Immigration and Transnational Political Ties: Croatians and Sri Lankan Tamils in Canada


Download 122.47 Kb.
Date conversion08.06.2018
Size122.47 Kb.
  1   2   3

Wayland --

Immigration and Transnational Political Ties:

Croatians and Sri Lankan Tamils in Canada

Dr. Sarah V. Wayland, Research Associate

Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition

McMaster University

1280 Main Street West

Hamilton, ON L8S 4M4

Phone 905-522-5439 (h)

Please direct any correspondence to this address: 58 Mountain Ave.

Hamilton, ON L8P 4G2


Sarah V. Wayland obtained her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Maryland. She has held teaching appointments at the University of Toronto, Brock University, and McMaster University. Her published articles address various aspects of immigration, citizenship, ethnic conflict, and diaspora politics in the Canadian and European contexts.


June 12, 2003



Every year, persons from hundreds of regions of the world migrate across national boundaries to make new lives for themselves and their families. Most of them move to large urban centers such as Toronto where the presence of ethnic associations, ethnic neighborhoods, and informal networks facilitate adaptation to the new society. 1 Aided by these same ethnic networks, migrants often maintain a variety of connections to the homeland or sending state. Though integration or acculturation usually occurs in the succeeding generations, persons may maintain a keen interest in homeland affairs, including politics, particularly if there is a situation of ethnic conflict or violence involving members of the same group. The millions of refugees and exiles whose movements were spawned by circumstances in their home countries rather than by the wish to forge a new life elsewhere may especially continue to feel political loyalty to the homeland. The result has been the creation of Janus-faced communities, whose attention focuses simultaneously on their situation in the country of settlement and transnationally on their homeland as well as on kindred ethnic groups in the diaspora.2

This article analyses the transnational dimensions of immigrant politics by comparing two ethnic groups in Canada (primarily Toronto): Croatians and Sri Lankan Tamils. These differ in terms of the conditions of departure from the homeland, the time of their migration, and regional as well as ethnic origins. Yet members of both groups have been highly mobilized around issues in Canada as well as observing and even participating in wars for political autonomy and independence by ethnic kindred in the homeland. Both groups also migrated from states, where little ethnonationalist3 expression was allowed, to Canada, a pluralistic society with an official policy of Multiculturalism since 1971. Finally, despite most Croatians having arrived in Canada at least a generation before the Tamils, both groups were very active in homeland politics during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, an independent Croatia was founded in 1991, while Tamils have engaged in a violent struggle to create a separate state of Eelam on the island of Sri Lanka since at least 1983. Croatians in Canada intensified transnational links as a consequence of independence, while Tamils -- almost all of whom have come to Canada since 1983 -- have maintained intense ties since the time of migration.

These marked similarities between Croatians and Sri Lankan Tamils in Canada raises a number of questions about trajectories of incorporation and homeland political ties among ethnonational groups in the diaspora.4 What types of homeland-oriented political activities occur? Does mobilization decline as members of a group become more established in Canada? If so, might it be triggered anew by events in the homeland? Lastly, do diasporas transmit democratic values from Canada to homelands undergoing political transition? In this article, I make some answers to these timely and important questions by drawing on the examples of one well-established immigrant community (that also experienced significant immigration in the 1990s), and one newer but rapidly growing ethnic group in Canada. In brief, this is a preliminary attempt to sketch out some of the various conditions under which groups maintain transnational political ties and the forms (symbolic, financial, ideological, etc.) these ties assume.

Conceptual Framework

Until recently, the vast majority of immigration research in the advanced industrialized democracies focused on conditions of migration and settlement5 and either overlooked altogether the existence of transnational ties or discounted their ongoing importance. This has also been true in Canada, where studies have, by and large, failed to consider those factors that situate ethnic groups in global processes. Instead, research has focused mainly on the internal dynamics of ethnic communities and intergroup relations.6 Rather than viewing ethnonationalist sentiments and expressions as antithetical to the immigrant adaptation process, I argue that transnationalism should be seen as playing a central and continuous role in the construction of immigrant identity. Whereas “immigrant” connotes someone in terms of their relations with the receiving state and society, the terms “diaspora” and “transnational” acknowledge that communities settled outside their natal territories maintain some level of ties with their place of origin. The homeland has some claim on their loyalty, emotions, and identity.7

Transnationalism challenges the socio-spatial assumptions of community.8 Kurds in Germany may view themselves as having more in common with Kurds in Turkey or France than with their own next-door neighbours. (Whether or not this is actually true could be the subject of an interesting cross-national study.) Members of an ethnonationalist group dispersed throughout the world are able to maintain ties through publications, websites, and chat groups on the Internet. Thus, their communities transcend physical space, reaching across international borders and incorporating members based on ethnonational identities.

This challenges our assumptions about the territorial dimension of politics as well. One scholar of transnationalism asserts: “The blurring of once taken-for-granted boundaries differentiating states, ethnicities, and civil societies is producing new spaces of daily life, new sources of cultural meaning, and new forms of social and political agency that flow across national borders.”9 Political activities are thus occurring outside the territory of the nation-state, where they are thus often more difficult to monitor and control by the state. As well, new arenas for political expression are opened, particularly for ethnonationalist communities that did not enjoy freedom of expression in the homeland. They can take advantage of freedoms of assembly, the press, and other forms of expression, and lobby the receiving state to implement desired foreign policies toward the homeland. Lastly -- aided by the existence of trans-state networks of communication, travel, political support, material assistance, and the possession of dual citizenship or residencies -- diaspora networks may generate loyalties in tension with allegiance to the territorial state.10

Indeed, globalization -- defined as “the rapidly developing and ever-densening network of interconnections and interdependences that characterize modern social life,” including the decline of geographical constraints11 -- has enabled diasporas to become important international political forces. Globalization has facilitated the extent and the influence of diasporas as political agents in several ways. First, advances in communications, transport, and finance mean that diasporas are able to act internationally without the consent of the states in which they reside. Policy-makers in the receiving state face increasing limits on their abilities to pressure immigrants and their descendants to sever ties with their homelands. Second, these same globalizing factors enable migrants to retain an interest in homeland politics. Events in the country of origin seem closer than ever before. As such, it is possible that diasporas are not only able to maintain overseas contacts more easily, but that they are able to maintain these contacts for longer periods than was previously the case. This would especially seem to be true in the case of diaspora groups which have formed as a result of civil strife in the home country. Third, diasporas can generate the original impetus for ethnic mobilization and, eventually, secession. For example, Sikh mobilization for an independent Khalistan in India originated in the expatriate community rather than from within the Punjab itself.12 Similarly, a distinct Sri Lankan Tamil identity -- as opposed to a Tamil identity that includes Tamils in southern India -- has in large part been created by Tamils overseas who have written extensively on Tamil history and ideology, and whose work circulates widely.13

One should not, however, overestimate the effects of globalization. While factors related to globalization have facilitated the political activities of diasporas as well as drawn attention to them, diasporas have long been active in homeland politics, and it is too soon to ascertain the extent to which globalization has significantly altered the effects of these activities. Moreover, just as there are new resources at the disposal of diaspora groups, especially via the Internet, these resources are also available to political adversaries.

Ironically, while diaspora activity poses challenges to territorially-bound politics, the goals of these mobilizing groups usually involve territory. Their activities may transcend space, but ethnonational identity is by definition rooted in territory. As van der Veer asserts:

A major feature of nationalism is the politics of space. Bordered territory symbolizes the fixity, stability, and sovereignty of the nation-state, so that borders have become the contested sites for international warfare, refugees, and immigration policies. Those who see themselves as a nation often seek a spatial, territorial expression of the nationhood. 14

In brief, diaspora politics allows ethnic actors to undermine states, often from abroad, yet the actors themselves seek statehood or, at a minimum, autonomy or control over a fixed space as an expression of their ethnonational identities. Gaining sovereignty or autonomy bolsters the legitimacy of the ethnonation in question. Thus, diaspora-based ethnonationalists seek the dismemberment of a particular state, not the destruction of the state system. Though they may not favor a particular regime or state structure, they still seek to reclaim the state as a repository of their own particular identity.15

Even for members of the diaspora who never intend to return to the homeland, the prospect of independent statehood has many attractions. In addition to the international legitimacy it bestows upon a territory, statehood is important for reasons related to settlement in receiving societies. Multiculturalist discourse in Western states recognizes national cultures, that is, those connected to an independent nation-state. Subnational and regional cultures are sometimes not viewed as worthy of recognition, nor of government funding. Thus, members of a diaspora may utilize links with an independent ethnic homeland so as to gain respect and legitimacy in the receiving state.16

The preceding discussion reveals gaps in the seminal conceptualization of diaspora by Gabriel Sheffer. Sheffer posited that diasporas were part of a triadic relationship of “ethnic diaspora - host states - homeland states” that was becoming an integral and permanent feature of domestic and international politics.17 His focus on diasporas was perceptive, but his formulation of the triad fails to capture the reality of diaspora politics in at least three ways. First, some diaspora groups do not have direct ties to a homeland state. Many Croatians abroad under Tito’s Yugoslavia did not view his government as representative of their interests, and the Tamil diaspora today views the Sinhalese-dominated government of Sri Lanka as fundamentally opposed to the interests of Tamils. The primary homeland ties for Tamils abroad are with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which created a de facto state in the LTTE-controlled part of the island. Thus, a diaspora’s principal ties may be with an ethnonationalist group or organization that does not recognize the legitimacy of the homeland state, and may even be trying to overthrow its own government. In situations such as this, policy-makers in the receiving states find themselves in the awkward situation of trying to maintain relations with two parties in conflict with each other. Foreign-policy decision-makers are caught in the “two-level games” situation, meaning that they are simultaneously negotiating in both the domestic and international arenas, each of which places different -- often contradictory -- pressures on them.18 These pressures, which exist in many circumstances, become especially acute in the case of a diaspora in conflict with its own home country government.

Secondly, the phenomenon of diaspora-diaspora ties must be considered as well. Tamils in Toronto know the dynamics of the Tamil diasporas in London, Paris, and Johannesburg; Croatian-Canadians are in contact with Croatian organizations in the United States, Australia, Germany, Hungary, and other parts of Europe and South America. These transnational networks can be especially effective in the transfer of information and news stories from the homeland as well as in maintaining a broader sense of ethnic and political solidarity among members of the diaspora. In some cases, transnational ties within the diaspora may completely take the place of links between the diaspora and the homeland. For example, one well-educated Tamil man I interviewed said that, though he followed events in Sri Lanka, he had no contact at all with anyone there.19 His parents are no longer alive, and every one of his eight siblings (as well as his wife’s five siblings) have left the country. His case is an example of the fact that, increasingly, every Tamil who has the means to get out of Sri Lanka does so. Though they are still oriented to their homeland in the sense that it is the common reference point for exile Tamils, their daily lives have less and less to do with anything that is happening there. This would seem especially true for those who are pessimistic about the prospects for the creation of an independent Tamil homeland and, thus, of ever returning there.

Third, the conceptualization of a diaspora as a unitary actor overlooks the internal differentation and heterogeneity found within ethnic communities.20 Class, gender, religion, political ideology and other differences are found within virtually every diaspora group. However, it is true that outsiders may find it difficult to discern the presence of competing viewpoints. When diaspora communities form because of ethnic conflict in the homeland, ethnonationalist sentiment may be so strong that it becomes difficult for members to espouse moderate or pacifist perspectives. Thus, diasporas are not monolithic, but intra-communal pressures and the lack of fora for alternative voices may contribute to the impression that they are more unified than is actually the case.

In brief, diasporas can play important political roles in a globalized world. In the case of ethnonational groups, they operate transnationally and seek recognition and legitimacy through territorial autonomy. In relations with homeland states, receiving states, ethnonational movements, and co-ethnics in the diaspora, pressure to maintain a united front to outsiders may push internal differentiation beneath the surface.

In the remainder of this paper, I present an overview of Croatian and Sri Lankan Tamil populations in Canada as a means of highlighting two groups that have maintained diasporic links. As will be shown, both had small, long-established communities in Canada that generally followed an assimilationist model of incorporation. These were later outnumbered by larger cohorts of more-recent arrivals who had a stronger sense of national pride and were more reluctant to abandon the ways of the homeland. Both communities experienced some conflicts between early and later arrivals as well as inter-generational conflicts. Lastly, both groups suffered from negative stereotyping, Croatians because of their fascist government during World War II and Tamils because of links to the LTTE as well as highly publicized activities, including murder, by some Tamil youth gangs in Toronto.

In the following section, I use existing research on Croatians to outline some general patterns of settlement, internal divisions among Croatians, and past and present political ties with Croatia. The Croatian case illustrates the presence of political transnationalism in the early twentieth century, thus serving as an important counter-example to scholars who equate the rise of diasporic politics with globalization and the telecommunications revolution. The fragmentation among those who identify themselves as Croatian-Canadian also highlights the heterogeneity within diasporic groups. Lastly, the Croatian case provides a potential model for how diaspora relations with the homeland might unfold at the end of a civil war, in this case one that led to the creation of an ethnonationally-based state.


According to Croatian historian Anthony Rasporich, Croatians were the most likely South Slavic people to emigrate in the twentieth century. Croatians were 25 percent of Yugoslavia’s population, but they comprised 75 percent of the emigrants from Yugoslavia between 1890 and the late 1990s.21 Today an estimated two million Croatians live in the diaspora.22

Approximately 100,000 to 150,000 persons of Croatian ethnic origin live in Canada, most of whom reside in the Greater Toronto Area.23 The Croatian diaspora in Canada is the product of several waves of migration. The first Croatians came to Canada in the early-twentieth century, primarily from rural areas that were facing economic hardship under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most of these 3,500 persons were young men who performed unskilled labour in Canada’s lumber and mining industries. They faced discrimination, particularly during World War I when they were considered hostile enemy aliens by the Canadian government, for which some were interned.24

During the 1920s, about 12,000 more Croatian men and women came to Canada to work as unskilled labourers. The increase in numbers allowed for the creation of various fraternal, religious, and cultural organizations. Political associations were also very important and followed events in the homeland closely. Many Croatians joined the trade union movement in Canada, and some even joined the Communist party despite the disapproval of the Canadian government. At this time, the Yugoslav monarchy under the King Alexander (a Serb) became concerned about political dissent in the diaspora and was especially fearful of Croatian activism. Thus, the Yugoslav government encouraged loyalists abroad to form political clubs in order to gather information on leftist and Croatian nationalist groups.25 Subsequently, this information was passed along to the Canadian government which then deported Croatian community leaders and banned some Croatian-language newspapers.

That the Canadian and Yugoslav governments took such active roles in Croatian affairs created an atmosphere of mistrust of outsiders within the increasingly insular community. At the same time, however, ideological divisions ran deep among Croatians, and these tensions were further exacerbated during the Nazi occupation of Croatia under the Ustasha puppet regime (1941-45). The arrival of Croatian refugees (“displaced persons”) after World War II caused further division because older migrants, many of whom were leftists, were suspicious of the new arrivals’ possible links with fascism. In turn, the new arrivals found the Croatians in Canada to be naive about the detriments of communism.

In addition to the ideological tensions within the growing population of Croatians in Canada, there were differing views about how to maintain a Croatian heritage abroad. By the early 1950s, Canada was home to some 15,000-20,000 Croatians, most of whom were working-class families that had overcome many obstacles to achieve the “Canadian dream” of home ownership, children, and material possessions. These persons were gradually assimilating into Anglo-Canadian society. According to Rasporich, “Their language, their customs, and more importantly, their children were being transformed by an increasingly urban, secular, and mobile society about them.”26 Newer arrivals, however, were not so eager to abandon their Croatian roots, and they were reinforced by the arrival of about 15,000 economic immigrants from 1967 to 1973 (who arrived in the wake of liberalization of Canadian and Yugoslav immigration policies). These were relatively sophisticated migrants: many had been trained in Yugoslavia as professionals, and many used their skills and personal resources to become entrepreneurs.

This immigration wave happened at the same time that aspirations for a free and independent Croatia were spreading across the diasporas of the US, Canada, South America, and Australia, in part inspired by decentralization and liberalism in Yugoslavia that culminated in the “Croatian spring” of 1971.27 Croatians abroad could access books and periodicals, many of which were produced in Toronto, advocating the overthrow of the Yugoslav regime. In contrast to the previous waves of Croatian immigrants who had more readily embraced assimilation, “the position of the post-war émigrés as a better educated class of immigrants was one of dual allegiance to two cultures, languages, and lifestyles -- the preservation of the old and cautious adoption of the new.”28 Croatians were no doubt encouraged by the passage of Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy in 1971, which brought with it funding for “heritage language” programmes and other forms of ethnic expression. The newest migrants took advantage of these programmes.

In brief, the Croatian “community” in Canada was fragmented along political and generational lines. As well, the following factors proved divisive: the strong sense of regionalism in Croatia, where persons tend to identify with their region first; the different types of migrants (rural v. urban, working class v. professional); and the mutual suspicion that arose from years of monitoring of expatriates by the Yugoslav government. At the same time, Croatians in Canada have been an insular community because of pervasive stereotypes of fascism and violence as well as mistrust of outsiders.

According to Winland, the war in Yugoslavia pushed this factionalism beneath the surface, and the wave of ethnonationalist pride crested with the creation of an independent Croatia in 1991. Very quickly, Croatians had been transformed from an historically repressed minority group in Yugoslavia to a proud, new nation that rejected communism and “asserted a new sense of purpose and pride.”29 Part and parcel of the revitalization of Croatian identity was the intensification of transnational links, including fund-raising activities as well as political and relief efforts. Persons of Croatian descent who had never before participated in Croatian community life joined existing and newly-created ethnic organizations, “rediscovering” their ethnic identity. Even second- and third-generation Croatian-Canadians were so caught up an ethnonationalist fervor in the early 1990s that they actually migrated to Croatia after independence.30 Croatians in Canada organized information campaigns and lobbied the government to promote a favourable view of Croatia among the Canadian public and in the government. In addition to pressuring the Canadian government to officially recognize Croatia and to provide it military and diplomatic support, some Croatian-Canadians raised funds and allegedly purchased weapons for Croatia as well.31

After independence, Croatians in Canada directly participated in homeland politics in several ways. First, a number of Croatian-Canadian businessmen were given desirable political appointments in the new government, including three from Ontario, one of whom was made Defense Minister.32 Second, Croatian-Canadians voted in Croatian elections. Ethnic Croats abroad were allowed to vote the 1990 and 1992 Croatian elections, even when they did not hold citizenship in Yugoslavia (1990) or Croatia (1992).33 However, this voting right was not widely known in the diaspora, Croatian government representatives expressed uncertainty about eligibility requirements, and some suspect that the Tudjman government only solicited votes from likely supporters.34 Nonetheless, this signifies an interesting shift in from the old “civic nation” ideal of Yugoslavia to the “ethnic nation” ideal of independent Croatia.35 Third, since 1995, the Croatian diaspora has representation in the Croatian parliament. Twelve seats out of 120, as compared to only seven for national minorities (including Serbs), are reserved for diaspora Croatians. They are elected by 398,000 eligible diaspora voters. Attempts to eliminate this diaspora representation, including a parliamentary review under the centre-left government elected in 2000, have caused an outcry abroad.36 Fourth, elected Croatian politicians, especially those from the HDZ Party in the 1990s, frequently visited diaspora communities in search of political and financial support as well as to promote nationalistic images of the mother country. The Tudjman government relied on political donations from the diaspora, receiving more than $4 million (US) for the HDZ election campaign alone in 199037, a quarter of it coming from Canada.38 Lastly, in Ontario alone, millions of dollars were raised for relief and reconstruction efforts in Croatia.

Despite the symbiotic nature of diaspora-homeland relations, these ties are fraught with tensions. Though the war unified Croatians at home and overseas, different visions for Croatia have surfaced since independence. In contrast to the laudatory remarks made by politicians and public officials, who praise the contributions of the diaspora to the war and reconstruction efforts, many Croatians view diasporans as “romantic idealists living in the past,” referring to their propensity to be more nationalistic and right-wing than their counterparts who remained in Croatia.39 Diasporic activity may have been crucial to the emergence and recognition of an independent Croatia, but diasporic influence has declined in recent years as the political climate has shifted in Croatia. Most notably, leadership and institutional changes since Tudjman’s death in December 1999 have decreased the power of the diaspora. These include the defeat of the HDZ in the January 2000 parliamentary elections (despite receiving 60 percent of the diaspora vote), the election of a new president in February 2000, and constitutional reforms that same year that increased transparency in government.40 Other indicative measures include the closure of the Ministry of Return and Immigration and the closure of some consulate offices in Canada, the United States, and Australia.41

In the diaspora, nostalgia for the homeland -- particularly a homeland struggling for independence -- when combined with political marginalization in the country of settlement, contributes to what Benedict Anderson has called “long-distance nationalism.”42 Whereas in the past nationalism was a sentiment held by citizens residing within a certain territory, Anderson argues that today migrants and their descendants are increasingly able to maintain nationalistic sentiments from abroad. Though the political climate in Croatia appears to be hardening against extensive diasporic political involvement, the financial power of the diaspora – referred to as the “third pillar of the Croatian national budget”43 – will ensure that it remains influential in Croatian affairs. A wary dependency upon the diaspora is the reality for many regions of the world, but the need is often greatest, and thus the ties are often most intense, during times of conflict in the homeland. This will be shown next in the case of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Tamils

From fewer than 2,000 Tamils in 1983,44 Toronto’s Tamil population has grown into the largest Tamil diaspora in the world. 45 Approximately 110-200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live in Canada, 90 percent of them in Toronto.46 Most of them entered Canada as refugees or were sponsored by immediate family members who first arrived as refugees and then gained landed immigrant status.47 Sympathetic to their plight, Canadian policies facilitated the entrance of Tamils by allowing most Tamil asylum-seekers to bypass one or more stages of the refugee hearings process. The Tamil asylum claims lodged with the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board between 1989 (when the Board was founded) and 1998 had an average acceptance rate of 85 percent, compared to 60-70 percent acceptance rates overall. During that period, 26,213 Sri Lankans were accepted as refugees in Canada, more than from any other country.48

The first Tamils likely came to Canada in the 1950s. Like other migrants from South Asia at that time, these Tamils were predominantly middle- to upper-class English-educated professionals. In Sri Lanka, Tamils regarded education as the key to future advancement (particularly in view of the poor land in the north and northeastern part of the island where Tamils were concentrated), and thus had taken advantage of the presence of many English missionary schools in Tamil regions. By the time of independence in 1948, Tamils held a disproportionate share of the professional, technical, and civil service positions in the country. As successive Sinhala-dominated governments sought to “correct” this over-representation, so began the exodus of those Tamils who had the means to leave. This small migration stream gradually increased until 1983, when anti-Tamil riots in Colombo destroyed Tamil property and as many as 3,000 Tamil lives. After the riots, many more Tamils fled Sri Lanka for countries where they could capitalize on their knowledge of the English language and British institutions: Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. as well as other countries with a British colonial heritage. Canada encouraged migration by accepting Tamil refugees in the wake of the 1983 riots, and in turn received a broad cross-section of Tamil society. The well-educated upper classes continued to come to Canada, but they were accompanied by many lower-class Tamils as well.

After 1983, the picture of Sri Lankans in Canada changed dramatically and quickly. Not only did the numbers increase exponentially, but almost all of the migrants from Sri Lanka were Tamils (rather than Sinhalese), who gained entrance to Canada as refugees. Between 1984 and 1992, more than 25,000 Tamils came to Canada, the vast majority of them settling into certain neighbourhoods in Toronto and, to a lesser extent, Montreal. Tamils now formed ethnic enclaves and Tamil-based organizations instead of pan-South Asian networks like those that had existed previously. The Tamil community also developed a distinctive sense of Sri Lankan Tamil identity. Owing to events in Sri Lanka, the post-1983 migrants had a stronger sense of Tamil nationalism and pride. The Tamils’ Guide has been published annually since 1990 and runs several hundred pages in length. It lists dozens of social service, political, cultural, and other organizations, including the Tamil Eelam Society, the Canadian Tamil Women’s Association, the Tamil Kid’s Club, and the Tamil Cultural Centre of Scarborough.

The life of the Tamil community in Canada was thus fundamentally changed after 1983. Within a very short time, numerous Tamil organizations, businesses, religious institutions and cultural programmes emerged. Those migrants who had directly fought for Tamil autonomy in the homeland brought to Canada a sense of Tamil solidarity and pride.49 At least five Tamil weekly newspapers are printed and distributed in Canada, plus several monthly news magazines and a video news programme. There are at least five radio programmes in Tamil and plans to create three Tamil-language television programmes. Tamils are avid movie-goers as well, and many will watch two or three Tamil movies a week on videos rented from Tamil shops. In Toronto alone, there are at least three South Indian-style Hindu temples, five Christian churches that have Tamil congregations, and two Islamic organizations that cater to Tamil Muslims.50 Whereas the pre-1983 migrants sought wider markets for Tamil cultural activities and products, the post-1983 migrants focus their efforts largely within the Tamil community, especially Sri Lankan Tamils.

The Tamil population is relatively young, almost two-thirds are male, and it is concentrated in Toronto. The 1991 census revealed that Tamils were the fastest-growing linguistic group in Metro Toronto.51 Though a majority of post-1983 immigrants are employed, they often work in low-paying, unskilled jobs. Because of de-colonization, many of the newer migrants never had the anglicized and secular academic curriculum that the previous arrivals had. As a result, they were not as fluent in English or as familiar with Western society and culture. Also, the education of many Tamil youths had been disrupted by the civil war in Sri Lanka.

We see in the Tamil diaspora many of the same developments that occurred in the Croatian diaspora in Canada. The first migrants were small in number and preoccupied with assimilating into Canadian society. These small communities were subsequently enlarged by later waves of immigration, and the new arrivals -- because they were able to form a “critical mass” and because of conditions in the homeland at the time of exodus -- were less willing to abandon their language and other aspects of heritage. As Vaitheesvaran asserts:

… the greatest impact of the recent Tamil immigrants from Sri Lanka has been to shift the concerns of the Tamil immigrants from an exclusive preoccupation with life in Canada to that which focuses on political and cultural developments at home as well as in Canada. Many of the Tamil organizations in Canada, aside from their concern with settlement and other issues in Canada also lobby various government agencies for a solution to the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Many of them collect money for various relief efforts for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.52

It is not surprising that the newer Tamil migrants are more nationalistic and more politicized than their predecessors. Most of them have directly experienced power politics in Sri Lanka, and having been the victims of communal discrimination (if not violence) has heightened group solidarity. A strong sense of Tamil identity was also formed by various militant groups in Sri Lanka (e.g., LTTE and PLOTE), some of whose members migrated to Canada or elsewhere.

The resourcefulness of Tamils in Canada is evidenced by their high level of mobilization here in Canada, in the form of conferences, marches, and various types of advocacy or lobbying. For example, a pro-LTTE rally on June 17, 1995 attracted 22,000 persons, reportedly the third largest demonstration by a visible minority group in the history of Toronto.53 On February 1, 1998, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Sri Lankan independence, between 5,000 and 20,000 persons marched on Queen’s Park, site of the Ontario provincial legislature, to protest the treatment of Tamils by the Sri Lankan government.54 In May 1999, Tamil students in Ottawa organized a large international conference entitled, “Tamil Nationhood and the Search for Peace in Sri Lanka.”

The Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils (FACT) is an umbrella organization of ten Tamil associations which has a pro-secessionist stance. The role of FACT, according to one leader, is to “coordinate activity so that they [the Canadian government] could get one voice from Tamils.”55 They send correspondence to public officials, issue press releases, and meet with civil servants on issues of concern to Tamils. Though it has not been successful at gaining support for an independent Eelam from the Canadian government, FACT has been the most visible of the Tamil associations. In May 2000, Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin and dozens of other politicians attended a gala dinner organized by FACT to celebrate the Tamil new year. Subsequently, members of the Canadian Alliance Party alleged in the House of Commons that Martin had attended a fundraising event for terrorists. Tamils were outraged at being depicted as terrorists, and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien agreed that such labels should never be applied to entire communities. 56 It was in this climate of heightened attention to Tamil activism in Canada that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (D-FAIT) decided to focus more closely on Sri Lanka. Previously monitored on a part-time basis, the Sri Lanka portfolio became the sole responsibility of a D-FAIT officer.

Lobbying and public demonstrations are a readily accepted aspect of Canadian political life, but certain aspect of the links between Canada’s Tamils and Sri Lanka are more controversial. Police claim that Tamils in Canada export as much as one million dollars a month to finance the war in Sri Lanka, primarily for the LTTE to purchase weapons and explosives.57 A Canadian government source claims that Tamil businesses in Sri Lanka and abroad are forced to pay the Tigers, and that Tamils in the diaspora are expected to pay a minimum of $50 a month per person to the LTTE.58 Tamils may also be asked to buy separatist paraphernalia such as calendars that list Tamil holidays as well as names of those martyred in the struggle. Sri Lanka’s Kumaratunga regime, elected in 1994, has pressured foreign governments, including Canada, to crack down on expatriate Tamil contributors to the LTTE.

Leaders of Toronto’s Tamil community, however, assert that money is raised solely for relief efforts, channeled through the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization. According to representatives of FACT, Tamils in Canada simply do not have the means to donate as much money as some law enforcement officials claim. According to them, most money remitted to Sri Lanka is sent to family members and relief organizations.59 Indeed, private remittances from Sri Lankans abroad have risen to more than one billion dollars annually, constituting the largest single source of foreign exchange revenue for the country.60 When asked, most Tamils concede that fundraising does occur, but assert that it is generally for relief work in war-ravaged areas. In either case, Toronto’s Tamil population has been involved in the conflict in the homeland.

The role of Canada’s Tamils in the Sri Lankan civil war came to a head in 1995 with the detention of Manickavasagam Suresh, President of the World Tamil Movement (Ontario). Though Suresh had been accepted as a Convention Refugee to Canada in 1991, he was arrested and held in prison for almost two years without review under anti-terrorist provisions of the Immigration Act. Under the Act, membership in a group alleged to engage in terrorism, in this case the LTTE,61 is sufficient grounds for deportation. Suresh took his case to the Supreme Court of Canada where he was supported by groups such as Amnesty International who argued that, if deported, Suresh would face certain torture upon his return to Sri Lanka.62 In January 2002, the Supreme Court ordered that Suresh be given a new hearing in which he would hear and be able to respond to the specific allegations against him.63

Thus, the role of the Tamil diaspora in Sri Lankan politics is very controversial. On the one hand, Tamils in Sri Lanka do make direct pleas to the diaspora for aid.64 Such pleas, however, are consistently vague and thus do not directly support the claims of the Sri Lankan government that the LTTE is financing itself through the diaspora. In Canada, Tamils will not say that they actually do send funds to finance the war, though many acknowledge the importance of diaspora funds for “relief efforts.” According to one Tamil leader, the diaspora will send money to Sri Lanka as long as the Tamil people there are being repressed.

Divisions within Canada’s Tamil population are not as evident as those among Croatian-Canadians. Certainly, the post-1983 Tamil arrivals are more homogeneous in terms of region of origin, conditions of departure, and opposition to the current Sinhalese-controlled government in Sri Lanka. However, not all Tamils favor the creation of a sovereign state of Eelam,65 and some are more favorable towards negotiations with the Sinhalese than are others. The President of the Tamil Eelam Society spoke openly of fragmentation in the Tamil community because, as he phrased it, some Tamils do not want to support “the struggle.”66 Certainly, though, the rhetoric espoused by Tamil leaders in Toronto is sympathetic to the LTTE, and those with other perspectives have not attracted public attention.

Some decline in diaspora support for the LTTE may be discerned in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and the heightened security climate in North America. Even prior to that, however, one could say that visible support for the Tigers was receding as evidenced by the drop in attendance at Tamil events since the proposal of a peace plan by the Kumaratunge government in 1995, the arrest of Suresh, the retreat of the LTTE from its Jaffna stronghold in December 1995, and the designation of the LTTE as a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997. Nonetheless, field research indicates that support for the Tigers remains high, in part because of a lack of alternative pro-Tamil organizations and in part owing to the low costs of being a Tiger supporter in Canada, in contrast to the possibility of torture or death at the hands of the army for supporting them in Sri Lanka.

  1   2   3

The database is protected by copyright © 2017
send message

    Main page