Ottawa man says Dragon-boat festival CEO ordered him to remove Falun Gong shirt, citing Chinese sponsorship

Ottawa man says Dragon-boat festival CEO ordered him to remove Falun Gong shirt, citing Chinese sponsorship
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A Falun Gong practitioner says the CEO of Ottawa’s dragon-boat festival ordered him to take off a T-shirt advertising the Chinese spiritual group, citing in part China’s sponsorship of the popular event.

John Brooman also threatened to have other Falun Gong practitioners removed from the public park in which the festival took place last month if they didn’t leave voluntarily, says Gerry Smith, a retired Nortel Networks employee.

His allegations are the latest indication of Beijing’s low-profile campaign to influence Canadian society, even as the two countries remain locked in a tense diplomatic stand-off.

China’s interventions here have often concerned the Falun Gong, which it calls a cult, and has allegedly persecuted for years.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa is listed as a “gold sponsor” of the Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, which also receives funding from companies and federal, provincial and city governments.

“If it had been the Chinese embassy, I would not have been surprised,” Smith, 72, told Brooman in a letter abut the incident. “But this is Canada … and Canadians should not be taking directions from the Chinese embassy. You are being used to do their dirty work of covering up horrific crimes.”

Neither the festival CEO nor the embassy could be reached for comment Tuesday.

But in responding to a letter of complaint from the Falun Gong, Brooman said he had had a “good exchange” with Smith and simply stressed that he wanted to avoid politicizing the festival.

“Gerry is a very nice man and I in no way meant to offend him. If Gerry felt he was discriminated against during our conversation, then I am surprised, and would be prepared to issue an apology for that perception to him directly,” he wrote in an email. “In the meantime, I would reiterate what I told Gerry that we respectfully request that any organization not use our event as a platform for advocacy.”

The Falun Gong is known for routinely demonstrating against China, often outside the country’s missions here. According to Smith’s account, however, his encounter with Brooman June 22 had nothing to do with advocacy.

He said he and other Falun Gong practitioners were doing exercises – an integral part of the group’s practices – in city-owned Mooney’s Bay Park – but well outside the fenced-off area where the three-day festival was unfolding.

At one point, his friend’s son indicated he was hungry, so Smith took him on his own into the festival grounds, found a food concession and bought him a veggie burger.

After sitting down at a picnic table, a man seated nearby who identified himself as Brooman told him to remove his T-shirt, which contained the latin-script words Falun Dafa – another name for the group – and “truthfulness, benevolence, forbearance” in Chinese.

Smith said the CEO did not make an explicit link between the sponsorship and his request regarding the T-shirt, but it seemed obvious.

Gesturing to the walkie-talkie on his belt, Brooman also asked that Smith have his associates leave the park, though they were outside the fenced-in area, said the retired technologist.

“He said, ‘I know your group is out there, and I can have them removed. I can just call and have them removed’,” recounted Smith, who says he started following Falun Gong after meeting a group of practitioners at Nortel 20 years ago.

Falun Gong practitioners exercising in an Ottawa park June 22, when one of the group says he entered the nearby dragon-boat festival and was told by the festival CEO to remove his Falun Gong T-shirt, citing sponsorship of the event by the Chinese embassy. Handout

He said he complained to the City of Ottawa, which referred his complaint to police.

Officers concluded it was not a criminal matter, but told Smith he could contact private security or police if something similar happened again, a spokeswoman for the force said Tuesday.

Falun Gong representative Grace Wollensack said she has no doubt that banning practitioners was a condition of the embassy’s sponsorship, but said the incident was far from isolated.

The Ottawa tulip festival , for instance, excluded a Falun Gong band at the last minute in 2008, noting the Chinese embassy was involved in the event. A former Ottawa mayor refused to sign a proclamation honouring the group in 2010, after reportedly making a commitment to Chinese officials on a trade visit.

“They’re selling out Canadian values, Canadian principles,” said Wollensack Tuesday. “Because the Chinese embassy is doing this, it is eroding the freedom of our society.”

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