Organizers of Ottawa's Tulip Festival have come under fire for pulling a marching band from the festival's opening ceremonies because its members' uniforms bore the name "Falun Dafa," a group persecuted by the Communist regime in China.
The Ottawa Chinese embassy has a tent at the festival, which runs until May 19.
Just minutes before the Tian Guo Marching Band was to take the stage to perform "O Canada" and "The Maple Leaf Forever," they were told their performance had been cancelled and they should go home, band members say.
Tian Guo's musicians are practitioners of Falun Dafa, also called Falun Gong, a spiritual group whose adherents face widespread arbitrary arrest and torture in China for their beliefs.
Falun Dafa Association spokesperson Lucy Zhou says the incident amounts to discrimination.
"Our band just wanted to play music," says Zhou. "They kicked us out because of our beliefs and because they feared upsetting the Chinese embassy; it's as simple as that."
Tian Guo member Shizhong Lei says the band was lining up when the festival's program director, Louise Thibault-Little, approached the group frantically after apparently receiving a phone call.
"She said, 'We just found out that you guys are Falun Gong,'" says Lei. "She said: 'This is disastrous. The Chinese embassy is here—we don't want to upset them.'"
Thibault-Little did not return a phone call seeking comment.
But in comments to other media, festival spokesperson Doug Little claimed the band had "deceived" organizers with the intent to "embarrass us and embarrass the Chinese embassy."
"If they had told us who they were, they would never have been asked to perform," Mr. Little told the Metro newspaper.
Zhou says this amounts to discrimination.
"Just because we have been persecuted and we have protested against persecution, that means we have to hide our name in public?" she said. "Then I guess they would also not allow Jews or Tibetans to identify themselves either."
Correspondence provided by the band suggests they were upfront with organizers.
In an email sent March 27, band representative Anna Zhang thanked a program organizer for inviting the band to perform and provided photos of the group in uniform, carrying a Falun Dafa banner.
Included were images from Ottawa's St. Patrick's Day parade in March and the 2007 Montreal Canada Day parade, each of which awarded the band with top prizes.
The band's website also explains on its homepage that the members practice Falun Gong.
"The Tian Guo Band has participated in over 70 community events," says Zhou. "We wear the same uniforms and carry the same banner. The only difference here is that the Chinese embassy was involved in the event."
Mr. Little denied taking orders from the Chinese regime, but he did express concern that including the band could hurt the festival's relationship with the embassy.
"We have a partnership with the embassy of China and we felt this was not appropriate," he told reporters.
But the incident raised concerns over the influence Chinese missions are having on cultural events in Canada.
In 2004, a booth at the Toronto Dragon Festival was revoked at the last moment from New Tang Dynasty Television, a Chinese-language television network that frequently reports on human rights abuses in China, including the persecution of Falun Gong.
The network sued the festival organizers saying Chinese consul general, Chen Xiaoling, had been captured on-tape directing one organizer to remove the station.
In court last week, the organizers, which included a City of Toronto community centre and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, agreed to issue an apology for the incident and to welcome NTDTV to future festivals. The judge presiding over the case said he expected nothing less from the City of Toronto.
The Tian Guo band is appealing to Tulip Festival organizers to allow the group to perform in the remaining part of the festival, but Zhou says they are prepared to go to the Human Rights Commission if they need to.
"This is not just an issue of one event," says Zhou. "It's about discrimination. This festival is supposed to stand for friendship."
Additional reporting by Matthew Little