*’No one is illegal, Canada is illegal’: Persistent Racism in the ‘Gentle’ Colossus

On 13 August 2010, the passenger ship MV Sea Sun docked at Vancouver, British Columbia, carrying 492 Tamils seeking entry into Canada as refugees.  And, once again, indeed as has happened scores of times in the history of this nation, in sickening fidelity to the idea that each generation must inflict its own quantum of stupid bigotry upon others, these Tamil refugees have been met with racial hostility, unfounded accusations about their supposed support of terrorism, and xenophobic demands for their repatriation to Sri Lanka.   All 492 of the Tamil refugees remain under detention, even though a batch of 75 had hearings before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada this week.

Though the long-drawn and bitterly fought civil war in Sri Lanka came to an official end last year with the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and the death of their leader, Prabhakaran, unrest in Sri Lanka persists.  The Sri Lankan government disputes the charge, levied by various human rights groups, that the political, economic, and cultural rights of Tamils continue to be violated at the end of the military conflict, but it cannot be doubted that Sri Lankan Tamils are caught in a humanitarian crisis.  The United Nations estimates that the military operations of 2009 led to some 80,000 civilians fatalities and the displacement of close to 300,000 Tamils.  The bulk of these Tamils remain in makeshift camps, and many of them allege that the Sri Lankan state persists in their persecution.  A Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora has been in the making for over three decades, and unless tensions between the Sri Lankan government and Tamils are resolved soon and Tamils feel that they have a genuine stake in the nation-state, their flight from Sri Lanka will continue.

The Tamils who arrived at Vancouver Island braved a three-month journey.  Though the Tamils are dispersed throughout the world, Toronto’s Tamil diaspora of 300,000 makes it one of the largest Tamil diasporic communities outside Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  Many Canadians and others are likely to point to the size of the Tamil population in Canada as an illustration of the largesse and goodwill of successive Canadian governments.  Though the long history of racial discrimination and outright hostility to colored immigrants is stitched into Canada’s history, many Canadians like to imagine themselves as the benign and gentle neighbors of the imperialists south of the border.  It is not necessary, for our purposes, to inquire if there is even a semblance of truth to this self-representation, considering that Canada has displayed a pathetic incapacity for any foreign policy independent of American interests; moreover, as is the case with the other white dominion Australia, which if anything is even more of a cauldron of the worst kind of racial bigotry, one can legitimately ask if Canada has not tacitly accepted submission as the price to be paid for an American military cover that permits the country to divert more resources to social services.

The office of Canadian MP Keith Martin is reported to have received hundreds of calls objecting to the arrival of Tamils on the shores of British Columbia.  Questions are being asked why Canada should assume responsibility to house and feed outsiders when the country’s social services are already under considerable pressure.  To this there are many rejoinders:  one could speak of humanitarian considerations, of the obligations that humans have to each other, and of the tacit and unwritten laws of hospitality that compel allegiance.  There is something far nobler about the hospitality of those living under some stress than the hospitality of the rich.  Some callers objected that the Tamilian passengers had ‘jumped the immigration queue’, but there is no queue for refugee claimants.  International law has provisions for asylum for refugees precisely because it is understood that, economic motivations for emigration aside, political persecution impels people to move to other lands.  One would have thought that if this ought to be clearly understood anywhere in the world, it should be in Canada and the United States.  Other callers, whose sentiments have been echoed by the irresponsible Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, claim that some among the Tamil refugees are members of the LTTE, outlawed in Canada as in many other countries as a terrorist organization.  However, there is not an iota of evidence to support this allegation, and it is significant that a similar panic was aroused in 2009 when the ship Ocean Lady arrived with 76 Tamils on board.  After detention and interrogation of all the men on board, all were released when their presumed terrorist connections could not be established.

Some Canadians will fret at the racism and hostility directed at refugees because it spoils the country’s reputation as a kinder and gentler neighbour of the colossus down south.  But does Canada have a reputation to maintain?  Canada has thrived on the perceived notion that it is (pleasantly) different from America, free of imperial ambitions, more caring of its citizens and less hostile to ideas of state responsibility, and genuinely multicultural in spirit.  Its health services have been celebrated by the likes of Michael Moore, and at least a few American liberals have been similarly enthused by the fact that Canada does not appear to thrive on a huge and unabashedly celebratory gun culture.   The question is not whether Canadians are more sensible than Americans in facing up to some of the facts of life but whether anyone could be as intractable as the Americans in giving expression to the most indefensible positions on social issues, whether it be gun ownership, the right to affordable health care, state subsidies for mass transit systems, and so on.  The unpleasant truth is that Canada has also been more successful in persisting with certain fictions.  ‘First Nations’, the preferred term in Canada for the indigenous populations, sounds properly respectful even reverential, but we know well what would happen if ‘First Nation’ people forged a secessionist movement and demanded the dissolution of what is now called Canada.

In May 1914, the Komagata Maru, with more than 365 passengers on board, the majority of them Punjabis, was turned away at Vancouver on the grounds that the immigrants had ‘failed to comply with the requirements of the Canadian law.’  The ship made its way back to Budge-Budge, Calcutta, where the understandably restless passengers were not favorably disposed to being met by a large police force that had been warned about the presence of ‘undesirable’ characters on board.  Twenty-six people would be killed in a police firing, but that history has been narrated elsewhere.  Then, as now, the elements of the narrative remain undisturbed: a ship arrives in Vancouver with colored immigrants, at least some of whom are accused of being political extremists, even ‘terrorists’; a mass hysteria is engendered among the city’s citizens, and it is said that ‘public safety’ demands the removal of those seeking entry into Canada illegally.   The historian who famously spoke of the short twentieth century could have made a more compelling case for the long twentieth century.  What to speak of the genocide of the indigenous populations that occurred throughout the Americas, Canada has unfortunately left far too many trails of bitter tears when it comes to immigrant histories.

The real stakes in this latest episode of Canada’s ugly treatment of Tamil refugee claimants are eloquently expressed in the slogan of one migrant justice organization, ‘no one is illegal, Canada is illegal.’   It is intolerable that a country built on the back of immigrant labor should have the effrontery to describe anyone seeking to arrive at its shores as ‘illegal’.   Those who dispossessed the indigenous populations can have no moral claim to sole possession.  There have been calls to declare some cities as ‘world cities’, as zones free of the jurisdiction of the nation-state; but we can be simultaneously more utopian and ethical in contemplating truly democratic futures.  Canada itself should be declared a free zone, with unhindered access to the country for one and all.  If Canada truly wishes to be marked as different from America, it shall have to do something far more radical than describe its indigenous people as ‘First Nations’ and still allow them to languish in poverty.   Canada shall have to do far more than permit visitors the taste of England – what with its formal allegiance to the Queen, tea with scones in Wellington, and its Bobby-like policemen on horses – while remaining wholly wedded to the American way of life in so many spheres.  What the racial discrimination with which the Tamil refugee claimants have been received demonstrates is that the wide expanse of the ocean is not enough to shelter Canada from the other.  When the inner demons of life are not confronted, the other will always persist.

12 thoughts on “*’No one is illegal, Canada is illegal’: Persistent Racism in the ‘Gentle’ Colossus

  1. Canadians, with their low self confidence, have always had trouble defining themselves, surely one reason why certain unfounded “myths” about their “liberal” nation persist. This is a country that was at least partly established by some of the most cowardly Southerners who fled up north during the U.S. Civil War. For generations, the solution many Canadians have found, albeit grudgingly, for their low self confidence, at least in the journalism business about which I can confidently speak, has been to hire Brits to do a job. After all, there’s nothing a glib English accent can’t fix. Might it be time for Canadians to do some serious self-introspection and then try something different in this most “virtual” of all centuries? Vinay’s article, which goes deep and well beyond the “Blame Canada” genre of writing, is a good start.


  2. Sir,

    You wrote: “It is intolerable that a country built on the back of immigrant labor should have the effrontery to describe anyone seeking to arrive at its shores as ‘illegal’. Those who dispossessed the indigenous populations can have no moral claim to sole possession. ”

    This is totally a self-serving argument written to sound logical! The very reason that the LTTE boat arrived at Vancouver was because of a lax law of Canada. If Canada had made a rule that any one who turns up illegally would not be permitted entry then this boat would not even have attempted to sail this far knowing that it would be turned away.

    I hope the Prime Minister of Canada would execute his threat to tighten his country’s borders retroactively so these terrorist inventors of suicide bombing are sent back to Srilanka to face criminal justice.

    Please don’t defend terrorism by other means!


    • This person’s response is a very good illustration of the hysterical reactions mentioned in my article. So
      now every Tamil refugee becomes transformed into a suicide bomber and terrorist, and those who care
      to uphold norms of human decency themselves become supporters of terrorism. Our writer wants not
      only every Tamil refugee turned away, he also wants the Prime Minister of Canada to “tighten his country’s borders
      retroactively”, by which he means that those who were previously admitted into the country should now
      be deported. Janamejayan should simply declare himself a supporter of ethnic cleansing.


  3. Yeah it must be terrible to have 500000 bucks laying around for a boat ride to a country where all your fellow country men are waiting to pick you up in bmws


  4. Thanks for this article. It was informative and political….and necessary. I haven’t heard about this in the news so thanks for writing this.


  5. Janamejayan wants “these terrorist inventors of suicide bombing” to be “sent back to Srilanka to face criminal justice.” Isn’t Lanka’s “criminal justice” the reason they fled in the first place? Justice by criminals, that is.


  6. Sir,

    There are some important points involved here.

    1. Stephen Harper the P.M. of Canada made the statement that he is responsible for the protection of the borders of his country and would not hesitate to revise its laws if some people takes advantage to flood his country with illegal immigrants and in this case they arthose who are hard core LTTE who are trying to escape being caught by the Srilakan Govt. It is also suspected that some of these boat fellows could be relatives of those who are already in Canada and these immigrants have paid huge sums to the human smugglers so these boat people can
    jump the queue and seek immediate immigrant status. Thus Stephen Harper is concerned that those boat people might contain elements of hard core terrorists (Canada has branded LTTE as an international terrorist organization earlier) who could use Canada as a haven to pursue their international terrorism. Stephen Harper is also concerned that there are queue jumpers among the boat people who have employed the human smugglers. These two are clearly designed to thwart the spirit of the humane Canadian Law on immigration and therefore the P.M.is quite concerned about it and has reflected the vast sentiments of more than 80% of Canadians whose opinion
    against allowing this boat into Canada has been published in a recent survey.

    2. My idea of retroactive legislation is to include this particular ship and not all those who have already been admitted as immigrants. In your anxiety to counter me your imagination has taken wings! The people on this boat numbering about 500 have not been admitted as landed immigrants yet but they are trying to get into Canada giving false names for themselves with no
    identity papers trying to hoodwink the Canadian officials. You are portraying them as arch angels and luckless victims of Srilankan Govt. The truth is far from it.

    3. Vinay Lal is trying to hide the fact of these LTTEs as the inventors of suicide bombing and he is conveniently forgetting the fact that our own Prime Minister as also a Srilankan P.M. were blown to pieces by them. These LTTE cadres were given cyanide capsules to kill themselves if
    caught but were told to kill all and sundry first who are mostly unarmed civilians. They were produced as the death machines by their leaders. Why should anyone have soft corner for them?

    4. The war in Srilanka is over and there is no ethnic cleansing. The UN does not endorse such a view of ethnic cleansing now or before. Why are you talking the selfserving tales of the terrorists?

    The heading of your article tells it all – “No one is illegal, Canada is illegal”. Really?

    Hope you would change your views my friend.


  7. Canada welcomes immigrants from all nations and has for generations. The vast majority of these have come of their own volition as a result of a myriad of circumstances.

    What the vast majority of these have NOT done is to pay some criminal self-serving gang having been sold the pitch that by payment and boarding safe travel to our shores they will be admitted as legitimate refugees in a less protracted due process due to the emergency situation implicit in the definition of “refugee.”

    This is patently wrong and unethical and does a diservice to all who have come before and to those currently awaiting immigration proceedings in the a rationally based due process.

    The fact that you feel otherwise so fervently just proves that even after years of learned academic training by one such as yourself, it can be undone in an instant by the fire of irrational human emotions, and contrary to your own profulgated identity, really only gives yourself away as a similar volatile reactionist as those you criticize (ie: “No one is illegal, Canada is illegal”).

    No one in the government is reacting emotionally for unlike an academic ivory tower sequestered observer – they can’t afford to.

    Rather is it is through the continuation of reasoned and fair thought for all concerned that propels the policies…..unfortunately despite the measured elequonce of your article you have argued only to your own myopic irrationalism.


    • This response by Max is nothing other than the old trick of describing those with whom one disagrees
      as “irrational”. We, in the Third World, are always irrational, emotional, and volatile — note how often these words
      appear in Max’s apparently learned commentary. Of course, he has no argument, and he can’t have one
      since the history of Canada — oh, yes, that seemingly benign Canada — is standing testimony
      to the genocidal impulses that first decimated the native populations
      and have since been transmuted into racism and outright discrimination. When there is no argument,
      then all that remains to be said is that academics live in ivory towers.



    – Fearing another shipload of migrants is headed here, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are drawing up measures to demonstrate Ottawa is cracking down on illicit passage to Canada.

    The Harper government is preparing a package of measures — which may include legislation — to make life more difficult for smugglers and those who crew their ships, such as the MV Sun Sea that ferried 492 Tamil refugee claimants to Victoria in August.


  9. Mr. Lal,

    Respectfully, I say that I am no political analyst or expert but truly it seems that you are seeing this from one viewpoint. Put yourself in the other persons shoes and take a look. Think about if their history were yours. What values might you have, how would you react to immigrants? I am not saying whether either side is right or wrong, just that it is always difficult to embrace different cultures. Fears, whether valid or irrational, will always be a hurdle to integration.

    It is not right to keep throwing the past into Canada’s face. In fact those in power now may have had little to do with killing of native settlers. Surely, the situation could be better but where in the world have we seen anything different? Each country, all peoples have their own ugly/unpleasant past to deal with. Painting others as bigger monsters than ourselves is not a means of improving people, families, communities, nations or the world.

    It would be easy if it were all ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but we all know it’s not.



    • Thank you for your comments. A substantial part of a writer’s endeavor is always to attempt to see things
      from multiple perspectives, including the perspective of those who are at the receiving end of criticism. To
      admit there we all are afflicted by a fear of the unknown, or a fear of strangers, or of cultures alien to ours,
      is not to obviate the ethical responsibility we also have to others. In this case, it is not simply a matter
      of rehearsing Canada’s past: unfortunately, Canada is one of those countries that has sheltered behind
      the US, and done precious little to indicate its distance from the imperialist ambitions of its behemoth neighbour.
      I do not say that Canada is exceptional in having displayed racist attitudes towards the ‘Other’,
      nor that Canada is worse than many others nations. Quite to the contrary, since Canada believes
      itself to be the beacon of freedom, enlightened opinion, tolerance, and hospitality, it must be held
      up to standards to which many other countries do not even aspire.


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