from the Opinion columns of The Ottawa Citizen
by Mohan Samarasinghe
A ship arrived in B.C. and tempers flared around dinner tables in suburban Ottawa.
Spurred by radio talk show hosts, many Canadians shed their benevolent skins and began bellowing that the 492 Tamil men, women and children who arrived on the smuggler-operated ship MV Sun Sea should be sent packing, back to sea.
Naturally, at the end of a global recession, Canadians worry that boatloads of refugees will take away from them valuable jobs, healthcare and even some of their pension money. Forgotten is that Canada is a country that has always accepted genuine refugees from around the world and is usually held in high regard for its handling of migrants.
A lesser visible dynamic of the Sun Sea saga is the role played by the immigrant communities, namely, Sri Lankan Canadians. Looking at the rhetoric that has evolved thus far,
it is almost as if there are no Sri Lankan Canadians; rather the community has been split in two. Now there are Tamil Canadians and Sinhalese Canadians, the latter being from the majority community in Sri Lanka, whose government crushed the rebellion that was spearheaded by the Tamil Tigers, recognized around the world as a terrorist organization, but revered by most Tamils as saviors.
Blood is thicker than water. The agony of old world conflicts are vividly alive for those who left the conflict behind and settled in the peaceful and comfortable Occident. When a ship carrying Tamil refugee claimants arrives in Canada, the people of this divided community scream two different tunes.
For the Tamil Canadians, these are their brethren, following the path of fellow Tamils who fled an oppressive majority in Sri Lanka and seeking to join their more fortunate relatives for a future of peace and prosperity. They feel Canada should exercise utmost compassion towards them irrespective of the method of their unceremonious arrival.
For the Sinhalese Canadians, this is the work of Tamil Tigers, or whatever is left of the rebel movement. They feel that the boat is tainted with the blood of terrorists, who wreaked havoc in their homeland for nearly 30 years. They feel the safety of Canadians and Canada's own security would be compromised if the claimants are allowed to roam free in Canada. They applaud the wider Canadian view that accepting these refugees will essentially erode the integrity of Canada's immigration system and that boatloads of other refugees would have already left ports in Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere and are headed straight for the Great White North.
But sadly, the humanitarian aspect of this drama and Canada's own historic benevolence towards the world's less-fortunate folk seem to be lost on the latter group. Old wounds seem to have reappeared, as they unwittingly kick the ladder that helped many of them to get up here themselves. One would think that as these are Sri Lankans on the ship, there would be concern by Sri Lankan Canadians for their safety and what lay ahead for them. But there are few Sri Lankan Canadians when it comes to such issues; there are only Tamil Canadians and Sinhalese Canadians.
I don't mean to preach, but such incidents show us at our best and at our worst. As a Sri Lankan Canadian of Sinhalese origin, I say this hasn't been one of our best moments. I am disturbed when we urge Canadian authorities to shut the doors on a group of people, with whom we may have a beef from the past.
Refugees who knock on our door deserve a glass of water and a hearing. Canada has always done a darn good job of that. I have no doubt she will do so again. If only we let her.
Mohan Samarasinghe immigrated from Sri Lanka in 2005 and works as the legislative assistant to Calgary East MP Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs. [courtesy: The Ottawa Citizen]