Ottawa dragon boat festival apologizes for telling man to remove Falun Gong shirt

The 2019 incident highlights the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party — even indirectly — harasses Falun Gong members, a spokeswoman for the group says

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It took four years, but a retired Ottawa man has finally received an apology from Ottawa’s dragon-boat festival over an incident he considered an insidious example of the Chinese government’s influence in Canada.

The festival’s CEO had persuaded Gerry Smith to remove a Falun Gong T-shirt while at the event, mentioning the Chinese embassy’s sponsorship of the festival. The spiritual movement — a target of longstanding repression by the Chinese government — says the incident was just one part of an ongoing campaign of interference and intimidation against the Falun Gong here in Canada.

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In the statement posted on its website, the festival said it “apologizes to Mr. Smith for asking him to remove his Falun Dafa shirt. The Festival has a policy of equity, inclusion and diversity and welcomes all attendees from every race, religion, ethnicity and creed. All people, including Falun Gong practitioners, are welcome to the Festival.”

The City of Ottawa also wrote Smith a letter last week stressing that under a city bylaw holders of special-events permits cannot discriminate against anyone — “which includes Falun Gong practitioners” — based on creed and other grounds. Anyone who violates the bylaw is “guilty of an offence.”

Both statements arose from mediation by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal last week, said Grace Wollensak, a Falun Gong spokeswoman. Smith agreed in exchange to drop a tribunal complaint he filed against the festival and the city in February 2020 and not discuss the matter further with the media, she said.

Wollensak said the apology was something the former Nortel employee had sought for months after the incident — which was first reported by the National Post — before launching his complaint.

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The incident underscores the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — even indirectly through organizations it supports in Canada — harasses Falun Gong members and imposes its will here, she argued.

“The CCP’s interference does not just harm the Falun Gong community or any other targeted group,” she said. “It harms Canadian society. It erodes our values, it undermines our freedoms in Canada.”

“If we don’t combat that, we let it go like this, everybody accepts it, then it will expand.”

Neither the festival nor the Chinese embassy could be reached for comment by deadline Thursday.

Beijing has long persecuted members of the Falun Gong in China, calling the group a “cult,” though many analysts say the Communist Party sees the community as a threat to its hold on power. In Canada, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and other Canadian authorities have ruled it is a spiritual organization deserving of rights protection.

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The Chinese embassy was a “gold sponsor” of the Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival at the time of the incident. Though it no longer has that status, the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office — a government agency of the Chinese-controlled city — is listed as a “funder.”

Smith had been with a Falun Gong group in city-owned Mooney Bay’s Park near the festival grounds when a friend’s son he was babysitting got hungry. He took the boy into the festival grounds to get lunch and ended up sitting next to CEO John Brooman.

According to Smith, Brooman told him to remove his T-shirt, which said Falan Dafa is good — using another name for the group — and bore the words “truthfulness, benevolence, forbearance” in Chinese. Brooman mentioned he had twice visited China and that the festival was sponsored in part by Beijing, and suggested he could have the Falun Gong practitioners outside the festival compound removed, Smith charged.

In a statement later, the CEO said he was unaware he had discriminated against the retiree, and had only stressed to him that the festival was not a place for political advocacy. A submission by festival lawyers to the tribunal indicated Brooman said merely that “it would help” if Smith removed the top.

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But Francis Houleo, the boy Smith was babysitting, said in a statement to the tribunal that Brooman’s first words were “take off your shirt.”

“John said he has gone to China two times and China likes him and they’re friends. He said he spent a lot of money to rent the park and the Chinese embassy was helping him with the event. He said China treats him like a VIP when he goes there,” the 10-year-old’s statement says.

Wollensak stressed that the Ottawa incident was far from unique.

Falun Gong members released a report last month that documented dozens of incidents where they say practitioners were harassed, assaulted or disparaged directly or indirectly by Chinese diplomats and their allies in Canada. The episodes could not be independently verified by the Post, but some of the most recent cases include:

• After Falun Gong practitioner Wenli Sun spoke at a public rally in Canada this April, his family in mainland China received a harassing phone call from authorities there.

• Last fall, a man appeared outside the house of a practitioner named Helen Li who frequently demonstrates in her city’s Chinatown, saying he knows who her father is. The parent soon started receiving threatening phone calls from local police in China.

• This February a Chinese man drove by demonstrators outside the Chinese consulate in Toronto and threw hot coffee on 72-year-old Falun Gong member Shenyun Niu. Other protesters photographed the car’s licence plate and said the vehicle is often seen parked on the consulate premises.

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