Building a stronger future for Tibet

How a local family and an annual fundraising dinner are changing lives on the other side of the world

By Ian McKechnie

Losang Rabgey, centre, is flanked by her parents Tsering and Pencho Rabgey (left and right, respectively). The family is looking forward to welcoming guests at this year's Machik Lindsay Dinner, on May 4. Photo: Sienna Frost.

Fifty years ago, the Lindsay Art Guild joined forces with the town’s Tibetan community to organize a Tibetan Arts Festival at the Academy Theatre. According to a story in the Lindsay Daily Post, patrons could look forward to seeing “displays of many Tibetan artifacts, a demonstration of weaving, Tibetan music and native costume, and a film on the sacred art of Tibet.” A display of Tibetan wood-block prints would also be shown at the theatre prior to festival night, which took place on April 27, 1974. “The Art Guild hopes that the people of Lindsay will join them in this salute to our Tibetan community,” organizers noted in their inviting press release, published in the Post on April 17.

Half a century later, the people of Lindsay are once more being invited to join members of the Tibetan community at an event that not only celebrates the rich culture of Tibet, but also makes a profound difference in the lives of young people living in that country.

The Machik Lindsay Dinner, which has been taking place annually since 2004, is making a return after a four-year hiatus. But what is this dinner all about? And why Lindsay?

Where it all began

Answering these questions requires us to travel back to 1959, when approximately 100,000 Tibetans fled to India during the Tibetan uprising. More than a decade later, Canada began resettling Tibetan refugees through its department of Immigrant and Migrant Services. The first refugees arrived in 1971, and among them was a young former monk named Pencho Rabgey, and his wife Tsering. Originally, the Rabgey family settled in Montreal, and later lived in Farnham, Quebec; by 1974, they had relocated to Lindsay.

The town was no stranger to the resettlement program. Under the auspices of the Canada Manpower centres, Lindsay welcomed its first refugees on March 30, 1971. Connie Bielby, a counsellor in the local Manpower office, was put in charge of finding employment and accommodation for the newly resettled refugees. When the Rabgeys arrived, a thriving Tibetan diaspora was making its presence felt through such initiatives as the aforementioned arts festival.

Pencho, who had formerly served as a bodyguard for the 14th Dalai Lama, took up a position at Northern Casket, while Tsering found work at J.E. Thomas, a local electronics factory. Their children attended King Albert Public School, and daughters Losang and Tashi would graduate from LCVI. Both excelled academically. Losang obtained a Ph.D. from the University of London and became the first Tibetan to be awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship. Tashi, meanwhile, obtained a Ph.D. from Harvard University, as well as degrees in law from both Cambridge and Oxford Universities, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

Less than 10 years later, Pencho felt called to build a school in his homeland. He and Tsering put his retirement savings towards the project, and with the support of their daughters, Canadian friends and entrepreneur Chris Walter, saw the Chungba Primary School open its doors in 2002. That year, the Rabgey sisters co-founded Machik, a non-governmental organization dedicated to building a stronger future for Tibet.

An exciting global movement had been born, with the Chungba School at its heart.

Time for (a) Dinner

This past Machik dinner is not unlike what will be held on May 4 this year at the Lindsay Armoury, and will feature Tibetan cuisine, a silent auction, and more. Photo: Claudia Gaboury.
Dr. Tashi Rabgey. Photo: Sienna Frost.

Lindsay and area residents who were familiar with the Rabgey’s work eagerly got behind the cause of supporting the Chungba School – and more broadly, the mission of Machik.

A fundraising dinner was organized in 2004 and attracted some 126 people who gathered for Tibetan cuisine at the Lindsay Curling Club – with Pencho and Tsering doing the cooking. The following year, numbers had grown to such an extent that a new venue was needed, and from 2005 through 2010, the event took place at the Ops Community Centre.

This latter location proved to be fortuitous in identifying the Machik dinner’s future caterer, Karma Phuntsok. “We first met Karma at the Ops Community Centre in 2010,” recalls Kathy Anderson, who has been deeply involved with the dinner from its inception. “The buffet was already open when I noticed that some new people had entered the room. It was Karma with his partner and family. With the silent auction and bazaar around the perimeter of the room, we had limited space for tables but when I heard his story, I knew we would find some extra chairs.”

The Machik Lindsay Dinner has been an annual event for two decades, and has taken place at the Lindsay Armoury since 2011. Photo: Claudia Gaboury.

As it happened, Karma had been driving past the Community Centre when he noticed the large sign advertising a Tibetan dinner. Curious, this Tibetan chef turned in and introduced himself. He immediately hit it off with the Rabgeys and other dinner organizers, and within a year was overseeing the food preparation at a new and much larger location – the Lindsay Armoury.

Changes & Challenges

While the fundraising dinners in Lindsay were going from strength to strength, exciting developments were transpiring over 11,800 km away, in rural Tibet.

By 2008, the Chungba Primary School had become self-sustaining, and enrollment had reached the point where prospective students from surrounding counties had to be put on waitlists. But the work of Machik was hardly finished. One of the promises Machik made was that the students enrolled in the primary and middle school would go on to high school – but as there were no high schools in the county, these Chungba alumni were sent to six different schools located elsewhere. This of course necessitated funds to cover the costs of room, board and travel, as well as education – and these costs were covered in part by the fundraising dinners held here in Lindsay.

In 2014, the dinner grew to 271 guests (the highest number to date), eager to contribute to the remarkable work being undertaken by the organization. By 2019, approximately $360,000 had been raised through the dinner, and everyone was looking forward to seeing where Machik would go next.

But change was in the air. The year prior, authorities in the People’s Republic of China shut down many not-for-profit organizations operating in Tibet and China, and since July 2018 direct funding inside Tibet has not been possible. This meant that Machik had to pivot and refocus its energies on several other initiatives – all of which were devoted to improving the lives of Tibetans.

“During the time we were working on the ground inside Tibet, the world changed drastically,” Tashi remarks. “Today it’s more deeply divided than ever. But the lesson we had taken away was that this is a very small planet – that we are all more connected to each other than we tend to think. Our work now is about supporting innovators, artists and changemakers inside Tibet. But it’s also about building communities of awareness globally of all that we can do, individually and together, to re-imagine and transform the world wherever we happen to be. Global citizenship starts exactly where we are.”

Machik (and those responsible for organizing the annual dinner at the Armoury) had to pivot once again in 2020, on account of the pandemic. Though large gatherings had been suspended, fundraising for Machik carried on through silent auctions overseen by Anderson and others. And the annual Machik Weekend – a gathering for thought-provoking conversation on Tibet and exploration of social justice issues held in New York City or Washington D.C., where the Rabgey sisters now live and work – moved to a week-long virtual event. Regardless of whether one was streaming live from Bethany, Toronto, Nepal, or Washington, they could participate in a series of panels, roundtables, and workshops about alternative futures for the people of Tibet, and indeed the wider world.

Becoming Changemakers

Dr. Losang Rabgey. Photo: Sienna Frost.

Fast forward four years and preparations for a resurrected Machik Lindsay dinner are well underway. On Saturday May 4, patrons entering the Armoury can expect not only some delicious Tibetan dishes, but also a silent auction, convivial conversation, and remarks from some of the students who once attended the Chungba School.

And the family behind it all – recently honoured by the Governor General of Canada with the Meritorious Service Cross – will be there too, welcoming guests and sharing their story.

“I spent a year and a half by myself at the Chungba School,” says Tsering Rabgey. “I learned the Chungba Tibetan dialect and worked with the local people who did all the cooking and cleaning at the school. When I was there between 2007 and 2008, I got to know many of the poorest families in the Chungba township. They became the families I have especially looked after in the years ever since. Now at the Lindsay dinner, they call these people ‘Tsering’s People.’”

For Losang Rabgey, the annual dinner is a time to say thank you to the town which has supported Machik’s extraordinary efforts to make the world a better place. “Over the two decades of the Machik Lindsay Dinner, we have been and are blessed to know and work with people who listened deeply and understood our way of working for education and community empowerment in a place halfway around the world,” she says. “I am moved by the giving of long-term commitment that is necessary to effect sustainable change, especially in places like Tibet facing so much uncertainty. People can, in quiet and determined ways, grow together and make our world tangibly different.”

Pencho Rabgey echoes his daughter’s thoughts. “I believe Tibetans are a people who have been guided by wisdom for a thousand years. That is the most important lesson. I hope the work of Machik will continue to teach that lesson to people everywhere. Wherever we are in the world, we must see the pain of others. And we should never be afraid of doing what is right.”

The Machik Lindsay Dinner takes place on Saturday May 4, 2024, at the Victoria Park Armoury (210 Kent Street West). Doors open at 5:00 p.m. with a silent auction, with supper getting underway at 6:00 p.m. Tickets are $50 for regular admission, and $25 for students/jobseekers. To purchase tickets, please write to Kathy Anderson at , or call (705)-324-2037.

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