James George has known the Dalai Lama for decades
When local resident James George first met the Dalai Lama, it was the late 1960s. George, who is now 93, had just started working as the Canadian high commissioner to India, and the Dalai Lama had come to the country as a refugee, along with thousands of other Tibetans.
“The first thing he said to me, he was appealing for the rescue of his Tibetans who were dying,” remembers George. They were too used to a dry, cold climate and were having trouble adapting in India.
So George did what any proper high commissioner would do. He appealed to Immigration Canada. When the appeal didn’t go through, George brought the issue directly to Pierre Trudeau, whom he had known since the 1940s. Trudeau listened.
Starting in 1971, 228 refugees came to Canada. It was one of the first mass refugee operations in Canadian history.
At that point, George had been in the Canadian Foreign Service for more than 25 years. He had been stationed in Greece, Sri Lanka and Belgium.During a stint in New York, he had attended some of the first United Nations general assembly meetings.
“We were concerned with peace, human rights, social justice, international harmony,” he says.
For a man nicknamed “the Bishop” during his time at Upper Canada College and who led a pacifist group while attending the University of Toronto, representing Canada as a peace builder on a global scale seemed appropriate.
In addition to assisting with the refugee operation, George was also instrumental in preserving sacred Tibetan texts. Using his office as headquarters, he and his team microfilmed 500 Tibetan books.
“The people involved had no knowledge of Tibetan,” says George.“So they were secure in not having any of their secrets read.”
Before retiring, George’s final post was in Iran. He was there during the 1973 global oil crisis and left just before the country’s 1978 revolution. During that time, he said he became friends with the shah of Iran’s nephew, who also wanted to help the Tibetan people.
When George retired in 1977, the nephew approached him, and that year they formed the Threshold Foundation.
Initially focused on preserving Tibetan practices, the organization gradually broadened. One of the most successful campaigns was a 1980s joint initiative with Greenpeace calling for a moratorium on whaling.
Also in the 1980s, George became concerned about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. When activist Randy Hayes approached him about forming the Rainforest Action Network, he jumped on board.
Today, George is still an activist. Last year he published The Little Green Book on Awakening, a discourse on how humanity can help the environment.
“We always want something done for us.We’re the agents of change,” he says. George is also still active with the local Tibetan community and, from time to time, he meets up with his old friend the Dalai Lama, such as last October in Toronto.
“He was gracious enough to call [our relationship] a friendship,” says George, “and it’s one that has continued to this day.”