Roots Of Canadian Tamils’ Power – Analysis


Due to their large number and the space given to human rights in Canada, the Canadian Tamils have been able get Ottawa to sanction two former Sri Lankan Presidents for alleged war crimes. 

The recent Canadian sanctions against two former Sri Lankan Presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa and two security forces personnel for “gross and systematic human rights violations” shows the clout Tamils of Sri Lankan origin have in Canada.   

The Canadian Tamils’ power stems from two factors: (1) their large number. They are said to be the single largest group in the global Lankan Tamil Diaspora (2) The space given to human rights and to the rights of the minorities in Canada’s political culture. 

Given Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s advocacy of human rights, the targeted sanctioning in Sri Lanka’s case did not come as a surprise. However, there were also domestic political reasons for the sanctioning. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry described these as “domestic compulsions”.

The Trudeau government has to please the Tamil lobby in his country. Tamils are in sizeable numbers in Toronto. Besides their numbers, which has great political weight, the Tamils have been extremely and consistently active in lobbying for the liberation of their kinsfolk back home in Sri Lanka.

A paper written by Queen’s University scholar Amarnath Amarasingam for the International Center for Ethnic Studies in 2013 (A History of Tamil Diaspora Politics in Canada: Organisational Dynamics and Negotiated Order, 1978-2013) describes the political development of the Canadian Tamil Diaspora in the context of the progressive intensification of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.  

It was in 1978 that the Tamil Eelam Society of Canada (TESOC) was formed following the anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka in 1977. TESOC supported the 1976 Vaddukoddai Resolution of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) which called for separation of the Tamil areas from Sri Lanka. TESOC developed a strong relationship with the Canadian government, Amarasingam says  

In 1983, a parallel organization called Society for the Aid of Ceylon Minorities (SACEM), was formed to include the Tamil-speaking Muslims living in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka. But not everybody liked the SACEM’s inclusiveness. And not everybody supported separatism. There was tension between SACEM and TESOC. 

SACEM focused on health, youth education, and the integration of  Tamils with the Canadian mainstream. The Canadian Tamil Chamber of Commerce (CTCC) was set up by SACEM. According to Amarasingam, in the 2000s, SACEM rarely engaged in politics or political lobbying. In 2008, SACEM became Society for the Aid of Community Empowerment.

A third organization, created in 1986, was the World Tamil Movement (WTM). It was generally seen as the Canadian arm of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Throughout the 1990s, the various Tamil organizations held demonstrations to highlight their community’s struggle in Sri Lanka. 

In the late-1980s the Tamil Resource Centre (TRC), a small leftist group, made up largely of former militants, was formed. It was for human rights in general and therefore condemned transgressions by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan State. Its even-handed stance led to the torching of its office and library by the extremists. 

In 1992 an umbrella organization called Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils (FACT) was formed for effective functioning and liaison with the Canadian authorities and other organizations. But the pro-LTTE WTM dominated the organization. Therefore, both FACT and WTM were being watched by the Canadian authorities.  

In April 2007, police raided the offices of WTM and took away incriminating material including manuals on missile guidance systems, books encouraging suicide bombings and paperwork they claimed was evidence of terrorist fundraising, Amarasingam says. The WTM was declared a terrorist organization and banned in June 2008. In 1997, itself, the US State Department had designated WTM and FACT. 

The Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) was created in 2000. After a lackluster start, CTC experienced a kind of “rebirth” in 2005, advocating the cause of the Tamil community in Canada, Amarasingam says. Its annual Walk-a-Thon has been successful in raising large sums of money for different charities. But it was still seen as an LTTE front.

The Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre (CanTYD) was created to stem the tide of gang violence in Toronto’s Tamil community in the late 1990s, which had claimed the lives of dozens of Tamil youth. 

During the 2002 peace process, many Tamil youth from around the world travelled to the Wanni and met the leadership of the LTTE over there. Inspired by the LTTE they returned to their respective countries determined to mobilize the youth for liberation. The Tamil Youth Organization (TYO) of Canada was formed in 2003 and agitations were launched. 

After the end of the war in May 2009, some groups were calling for reconciliation while others wanted to continue the struggle for self- determination through nonviolent means as the armed struggle had failed with the death of LTTE Supremo Prabhakaran and the dismantling of the LTTE. 

Sri Lankans Without Borders (SLWB) was among the new organizations formed. In July 2011 it was awarded over $250,000 by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) to support its mandate to promote dialogue, reconciliation, and peace in the Diaspora community in Canada. 

“SLWB, however, has been roundly criticized by many members of the Tamil diaspora for using the language of reconciliation to gloss over serious human rights violations (in Sri Lanka). The organization was branded as naïve for placing reconciliation before the need for justice and accountability, Amarasingam notes.

On the other side of the divide was the National Council of Canadian Tamils (NCCT), which arose in 2010 with the express purpose of fighting for self-determination.  But many individuals interviewed in Toronto by Amarasingam noted that since a select few of the early organizers of the NCCT had been members of WTM, the NCCT was only a rebranding of the WTM that has been listed as a terrorist organization in Canada.

The NCCT and TYO organized an Eelam Tamil Youth conference on 26 February 2012 at Toronto City Hall, where they pledged to continue the struggle for the Tamils’ sovereignty. Student activists who attended the conference reaffirmed the principles enshrined in the Vaddukkodai Declaration of 1976.

Amarasingam recalls that the “Global Tamil Youth League (GTYL), a coalition of TYOs from various countries, adopted a resolution at their  meeting that called for the establishment of an independent, international mechanism to ensure truth, accountability, and justice in Sri Lanka. They also pledged to work towards a political solution that recognized the uncompromising, fundamental principles of the Tamil freedom struggle. 

Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam

Following the defeat of the LTTE, the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) was set up by senior leaders of the LTTE, and elections were held. Pon Balarajan from Toronto was made the Speaker for the first Assembly of the TGTE. Among the newly-appointed Senators was Ramsey Clark, US Attorney General from 1967 to 1969. In 2011, due to internal bickering, a dissident groups calling itself TGTE-Democrats (TGTE-D) had come up.

However, on 19 May 2013, the TGTE unveiled its Tamil Eelam Freedom Charter, with which it sought to take the separatist Vaddukoddai Resolution forward.

Despite the multiplicity of groups and legal challenges posed by the Canadian government, which does not tolerate violence and terrorism, the Canadian Tamils have shown an underlying unity as far as ideology and the goals go. And their non-violent struggle for justice and freedom back home for their brethren in Sri Lanka has gone on unfettered due to the Canadian State’s overall support for human rights.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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