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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Dalai Lama thanks Guelph woman for helping Tibetan refugees

November 5, 2010

Drew Halfnight, Mercury staff
Guelph Mercury
November 2, 2010

GUELPH -- The choirmaster at St. James Anglican
Church had told vocalist Bonnie Milliner not to
miss a performance unless she got a summons from the queen.

On a recent Sunday morning, the Guelph retiree
couldn’t pass up the chance to fire back: "Would the Dalai Lama do?"

Milliner was summoned for a private meeting with
the world’s foremost monk, the high priest of
Tibetan Buddhism, his holiness the 14th Dalai
Lama, during his recent swing through Toronto.

She was in her home watching television after
dinner on Oct. 23 when immigration lawyer
Constance Nakatsu called to say the lama wanted to meet her the next day.

"I was floored," she said Tuesday. "After I was
able to close my mouth, I agreed."

She was called because of the obscure,
bureaucratic but still pivotal role she played in
sparking the largest-ever wave of Tibetan immigration to Canada.

Milliner served as an Immigration and Refugee
Board adjudicator from 1998 to 2004. In 1999, she
wrote decisions, all positive, for seven out of
10 test claims from Tibetan refugees.

Milliner still doesn’t think she did anything
special. "It was based on Canadian law, pure and
simple," she said. "I reviewed all the documents,
made the decision that the claims were
meritorious and granted refugee status to those
that applied. To me it was just part of my job."

After delivering her one-liner to the
choirmaster, she drove to the new Tibetan
Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto, where she
was led through a crowd of thousands wearing
traditional Tibetan garb, past a long line of
supplicants waiting to meet the monk, and
finally, into a private chamber where she found
the Dalai Lama seated on a couch.

He stood, came forward, took her hands and bowed
his head. "Thank you," he said.

"I must confess that kind of blew me away,"
Milliner said. "It’s one of those life
experiences that’s kind of unbelievable."

She said he had a deep voice. "Almost a hypnotic
quality to it. You’re glued to everything he
says. Very pleasant to listen to, and he speaks excellent English."

They talked about the ongoing persecution of
Tibetans. "He said there were protests going on
in Beijing as we spoke, and that the difficulties
under which the Tibetans labour continue," Milliner said.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is credited with
welcoming the first wave of 271 Tibetans to
Canada back in 1971, after a request from the
Dalai Lama. The population remained tiny until
the late 1990s when Ottawa called on Milliner and
her team to test whether Tibetan claimants met
any of the five criteria set out in the UN convention on refugees.

"The Tibetans qualified on almost all of the five
grounds, not just one of them," Milliner said.

By 2006, about 4,275 Tibetans were living in
Canada, according to that year’s census. Many of
them came via refugee camps in India, home to
Tibet’s "government in exile" since 1959, and
colonies in the United States, where refugee claims are sometimes refused.

This explains why the Dalai Lama might feel a
special appreciation for Milliner, a bureaucrat
at the heart of a system that helped thousands of Tibetans find a home.

Before she left the meeting, he presented her
with a white prayer scarf embroidered with script
and symbols. “I still have sort of butterflies in
my stomach when I think of it,” she said. “It was a tremendous honour.”
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