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Gerry Smith wearing the Falun Gong T-shirt he says the CEO of Ottawa’s Dragon Boat festival ordered him to take off.
Alex Neve, Secretary General for Amnesty International Canada.
Ottawa handles the issue with a scattershot approach that leaves possible victims unclear how to get help, Amnesty International's Canadian head says
The alleged harassment of a Falun Gong practitioner at Ottawa’s Dragon Boat Festival is one more reason the federal government needs dedicated officials to handle complaints of Chinese-government intimidation, says a prominent human-rights watchdog.
The incident involving practitioner Gerry Smith was “very troubling,” and part of a wider pattern of coercion by Beijing’s representatives, said Alex Neve, Canadian head of Amnesty International.
But Ottawa continues to handle the issue with a scattershot approach that leaves possible victims unclear how to get help, he said.
“When something happens, they don’t really know where should they turn to report this,” he said. “Is this a criminal law matter, is this a security and intelligence matter, is this just a diplomatic incident? Is it all of the above, is it none of the above?”
Neve said Amnesty has been urging federal authorities for some time to create a single point of contact for people and groups “who feel intimidated by Chinese government.”
Such a system would also help Ottawa track the extent of the problem, he said.
Smith says he briefly entered the festival grounds last month with the nine-year-old son of a friend, and was ordered to remove a T-shirt bearing the words Falun Dafa — another name for Falun Gong — by the festival’s CEO. He said John Brooman told him he didn’t want the event politicized, and mentioned that it was co-sponsored by the Chinese embassy. Brooman also threatened to remove a group of other Falun Gong followers doing exercises outside the festival in city-owned Mooney’s Bay park, Smith charges.
A city councillor said he also saw some Falun Gong supporters handing out leaflets to people entering the festival.
China has a well-documented history of persecuting the group — seen as a threat to Communist control — while Canadian authorities have deemed the Falun Gong a spiritual movement deserving of human-rights protections.
Brooman could not be reached for comment, but said in a letter to the organization he is sorry if he offended Smith, calling him a “very nice man,” while emphasizing he did not want any organization to “use our event as a platform for advocacy.”
Smith says there was no advocacy; he was just getting his friend’s son something to eat.
The Chinese embassy — listed as a festival “gold sponsor” — told the National Post Thursday it was unaware of the incident, but echoed Brooman’s comments on keeping politics out of the event.
“If anyone wants to politicize this platform and destroy its reputation, we are afraid that the organizers and the Ottawa citizens will not agree,” the embassy’s press office said in a statement.
Amnesty International spearheaded a coalition of groups that distributed a confidential report to government agencies in 2017, documenting long-standing Chinese intimidation of activists here.
Prominent among the targets are what the Chinese Communist Party has called the five poisons: the Falun Gong, Tibetan and Uyghur rights activists and supporters of Taiwan and democracy in China.
“It’s pervasive and if anything appears to be expanding,” Neve said, noting that what happened to Smith was less severe than others have faced, but still wrong.
“For China to be able to exert that kind of influence by virtue of its sponsorship of a public event, a festival, that is broadly … very troubling.”
Elected representatives for the Mooney’s Bay area where the festival took place, though, did not exactly leap this week at the chance to condemn the incident.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson is away on vacation and unavailable, while MPP John Fraser was also tied up, said their spokespeople. MP David McGuinty did not respond to a request for comment.
City councillor Riley Brockington noted that Falun Gong practitioners were handing out literature near the entrance to the festival, which he said they had a right to do.
He said he supports such events engaging with the Chinese embassy, but suggested the city have talks about balancing the various interests at play.
“Forget whether or not it was the Chinese government. It could have been — I don’t know — Irish people showing up or some other group,” said Brockington. “How does the city ensure that their rights are maintained, without infringing on the festival?”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019