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Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 28, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

China has for years tried to block Canadian diplomats from Tibet, banning some of them from visiting aid projects once funded by Canadian taxpayers, says Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion.

While China has never denied a request by a high-level diplomat to visit Tibet, Dion says, it has put up roadblocks, including delays in approving travel requests and shadowing Canadians while there.

Dion describes the problems in a written response to questions from New Democrat MP Randall Garrison that was recently tabled in the House of Commons.

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The minister's frank assessment comes as the Liberal government moves to expand trade with China, following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first visit to China and a return visit by its premier late this summer.

The Montreal-based Canada Tibet Committee suggested the travel restrictions are part of China's ongoing efforts to mask human rights abuses in the region, which it has controlled since the 1950s, when its invading forces drove out Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

"It was refreshingly honest," Garrison said of Dion's unvarnished response. "We have known all along that China was frustrating Canadian access to Tibet, and it was good to see the government admit that."

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment.

Dion outlined five visits to Tibetan regions by Canadian diplomats between November 2010 and September 2015.

He also detailed eight visits to Canada by Tibetan parliamentarians at the behest of China's National People's Congress between March 2009 and November 2015, saying his department was "not aware of any restrictions" on them.

Not so, when it came to Canada's trips to the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas of China, Dion said.

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"While there have been no rejections of high-level visits, TAR officials routinely attempt to either delay the visits or to make it very difficult to obtain permits," Dion wrote.

"Canada-based embassy staff, with the exception of the local Chinese project co-ordinator, have been restricted from visiting Canadian-funded projects in TAR/Tibetan areas."

Global Affairs Canada says that Canada "does not maintain a significant international development assistance program in China" any more, but the now defunct Canadian International Development Agency was active there in the past.

Canadian diplomats wanted to follow up on some of those completed projects, but they were either given restricted access or barred from visiting altogether, Dion said.

Canadian ambassadors "were only allowed to visit one project each during their trips," Dion said. But Chinese officials barred other Canadian embassy staffers.

"Even after the projects were completed, Canada-based embassy staff continued to be denied permission to visit project partners as TAR officials would not hesitate to inform the embassy that the projects were no longer of relevance to Canada."

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Overall, the diplomatic visits are "tightly managed by local authorities. TAR Foreign Affairs Office officials generally accompany the delegation on the entire visit. Access to local residents can be quite limited," Dion said.

On the most recent visit, to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in September 2015 for a tourism and cultural event, three Canadian diplomats were "not given substantive opportunities to visit with senior government officials," the minister wrote.

Carole Samdup, executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee, called on the government to stop future Tibetan delegations from visiting Canada "until there is full reciprocity for Canadian diplomats in Tibet."

"What does China have to hide?" Samdup asked.

"It's a question of basic diplomatic respect between our two countries. Why does Canada allow itself to be treated as a second-class partner in its relations with China?"

Dion said none of the Canadian requests to visit Tibet were "explicitly made" to monitor or investigate human rights violations.

But he added: "better understanding the human rights situation in TAR is an important objective of all embassy travel to the region."

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