Tamils in TO

This past weekend I was totally out of my depth at the Toronto Tamil Studies Conference. It was a weekend of academics from all over (mainly) North America, together for the kind of debate and discussion and healthy dose of sweet navel-gazing academics all love to muck about with. The conference also coincided with Tamil Solidarity Week, organised by the Canadian Tamil Congress. Although the papers presented at the conference consisted of academic (rather than overtly political) issues devoted to Tamil Studies and there wasn't any direct link made by any of the presentors to the solidarity efforts, it was a timely discussion-by-proxy of some very urgent issues here in Toronto.

The diasporic Tamil population in Canada makes up for the largest group of Tamils outside of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. With a large concentration living in the GTA (or the Greater Toronto Area), Tamils are a highly visible and integral part of the community. For those of us Canuks who like our rotis being passed on the left-hand-side, we've been noticing a slow but ominous shift in the winds. Canada has its own share of a problematic history in regards to minorities of course, but when Conservative Stephen Harper slithered into power this Febuary and Stockwell Day became his Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, we knew that this time, with us riding even harder on glory of the War on Terror, it would be big.

Sure enough, we started getting more aggro in Afghanistan - another issue for another time - but, more significantly for our South Asian brothers and sisters, on April 10th, the Canadian government declared the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam or the LTTE a terrorist organisation and added them to the list kept by the Ministry of Public Security and Emergency Prepardness.

"The decision to list the LTTE is long overdue and something the previous government did not take seriously enough to act upon," said Day.

"Our government is clearly determined to take decisive steps to ensure the safety of Canadians against terrorism."


This rhetoric of "terror" has been used for a while now to supress the voices of all kinds of individuals and communities as we're all aware. So far, most of them have been Muslim. This was reflected in the fact that the the Canadian Muslim Council has been the largest non-Tamil body to show solidarity for the Toronto Tamil population. Having faced the brunt of Canadian law-enforcement and being villified in the public sphere themselves, Canadian Muslims are perhaps in the best position to understand what the Canadian Tamils are undergoing in this country. Tamils are facing the same kind of intimidation and arbritrary raids by the Canadian police or RCMP. The RCMP are, reminicent of their treatment of Canadian Muslims, seizing the lists of names of people subscribing to Tamil papers or enrolling in Tamil events (erm... I guess I am going to pay the price for all that weekend navel-gazing) and Tamils are now the target of overt discrimination from the media. If charged as a "terrorist," individuals face a different criminal code, harsher penalities and normally basic judicial principles, such as public trials and full disclosure evidence no longer apply to them.

Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress said, “You cannot sanctify, legitimize, politify these whims at [parliament] hill with impunity. You send your super sonic jet fighters to bombard Tamil villages and then accuse the victims of that bombardment as terrorists and leave the government that bombed the people as law-bidding.” “Those who fight for freedom cannot be stigmatized as terrorists,” Mr. Fatah further observed.
Community activist Gary Anandasangaree said, “This is not the Canada we are familiar with.”


This brings up the issue of the very label "terrorist", of course, and the polemics inherent to the very term. Who gets called a "freedom fighter" versus labelled a "terrorist" has everything to do with voice and power. The CBC did an interview with well-known Toronto Tamil priest, Father Francis Xavier where he discusses his vehement support for Tamil Eelam. Xavier problematises the usual outsider-view of Tamil Tigers and explains the complex and painful history of Tamils in Sri Lanka. He also touches upon the issue of "extortion" that's been brought up time and time again by the media, saying the majority of the Tamil diaspora supports Tiger activity both morally and financially. You can listen to a response by John Thompson of the MacKenzie Institute on the same page where he admits that contrary to popular belief, "extortion", is not currently a problem in Toronto and that the Canadian LTTE do not present a threat to larger Canadian society today.

The LTTE are a militant force, and they are certainly a force to contend with. However, if it is intimidation and extortion that has landed them on the Canadian terrorist list, the reasoning is forced and shakey. As an excellent article in the World Socialist Website points out, extortion and intimidation are already crimes under Canadian law. Therefore, proscribing the LTTE seems fairly redundant and a tactic to protect the elitest and even imperialist interests embodied by the Conservative government. Thanks to the inclusion of the LTTE on the terrorist list, any activity associated with the it "be it raising funds or distributing political propaganda or doing relief work—makes one liable to be imprisoned for a decade or more."

I invite anyone who has a better understanding than I do of the long Sri Lankan Tamil struggle and of these issues in Canada to comment at legnth. This is in our house and it needs to be talked about. And if you live in Toronto and you think this issue is more complex than it is painted as by Stephen Harper Inc., I also encourage you to show your solidarity - write to your MP, show up at solidarity events; rally around our latest targetted brown community.

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