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Tamils and Toronto

Rocco Rossi and Sarah Thomson supporters protesting Rob Ford’s recent comments about immigration last week. Photo by Harry Choi/Torontoist.

It’s no surprise that mayoral candidate Rob Ford’s opponents have seized on his recent comments about immigration as proof he is unfit to become the next mayor of our very diverse city. Nor is it surprising, despite our multi-ethnic claim to fame, that many in Toronto and across the GTA agree with Ford’s declaration that “enough is enough” when it comes to reaching out to refugees. After all, Ford offered his comments in the context of the recent arrival of a ship of nearly five hundred Tamil migrants in British Columbia.
Many Torontonians are still fuming from weeks of protests last year by thousands of members of the Tamil community that obstructed downtown thoroughfares, including an infamous five-hour blockade of the Gardiner Expressway. Few among the inconvenienced understood the reasons behind the sustained protests, and even fewer could fathom any legitimate excuse. If the anti-immigrant tone of this controversy seems more bellicose than usual for Toronto the Diverse, it is because Tamils in Toronto continue to be much more of a “them” than an “us.”

We spoke with Manjula Selvarajah, a Tamil volunteer with the Canadian Tamil Congress, about perceptions and realities about the Tamil community in Toronto. She told us of the community’s volunteer and community work in partnership with the likes of the Canadian Cancer Society, SickKids Foundation, Youthlink, Pride Toronto, and Canadian Blood Services. This last partnership is especially noteworthy, as Tamils in central Ontario have donated more blood than any other CBS partner in the region since 2008.
But Selvarajah is well aware that controversies about Tamils in Toronto and beyond overshadow these good news stories in the media: “The moments when [Tamils] hit the headlines are extremely dramatic.” She believes that Torontonians would feel greater affinity with the Tamil community if they “took the time to understand what Tamils are facing in Sri Lanka, and what Tamils have done in Canada….The generation that escaped conflict embraced this country,” she says, and sacrificed to educate their children, many of whom are now entrepreneurs, professionals, and community leaders.
How does all of this measure up to Ford’s analysis that more immigrants will only strain an already overburdened city? “I was extremely disappointed to hear Mr. Ford’s comments,” says Selvarajah. “It’s so easy for people to come up with rhetoric—we don’t want to be taken down a path of xenophobia.”
For Neethan Shan, a candidate for city council in Ward 42 (Scarborough–Rouge River), stereotypes about the negative impact of immigration are “very disheartening.” Shan and his older sister entered Canada as Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka fifteen years ago. After graduating from East York Collegiate, Shan worked as a youth worker and school teacher before making a successful run for the Markham school board in 2006.
Echoing Selvarajah’s sentiments about established generations of Tamils who supported newcomer Tamils in Canada, Shan relates that “our parents, whose education was disrupted during the war, always wanted opportunities for their children. I almost lost my life, had relatives pass away. Knowing that makes me want to work not just for myself or my family, but for the larger community.”
Although immigration officials accepted 91% of Sri Lankan refugee applicants in 2009, the backlash against recent arrivals is fueled by accusations they are illegitimate claimants who do not even deserve to be processed. Shan emphasizes a distinction between “immigrants who have chosen to come to Canada, and refugees who risk everything to come to Canada because of a refugee situation. Canada accepts a lot of refugees each year—to use this particular situation [in B.C.] for political gain is an insult to all immigrants and refugees who have made this country stronger.”
Ford likely disagrees, and has since 2003, when he proposed a freeze on allowing more refugees into Toronto. But he earns full marks for rhetorical consistency, considering his comments about the Tamil protest that blocked the Gardiner last year: “Enough is enough…I know if I brought my kid on the Gardiner, I’d be arrested and Children’s Aid would take my kid.” His subtle suggestion that Tamil protesters avoided arrest and punishment because they are Tamil is a reference to the us/them dynamic that thrives even in a city that has “welcomed” more Tamil immigrants and refugees than any place outside of south Asia.
This same dynamic compels Manjula to reflect that Tamils “have to be proactive in talking about the success in our community and engage on matters that affect all Canadians, be it the increasing price of milk or questions about our national identity.” Selvarajah notes that advocacy groups from Latin American, Arab, and Sikh communities have contacted CTC to express concern and offer support, noting that the discussion about welcoming Tamils could, in her words, “be about any country.” Together they may find strength in numbers—assuming that axiom still applies, of course.


  • accozzaglia

    For lack of a more graceful way to put this, Rob Ford espouses a kind of Canadian exceptionalism vis-à-vis the exceptionalism of an American flavour. In short, those who are already established legally in Canada — in Toronto, specifically — are exceptional to those people who are new to arrive to our city. Thus, a false sense of superiority arises.
    Where Ford especially fails in his reasoning is that slamming the door to all refugees means any legitimate refugee case from any geography is also implicated — effecting the grace of a shotgun blast while he falsely claims to use bullets at only “the Tamil refugees.” What he fails to acknowledge — amongst obviously many other things — is that Torontonian new arrivals on successful refugee claims also come in the “non-visible minority” variety too — or perhaps their parents.
    The shotgun blast is a populist tactic that rears itself generation after generation in this city and elsewhere — lest we ignore “no dogs or Jews allowed on the Beach” signs in 1940, the 1918 Danforth anti-Greek riot, the 1933 Christie Pits anti-Jew mêlée, the 1950s and 1960s ghettoization of Portuguese and Italian immigrants arriving by aeroplane, the 1981 gay Bathhouse raid, resistance to Sikh and Hindu Indians, resistance nationwide to pre-1997 Hong Kong hand-over immigrants, and on and on. If you step back and consider these targeted populations, it suddenly sounds like a description of our city’s beloved and most-desired neighbourhoods. How soon and readily we as a city ignore our own histories. It’s conveniently cozier that way.
    Change towards unknown quantities may seem scary, but it is a fear founded only on gut reaction, not on thoughtful reasoning. Think, people: using Ford’s exceptionalism approach is nothing more than the well-veiled embrace of racism. Get over it, people: change is unstoppable. Before you know it, your adored Rob Ford will be onto the next generation of arrivals and your short memories will have conveniently forgotten the Tamil arrivals as the big bad unknown that was made out to be a big, bad wolf but instead turned out to be an revered lamb.
    Thanks for this, Desmond.

  • http://undefined E.D.

    I think what’s more disturbing is the fact that many people will feel vindicated by Ford’s comments, including members of my family. This kind of thinly veiled racism is really common in Canada and it’s nearly impossible to reason with. Refugees and immigrants are often scapegoated for wider socioeconomic problems – such as job shortages and a lack of community resources. It’s a double edged sword because it’s justifying a deep-rooted and insidiously complex form of racism and it’s distracting from the real factors that are affecting employment rates and other economic issues.
    How do you fight that? Pointing the finger at Ford isn’t going to do it. He’s already won their frustrated, misguided hearts.

  • http://undefined rich1299

    In some ways I hope Ford does win the mayoral race since he’d be a disaster as mayor and being a disaster will hopefully marginalize the sort of xenophobia he’s a champion of. I think the city could survive a term of Ford as mayor since he has only one vote on council, I can’t see him getting much accomplished though since he would have to work with other councilors to build support for his plans and he’s already alienated himself from most of the councilors who will be likely elected again as incumbents.
    With Lastman very little was done to improve this city, it was one way for him to avoid controversies, but I got the impression Lastman truly cared about all of the city and did his best to be mayor for all the citizens of Toronto, that’s something I just don’t see Ford doing at all, he’d surely never participate in a Pride parade like Lastman who genuinely enjoyed himself while doing it. Ford most likely will lead the campaign to deny city funding for Pride and Caribanna in spite of how much money the city could make from their investments in those two events, unlike Lastman who realized that these are worthy investments not only for their economic benefits but also for their social, tourist and city city promotion benefits too.
    I also imagine we’ll be seeing long protracted city strikes with Ford as mayor since him and his backers would be doing the negotiating. He likes tough anti-union talk, we’ll see how much the citizens of this city like long drawn out strikes because of Ford’s anti-union attitude. Some people complain that Miller gave in to the unions especially during last year’s strike, however the union folks surely disagree since they rescinded his invitation to last year’s labour day parade. Maybe we’ll get lucky and no contracts will be up for renewal during hiFord’s term if he wins. Mind you I’m still hopeful that once all the platforms are out for people to compare, which I’m told will happen after labour day, that Ford’s support will evaporate especially when people realize hoe many city services will have to be cut to make up for his promise of $1 billion in tax cuts from doing away with the two new taxes brought in under Miller. Ford is good at dealing with small change but completely loses it when it comes to the truly large numbers of our city’s budget.