This article was first publihed on Aug 21, 2006, marking 20 years since the arrival of 155 Tamils on August 11, 1986 by boat to New Foundland
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, beaconed to Tamils in torment
by K.T. Kumaran
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand - William Butler Yeats, Irish Poet (1865 – 1939)
Tamils fleeing their homeland amidst continuing ethnic pogroms of the Sinhala State remember with certainty, the gracious manner in which Canada’s 18th Prime Minister Hon. Martin Brian Mulroney touched their lives, twenty years ago in August, 1986.
We remember him affectionately for summoning the “True-North” for the purpose of accepting the Tamils who drifted ashore in Newfoundland.
“Cold, hungry and crowded into two lifeboats, men, women and children were spotted through the fog off Newfoundland yesterday and picked up by three Canadian fishing boats. They said they had been adrift for five days, the Canadian Coast Guard reported,” Canadian newspapers said on August 12, 1986. They were rescued by North Atlantic cod fisherman Gus Dalton and his three-man crew. Dalton told the Canadian media then that the rescued thanked him profusely, saying they had been adrift for five days. The Newfoundland fishermen made a fairy tale ending possible to the ordeal of those Tamils, by giving them a hand in the deep blue waters. Dr. Robert J. Belton of University of British Columbia has recorded “Tamil refugees found drifting off the coast of Newfoundland on August 11, 1986,” as an Important moment in Canadian History in his compilation dating from 1968.
The matter quickly became entangled from concern of their point of departure, whether it was Sri Lanka/India or a port in Europe to concerns about lack of background check and to violating Canadian Immigration laws. There were many letters from readers to The Toronto Star on the issue for several weeks, if not months. There were views in support and against allowing the Tamils to stay.
Charles A Blum of Willowdale wrote, “I am absolutely furious over the Tamil situation. I am not upset at how these people came to Canada but that they find it necessary to deceive. As Canadians, we must be upset at ourselves and our government, which refuses to make entry to Canada easier, forcing people who wish to come here to resort to such nonsense.”
Mendel Green of Toronto said in his letter, “Your review of Canadian newspapers’ responses to the Tamil boat people demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the terrible situation that these people face and the hardship they suffer in Sri Lanka. Even if they were in Germany first, they remain genuine refugees. Canada’s borders must remain open to real refugees and these Tamils should be given a warm and supportive welcome by all Canadians.”
D. Mason of Unionville echoed the sentiment of the naysayer. “The Tamil spokesman who accuses Canadians of being racist if they disapprove of the entry into Canada of 155 Sri Lankans is both arrogant and provocative. If having concern for the future of Canada and a respect for its laws makes me a racist, then I am happy and proud to be one”, Mason wrote in the Toronto Star on Aug 23, 1986.
Since the refugees arrival, a public backlash grew. Even government backbenchers criticized the decision to let the Tamils in. But Prime Minister Mulroney was ready to receive the Tamils on humanitarian grounds. He said, “We don’t want people jumping to the head of the line . . . (but) if we err, we will always err on the side of justice and on the side of compassion”.
One may think that in a totally different global political climate such compassionate policy was easy to enact. The winds may have been blowing for Tamils’ to sail in a less problematic way in 1986, but that’s not to say the sea of political trans currents were all in favour. The 1980’s was a decade when North America was still coming to terms with accepting similar “boat people”. Vietnam was fading out in the discussion, but the “Mariel boat lift” was still lingering. Thousands of Cubans swam the seas and sailed on crowded boats and rafts between April 1980 and October 1980 to reach Miami during the administration of President James Earl Carter .Jr, the 39th President of the United States of America. The handling of this was the beginning of a domino effect that crumbled the Presidency of Carter at the end of his first term. The matter continued as a treacherous political issue in certain quarters throughout the decade in the 80’.
Making a decision to give a hand to the “boat people” was certainly a walk on the edges of the leader’s political career.
And Toronto Tamils are in the midst of organizing events to commemorate the historic moment to thank the Canadian public, everyone who make it possible for Tamils to call Canada their “Home”, all the political and community – social leaders and particularly to the kindness of Gus Dalton of Newfoundland, his three-man crew and Prime Minster Brian Mulroney.
Prime Minster Mulroney elegantly invokes prose from his Irish heritage when delivering oratories that inspire and galvanize the audience spirited. He embodies the Canadian history and tradition in embracing multiculturalism. At the First Ministers’ Conference on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples in April 1985 he said, “I see the aboriginal peoples making their special contribution to Canadian society as Indians, Inuit and Métis. There is no need to sever one’s roots.”
When paying tribute to President Ronald Reagan, he brought lines from Thomas d’Arcy McGee, an Irish immigrant, Canadian Journalist and a Father of the Canadian Confederation. Prime Minister Mulroney said,
“In one of his poems, McGee, thinking of his birth place, wrote poignantly:
Am I remembered in Erin?
I charge you, speak me true!
Has my name a sound – a meaning,
In the scenes my boyhood knew?”
Prime Minister Mulroney’s glowing salute to his fellow statesman and friend, 40th President of the United States Ronald Reagan was that he would be remembered well in Ireland, just like Thomas McGee.
Prime Minister Mulroney’s glowing salute to his fellow statesman and friend, 40th President of the United States Ronald Reagan was that he would be remembered well in Ireland, just like Thomas McGee.For many Tamils living in Canada today, the scenes their childhood knew are in shambles. But in their hearts they remember Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as the Canadian Leader who has beaconed new horizons for their children.
Looking back twenty years now, many Canadians will agree that Prime Minister Mulroney didn’t ‘err’ with regards to accepting Tamils. It is very remarkable today to note that the Canadian Tamil community in many ways is entrenched in the land of the Maple Leaf and is enhancing the prosperity of the Greater Toronto Area with their diverse contributions towards the society.
“I want to thank the Tamil Community for their hard work and contribution made to the prosperity of Ontario in so many different ways, such as economically, socially and culturally. I think the province is stronger and prouder and is better off in many ways, for the contributions made by the Tamil community, particularly by the entrepreneurs of this community,” Conservative Leader of the Province of Ontario John Tory stated at a community event in the spring. He spoke at the Canadian Tamil Chamber of Commerce’s 9th annual gala award ceremony at the Hilton suites in Toronto on April 1st.
The kind deed of cod fisherman Gus Dalton, his three-man crew and Prime Minister Mulroney’s landmark compassion have followed by two decades of numerous generosities and graciousness to Tamils by several political leaders, civic – social community members and the general public. It is very hard to imagine a Tamil diaspora minus Toronto, the “ largest of city Tamils’ ”, and Tamils say a big “Thank you, Canada”
Photo: Portrait of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, 1984.
Ginn/Courtesy Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney