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.