conference today on Parliament Hill, band member Grace Wollensak said that what festival organizers did is "exactly the kind of thing people escape China to get away from."
"Canada is respected worldwide as a beacon of tolerance. When people are banned from playing 'O Canada' in Canada's capital for fear of offending Chinese communists, it damages our nation's esteem in the world."
At the press conference, Tian Guo called on festival organizers to change their position and allow the band to play the pre-arranged Dow's Lake dates. They also asked for an apology.
Zhang says it's clear that the band was discriminated against because its members practise Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline that was outlawed in China in 1999 and has since been brutally suppressed by the Chinese regime.
"We were invited but at the last minute because they were afraid of the Chinese Embassy they kicked us out. It's humiliating and insulting," she says.
Tian Guo has performed in about 40 parades in the past 12 months and has won numerous prizes including the top award of "The Canada Day Parade President's Trophy" in Montreal in 2007 and "Best Band" in the Ottawa St. Patrick's Day parade in March.