The first group of Tibetans to relocate to Canada under a new federal program arrived by plane in Ottawa and Toronto on Friday.

When they met in 2007, Tibet's spiritual leader in exile, the Dalai Lama, appealed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for Canada to invite in more Tibetan exiles. That meeting prompted a rebuke from the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa.

Three years later, Jason Kenney, the immigration minister at the time, announced that Canada would take in as many as 1,000 Tibetans living in exile in the northern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. 

There are 17 people in the initial group that was to arrive on Friday, said Nima Dorjee, president of the Project Tibet Society, which is managing the five-year project.

By mid-2014, about 200 Tibetans will have moved to Canada under the plan, Dorjee said. Most will settle in the Toronto area, Ottawa, Calgary, B.C's Lower Mainland or on Vancouver Island.

The resettlement program isn’t the first of its kind by the federal government. A refugee program established in 1972 saw 230 Tibetans relocate from northern India.

China claims Tibet as part of its territory, and Canada officially recognizes China as the government of Tibet.

In 2006, the House of Commons voted to give the Dalai Lama honorary Canadian citizenship. That move also drew criticism from China.

Tibet is an autonomous region of China. The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in northern India since 1959.

Dorjee said the Tibetans arriving in Canada on Friday have lived their entire lives in exile because "the core of their identity" would be threatened under the Chinese government's rule.

He believes that human rights conditions in Tibet have been worsening, citing continuing public self-immolations as evidence. Since 2009, more than 120 people in Tibet are believed to have set themselves on fire in protest of China’s policies toward the region.

“The exiles are the custodians of the hopes of a nation,” Dorjee said.