Tamils and Toronto
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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.