In Toronto’s east end, Scarborough, what some call the ‘real capital of Eelam’, a few expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils continue to attach LTTE flags to their cars as others would a local ice-hockey team’s pennant. The LTTE was listed as a terrorist organisation in Canada in 2006, but flying its flag is not considered a criminal offence. “There is a fundamental difference between expressing freedom of speech under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and participating in, facilitating or providing material support to a terrorist group,” says Canada’s Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister, Jason Kenny.
The last Tamil organisation in Canada to cross that line was the World Tamil Movement (WTM). Shortly after the 2006 designation by the Canadian government, the WTM was shut down for acting as an LTTE front. Tiger supporters made the news again in early 2007, this time for coercive fundraising in Toronto’s Tamil community during local events, notably at a music concert, as documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW). And as the WTM has disappeared from public view, HRW communications associate Brian Griffey confirms that his organisation’s members “haven’t received any recent report of extortion in the diaspora.”
If the LTTE was still canvassing for support in Toronto, it had since gone underground – its flags, still seen often enough around the city, no more politically poignant than a Che Guevara t-shirt. Until this spring, that is. During the last phase of war in Sri Lanka in May, Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) spokesman David Poopalapillai became the most outspoken Tamil leader in Canada, commenting on behalf of the diaspora to just about every newspaper and TV station about Tamil self-determination. He accused the Mahinda Rajapakse government in Sri Lanka of “genocide”, as military forces closed in on the last Tiger holdouts in Mullaitivu, where many civilians were caught in the crossfire.
‘Genocide’ was also on the lips of thousands when, according to the CTC, over ten youth groups of mostly Canadian-born Tamils merged and initiated the event that was eventually to spur Torontonians to re-examine the social boundaries of one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway is the lakeside artery that pumps rush-hour traffic from the city’s heart to its suburban capillaries. But on 10 May, it was not cars that caused jams, but thousands of protesters attempting to drive home the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils then trapped in the Sri Lankan northeast corner. What the news helicopters over the expressway witnessed was a sea of red flags – the fire engine red ensign of the LTTE held by many cross-stem with that of the Canadian Maple Leaf.
The impromptu act of dissent was the culmination of months spent demanding the Canadian government acknowledge the humanitarian crisis in the northeast of Sri Lanka. There had been a number of public rallies – sit-ins, stand-ins, human chains, marches – since January, and participating Tamil-Canadians saw Stephen Harper’s government’s silence as a deep affront. It would take something truly defiant, and also dangerous, for their adopted country’s government to address the horrors their families and fellow Tamils were experiencing in their cultural homeland.
200,000 and anxious
The Canadian diaspora is an integral ramification of LTTE activities over the past three decades. Prabhakaran and his army would settle for nothing less than an independent Tamil state in the northeast; their ambush of 13 government soldiers in 1983 not only started the ‘First Eelam War’, but also created a backlash of several hundred Tamil deaths. This also led to an exodus of several hundred thousand. Canada was granting refugee status to fleeing Tamils and other Sri Lankans as quickly as the LTTE soldiers were reloading clips.
Consequently, Toronto today has the largest number of Tamils outside of Sri Lanka. With so many families directly affected by the May standoff, and finding themselves so far away and unable to help, simmering emotions had begun to boil over by 10 May. Protest rallies may be legal in Canada, but when the thousands-strong mass of demonstrators that day marched up the ramps of the Gardiner Expressway, blocking one of Toronto’s main highways for over three hours, typically mild-mannered Canadians were outraged. The traffic blockage was the indication of as an unspoken boundary having been overstepped.
The CTC continued its role as the community organiser during the protests, working directly with the police to put an end to the disruption. Some took this to be actually a sign of complicity with militant elements, pigeonholing the CTC as being pro-Tiger. Last year, Poopalapillai was accused during a local television debate by Sri Lankan Consul General Bandula Jayasekera of sending money to the LTTE, allegedly for weapons purchases. The group itself claims a far more nuanced stance. “We don’t condone what happened on the Gardiner,” says CTC’s media coordinator, Manjula Selvarajah. “We are a voice of advocacy for all Canadian Tamils. Some support the Tigers, some not.” She says the CTC’s main focus is the fact that “Tamils in Sri Lanka live as second class citizens…and they have the right to some kind of political power.” Selvarajah, along with countless other Tamil-Canadians, say that today they do not see the defeat of the LTTE as the death of Tamil Eelam – merely the death of the Tigers’ version of it.
Yet has the LTTE really been extinguished? If Palitha Kohona, permanent secretary with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to be believed during his early-July interview with Himal, the group has had it. But with his admission that anywhere from USD 1 to 5 billion remains in Tiger bank accounts around the world, it is hard to believe so much cash will lie unused, anymore than the resentments that the nearly three-decade civil war has left behind. Toronto, meanwhile, was a major source of that funding. Before the April 2006 raid on the Toronto and Montréal offices of the WTM by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canadian officials estimated that anywhere from USD 9 to 11 million was making its way into Tiger hands from Toronto alone. It stands to reason, then, that embers could be hotter in Toronto than in many other parts of the world.
An accurate tally of today’s Tamil-Canadian population is difficult. The 2006 census organised by Statistics Canada – the official government numbers department – sets it around 29,500. Yet in independent academic results, such as a survey by the University of Toronto, the total comes to roughly 200,000. Either way, most of these would appear to live in the Greater Toronto Area. The discrepancy, meanwhile, can be explained by the fact that studies such as the latter take into account illegal migrants or LTTE supporters, who, as Tamil Eelam Society of Canada (TESOC Multicultural Settlement Services) founder Sri-Guggan Sri Skanda Rajah says, “of course will not appear before the census enumerators to be counted.”
If the figure of 200,000 Tamils living in Canada can be agreed upon, with some 89 percent in and around the Ontario provincial capital, this means that about the same number of Tamils currently living in Canada are being held in ‘internment’ camps in and around Vavuniya. And indeed, it was these displaced and not the LTTE, which ultimately sparked most of the rage on 10 May. The media debates following the protests were about the boundaries of public protest space, the police force’s reticence to make arrests for fear of ‘racist’ accusations, immigrant assimilation versus integration, and the protesters’ failure to respect ‘Canadian’ values – not to discount the ire of the Tamil-Canadians who wholly condemned the disruptive march onto the Gardiner.
All that aside, the gamble paid off. Shortly after the protests came the first few million dollars of aid. First three, then five, and now Canada has pledged nearly USD 22 million in aid, seeking relief through UN-run initiatives and NGO support for the displaced. But spurring the Canadian government to act was only half the battle, and the complete victory sought by the demonstrations is still elusive. Until now, the situation of countless family members of Tamil-Canadians being held in the camps, along with four unnamed Canadian citizens, remains largely unknown. The vetting being conducted by the Colombo authorities has meant that very few outsiders have had access to the camps, rendering the Canadian government’s promise of accelerated refugee immigration to Canada ineffectual. “The possibility of a [Canadian] visa officer entering the camps is zero,” says Sri Skanda Rajah.
At the same time, a move within the Canadian government to curb the number of Mexican asylum seekers may be affecting potential Sri Lankan refugees. Last month’s clampdown on the spiralling number of Mexican citizens claiming refugee status in Canada, which seems to be linked to Mexico’s deep recession, was described by Prime Minister Harper as “a problem with Canadian refugee law, which encourages bogus claims.” Whether Canada’s refugee dam could now be affecting a renewed stream of new Sri Lankan arrivals is not clear. Nonetheless, this time, Sri Skanda Rajah says, “very few people have arrived” compared to post-1983. “The [immigration] process has not been accelerated.”
Minister Kenney is quick to note that Canada has the most open immigration policy in the G8 group of countries. And in fact, what seems to be affecting the process at the moment is the authorities in Colombo, where Canadian High Commission officials have come up against continued trouble accessing the refugee camps. The Colombo government did not make Canadian access to the displaced any easier when it first granted, then denied, entry in June to veteran Canadian politician Bob Rae, who has long been active in Sri Lanka-related affairs. He was asked on arrival by immigration officers to sign a ‘document’ admitting certain comments he had made were “ill-informed, or something like that,” and to disavow any support for the LTTE, he told the press, an action he called “Orwellian” after being put on a plane back home. This was purportedly due to his choice of words about the nature of the military’s final tactics in the war.
Other Canadian officials seem to have had an easier time of it. In early August, Canadian International Cooperation Minister Beverly J Oda made a three-day visit to the former war zone. She was the only voice from the Canadian government, quoted in the Canadian press as saying that conditions in the camps “are acceptable.” Her comments are in opposition to reports from Amnesty International, which claims that camp residents live in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions and are not permitted to speak to outsiders or aid workers.
It would appear that both of these situations and statements, as made by Rae and Oda, will only further fan the flames of frustration among Canada’s Tamil community. Today, many in this community continue to agree that the freedom fight advocated by the Tamil Tigers was their own, and that the current campaign for Eelam is one of diplomatic advocacy for cultural recognition and land rights for Tamils in Sri Lanka. This push, they say, begins with the release of the Tamils in the internment camps of Sri Lanka.
Whether the vacuum of LTTE leadership will be filled, and as to whether Canada’s Tamils are still sending funds to offshore Tiger banks, neither the Tiger supporters nor the RCMP are talking. But as Sri Skanda Rajah says, “The dream doesn’t die with a person. An ideal is not vanquished in battle.” And though the candles lit for Eelam may be flickering, with such continued efforts by Toronto Tamils to achieve what they see as self-determination, the fire does not look set to burn out anytime soon.
~ Dave Besseling is a journalist specialising in cultural affairs. He is based in Toronto.