Falun Gong band plucked from Ottawa Tulip Festival

Ottawa Citizen/May 5, 2008

Ottawa - Organizers of the Canadian Tulip Festival faced accusations of censorship Monday for the last-minute cancellation of a performance by a marching band of Falun Gong practitioners during one of the festival's opening ceremonies.

Festival organizers claim the band was not clear about its affiliation with the controversial religion, which is banned in China. The band says the festival is simply caving in to the demands of the Chinese Embassy, one of the festival's sponsors.

The Tian Guo Marching Band says organizers abruptly accused them of misrepresenting themselves and had police escort the 70 band members from the festival site May 2. At an emotional news conference on Parliament Hill Monday, band representatives demanded the festival apologize and allow them to play their remaining engagements at the festival.

"We came here to celebrate a cultural event, and our religion should not stop us from participating," said band spokeswoman Grace Wollensak.

Falun Gong is a practice combining spirituality and a series of meditative exercises. The government of China considers Falun Gong a cult and banned it in 1999. Since then Falun Gong practitioners report widespread persecution and torture of their members inside China.

Organizers claim that if festival staff knew the Tian Guo Marching Band were all Falun Gong members, they never would have been booked at the festival.

"They were here to protest and the tulip festival is not about protest, it's about international friendship," said Little.

Just as the band was preparing to perform O Canada and Maple Leaf Forever at the opening of the International Pavilion, festival official Louise Thibault-Little stopped the band from getting on stage, said Wollensak.

"She rushed over and said 'You are Falun Gong. You did not register with this name - this is disastrous to us. The Chinese Embassy is here, and we do not want to upset them'," said Wollensak.

Wollensak said that when the band applied, they sent festival organizers a link to the Tian Guo Marching Band website, which makes several prominent references to its Falun Gong affiliation. The website notes that "all musicians practice Falun Dafa, a self-improvement practice consisting of meditation, exercises and living according to the Universal principles of Truthfulness, Compassion and Tolerance."

Eventually organizers told the band they could play if they took off their blue jackets and yellow scarves, which are emblazoned with small Falun Gong emblems, said Wollensak, but after they refused, another festival official came backstage to tell the band that their performance had been delayed until later in the evening. A short time later, Ottawa police and RCMP officers arrived to escort the band away.

Thibault-Little was not available for comment Monday.

To festival organizers, the band's appearance was intended to embarrass the Chinese embassy.

"I think this was a staged stunt on their part, and they are good at that," said Little. "From our point of view, and from our partner's point of view, their participation is political."

It's not the first time Falun Gong supporters have stirred up trouble at the Tulip Festival. In 2003, organizers barred them from entering the annual flotilla along the Rideau Canal, claiming they had littered and driven erratically the year before. Falun Gong supporters claimed they were being kept out because of pressure from the Chinese embassy.

Eventually the festival allowed the Falun Gong float to participate once they agreed not to distribute leaflets and to hire a professional driver.

Falun Gong also stirred up controversy in Ottawa in 2007, when a Chinese New Year's show at the National Arts Centre featured a sketch of a Falun Gong practitioner being killed by the Chinese police. Although the show was organized by Falun Gong practitioners, the marketing did not include any reference to the religion and the Chinese embassy criticized it as propaganda.

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