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Welcome to Canada! Chinese panda arrival important symbol of Sino-Canadian ties

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TORONTO - They arrived to much fan fare — a hands-on greeting from the prime minister, a roar of applause and a rousing performance from a school band.

But beneath the pageantry surrounding the welcome for two giant pandas on loan to Canada from China ran an important diplomatic message — ties between the two countries are stable and continue to grow stronger.

"I want to offer my sincere thanks to the government of China for sharing these two pandas, symbols of peace and friendship, with all Canadians," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday, moments after welcoming the black and white bears on the tarmac at Toronto's Pearson airport.

"These pandas will help us learn more about one another while serving as a reminder of our deepening relationship, a relationship based on mutual respect and growing collaboration."

Five-year-old Er Shun and her prospective mate, four-year-old Da Mao, arrived aboard the "Panda Express," a specially outfitted FedEx Express Canada plane branded with an image of a panda on its exterior.

The prime minister, who officially received the delivery, called it "quite a moment," joking that "it's not every day you get to sign for pandas."

The pair will be living in Canada for the next 10 years, splitting their time equally between the Toronto Zoo and the Calgary zoo.

Their arrival — the first panda visit in 24 years — marks the realization of a deal reached when Harper visited China just over a year ago.

It was an agreement the prime minister personally pushed for, said Chinese ambassador Zhang Junsai, who was among those welcoming the "VIPS, that is, very important pandas," to the country.

"This is really a big event in our bilateral relations," said Junsai after the official welcome ceremony had wrapped.

"This shows our people-to-people relationship, people-to-people exchanges, has become more and more strong, and will further promote a better understanding between the people."

With traditional trading partners Europe and the United States in a prolonged period of trying to reduce debt, Canada has been actively pursuing the strengthening of relations in Asian markets, attempting to target expansion in China in particular.

At the same time, the federal government — which has called its relationship with China important but complex — has been under pressure to push China to better its human rights record and safeguard Canadian national interests in major foreign business deals.

The fact that the pandas will be living in Canada for a decade is notable, said Gordon Houlden, director of China Institute, at the University of Alberta.

"The Chinese didn't have to give us the 10 year lease," he said. "When you've got a decade of presence that indicates a stable, long-term relationship...Canada's not going to disappear, it's going to be important to China and China's going to be important to us."

The cuddly-looking animals may also be an attempt by China to present itself to Canadians as more than just a strong business partner, said Houlden.

"From the Chinese side, this is an opportunity to differentiate from the pure economic model to one that is more subtle and differentiated, and I think that is significant and we need, from our side, to do something that's the same."

The pandas, who emerged from their plane in customized enclosures constructed by FedEx, were taken in specially branded trucks from the tarmac to the Toronto Zoo, where they immediately entered a 30 day quarantine.

The animals will then be moved to their separate and specially designed living spaces before being introduced to the public in May.

In addition to charming Canadians, the zoo hopes to introduce the two pandas to each other in a year to capitalize on a crucial mating window.

"They're very difficult to breed in captivity or in the wild as well, so we'll be putting a lot of effort into that. That's our hope and that's our plan," said Gabriela Mastromonaco, curator of reproductive programs and research with the Toronto Zoo.

"We're going to be using all the science that's available to us, hormone analysis, and if they need more help than that then we'll be doing assistive reproduction."

Any pandas born in Canada would belong to China.

There was no doubt Monday that the animals Harper referred to as "a pair of China's national treasures," were well cared for throughout their nearly 12,900 kilometre journey. The plane was well stocked with bamboo, water and "panda toys", and a veterinarian and two attendants accompanied the animals to see to their every need.

"They seemed to enjoy the flight, they were eating and playing, took a little nap. It was a good trip all around," said First Officer Ben Miller, who got to visit the animals in flight.

"We were close enough that you feel like you're making a connection with those pandas on board, so it was very special."

The pandas will be well supplied with their dietary staple throughout their stay in Canada. FedEx has agreed to bring in up to 900 kilograms of bamboo three times a week from the Memphis Zoo for the duration of the pandas' stay.

The Toronto and Calgary Zoos played host to pandas in 1985 and 1988, respectively, while another couple took up a brief residence at the Winnipeg Zoo in 1989.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect figure for the distance the pandas travelled to Toronto.

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