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Opinion: Canada is our Home, too — Photos & Reactions from the Recent Protests (Part II)

April 23, 2009

You can view part I here: Canada is our Home, Too (Part I)

You can also view an earlier video photo essay of the Toronto protests here.

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Reactions from Another Protester

By KG

Photos by Freelancer RJ

Both the Canadian media and the blogosphere are teeming with articles and comments from those who seem inclined to use Tamil Canadians as an example of the failure of Canada’s multicultural experiment.  Much of this has come in response to the protests in Ottawa and Toronto. Tamil Canadians have been accused of everything from being terrorists to thoughtlessly clogging up roadways in these two cities.  These sentiments were unequivocally articulated in Raphael Alexander’s recent comment piece in the National Post entitled “Tamils tie up Ottawa for days in support of Tiger terrorists”.

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Upon reading this piece and the comments that ensued I was absolutely shocked and embarrassed by the amount of racism expressed in them towards Tamil Canadians.

First, labeling these protesters as Tamil Tigers is an ignorant mischaracterization. The reality is that many in the Tamil Diaspora do in fact condemn some of the actions of the LTTE.  However, having endured decades of marginalization by a deeply chauvinistic and racist Sri Lankan government, they also know that without the LTTE’s resistance the Tamils of Sri Lanka have no hope of ever being anything but second-class citizens in their own country. This is why some Tamils have carried the flag bearing the Tiger insignia.  But, this does not mean that they support all of the LTTE’s actions and it certainly does not mean that they themselves are Tigers.

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Unfortunately, the voices of Tamils in Sri Lanka cannot be heard by anyone as the government has banned all foreign media from the war zone. This is why the Tamil Diaspora is relentlessly protesting around the world. We are their only voice.  If Tamil Canadians didn’t take to the street with this kind of vigour would the average Canadian ever have known that genocide was in progress in Sri Lanka?  That somewhere around 1,000 people were dying there every month and that in recent days the casualty count has risen to 1,000 people a day?

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As happened after the Rwandan genocide, the world would have simply wrung its hands in collective guilt and claimed that it hadn’t known.
It is certainly understandable that those living or working in the area of these protests feel that they have been greatly inconvenienced by them.  But please remember that we are a terrified people at the moment.  Many of us have relatives still in Sri Lanka and are trying to deal with the reality that our loved ones could die any day.  Would you do anything less than your utmost to save the people that you love? Would you consider six days or even six weeks of protesting to be too much if it might save your mother or brother or grandfather or someone else dear to you?  This is an excruciatingly painful time for many Tamil Canadians and we are at our wits end.

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I’m also amused by Mr. Alexander’s seemingly benign comment (expressed on his blog): he wonders how so many people can take off so many work days.  It’s a rather lowbrow snipe, but the suggestion by some that the protesters are unemployed welfare recipients or refugee claimants is blatantly racist. The protesters have simply placed this as a top priority and have taken time off work.  Surely protesting genocide is a good enough reason to lose some vacation time?  It is a sign of their heartfelt anguish and desperation, not an indication of their employment status.

It seems to me that many Canadians may not realize that the majority of Tamils in Canada are quite proud to be living here.  This is perhaps our own fault for not making our sentiments clear by shouting it from the rooftops, and I say this with all sincerity.  The truth is that many of us feel that coming to Canada was one of the best things that happened to us and believe that Canada is the best country in the world to live in, UN reports saying otherwise be damned.

Many of us have also learned from the example of other Canadians that we owe something to the community that nourished us.  And our community is Canada.  To this effect, many Tamils are active volunteers and donors to myriad Canadian charities and organizations. We also teach, mentor, vote and labour alongside you to better our communities.ottawa-42

I, for one, was heart-broken to hear how the city of Oshawa was suffering due to slowdowns in the auto industry, and have since become a repeated donor to a local Oshawa charity.  I also volunteer, along with many of my Sri Lankan friends, at a downtown Toronto church that serves Christmas meals to the homeless.  None of us celebrate Christmas but that’s never stopped us.  Our attention and concerns have mostly been focused on the larger Canadian community and hardly ever on Tamils in particular.

ottawa-32However, when the genocide of Tamils began a few months ago, we could not help but feel terrified, enraged and guilt-wracked.  We had escaped to a good life, a great life, in Canada, but what of those that weren’t as fortunate?  Should we turn a blind eye to their obvious suffering because they’re not our countrymen? Wouldn’t that have been the most un-Canadian reaction of all?

I’ve felt this same anguish and guilt when I first understood what had happened in places like Rwanda, Kosovo, Burma, East-Timor, to the Rohingya and on and on and on.  It isn’t only for my people that my heart bleeds, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel more deeply for them, especially given the dire circumstances they are currently in.  I suspect it’s a very human emotion.  After all, I’ve lived among them and know their faces.  Contrary to what some have suggested, feeling empathy for someone not from this country doesn’t mean I’m not a fully integrated Canadian.  Nor does protesting to save a people who have no other recourse make me any less Canadian.  However, attacking peaceful protesters with unbridled racism by calling them terrorists, welfare recipients or un-Canadian does.

Canada was once seen around the world as a great peacemaker. Tamil Canadians are aware of the powerful example set by great Canadian statesmen like Laurier, Pearson and Trudeau. It is under the belief that Canada is a nation of integrity, principle and most importantly compassion that Tamil Canadians came to the nation’s capital to urge policy makers to take the genocide in Sri Lanka seriously. We apologize for the inconvenience it may have caused, but when Rwanda happened the world claimed it hadn’t known. We want to make sure that that excuse cannot be used this time around.  Now, you know.  The whole world knows.  If Canada and the rest of the international community ignore this genocide, there won’t be any excuses this time.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chelvi Subatharan permalink
    April 23, 2009 11:42 pm

    Well done Vani Gunabalasubramaniam. You have refelcted on how many us feel. A well written article.

  2. KaNNaN permalink
    May 4, 2009 6:35 pm

    Well said. I think this article should be read by non Tamil Canadians in order to understand our feelings.

    Just a info. When you give out your links in News paper comments please your tiney url so pople can just go there easily,.Thanks

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