Written by Kate Longpre, Community Integration Coordinator
Janaki is a Tamil who immigrated to Canada with her husband in 1998 to escape the civil war in Sri Lanka. Janaki and her husband came to Canada as independent skilled immigrants. Janaki was trained as a lawyer in Sri Lanka and was an outspoken human rights advocate. Janaki’s husband was trained as an engineer. With promising careers, family and friends, and a love for their birth country, Janaki and her husband would never have left Sri Lanka if it wasn’t for the civil war. Janaki and her husband arrived in Yellowknife where members of their family were living. As Independent immigrants, they received no resettlement support from the government. It became apparent early on that their skills and credentials from Sri Lanka would not be recognized in Canada which made obtaining employment in their respective fields challenging. Through their resiliency, determination and hard work, Janaki retrained as a Montessori and early childhood educator and went on to complete her Masters in Early Childhood Education.
Janaki and her husband lived in Ottawa before settling in Victoria with their two children. Their family is grateful to live in a country where they are safe and their human rights are protected. Janaki regularly reminds her children that they “won a lottery ticket to be living in Canada.” It is their hope that their children will contribute to Canada for the freedom and opportunity it has provided them and will provide their children in the future. It is clear that Janaki’s children have heard this message. Janaki’s son (17), initiated the Welcomer’s Club at Claremont High School in November 2015, to support refugees, immigrants and new students integrate into the school. Claremont high school received its first refugee student this year and the Welcomer’s Club has assisted the new student to settle into the school. Furthermore, the club has organized fundraisers to support Syrian refugees and assist new immigrant students with ESL tutoring.
Janaki recognizes the challenges of starting over again in a new country. But, she believes that resettlement success can be achieved with commitment from Canadians to remain welcoming and inclusive of newcomers as well as a commitment from newcomers to persevere and contribute to their new home.
Tamil Refugee History – The local connection
Civil war erupted in Sri Lanka in the early 1980’s between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elaam (the LTTE or Tamil Tigers). “The government of Sri Lanka—under the control of an elite group of Sinhala Buddhist nationalists—had persecuted the Tamil-speaking population for decades. In response to the government’s attempts to suppress the Tamil language and culture, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, took up arms, demanding national independence. Atrocities were committed on both sides, with civilians caught in the middle” (David Gordon Koch, June 24, 2011). In early 2009, the conflict increased and the LTTE was defeated causing many Tamils to flee the country for fear of persecution.
On October 17, 2009, 76 Tamil asylum seekers arrived by boat off the coast of Vancouver Island. Ten months later, in August 2010, 492 Tamil refugee claimants arrived on the MV Sun Sea. Many people may recall that the Canadian reception of the Tamil boat people off the coast of Vancouver Island was less than warm, with the asylum seekers being detained for long periods of time by Canadian Immigration authorities while determining the validity of their refugee claims. Media attention, political and public opinion during that time focused heavily on the risks that the asylum seekers may have presented as well as the potential deterioration of the Canadian immigration system. In the end, two-thirds of the original passengers received their refugee status in Canada (On the Coast, CBC News, August 12, 2015). Eleven of the passengers were determined by Canadian courts to be members for the LTTE and not permitted to stay in Canada.
The outcome of these events remind us that a balance is required to uphold both Canada’s global responsibility to displaced and persecuted persons and to national security (Candice Malcolm, October 5, 2015). Furthermore, public perception towards refugees changes with time and political opinion. Today, Canadian society is much more accepting and supportive of refugees fleeing their homelands due to persecution. And regardless of the means of arrival to Canada, whether by plane, foot or boat, people seeking protection from human rights abuses have global rights as asylum seekers and refugee claimants (Canadian Council for Refugees, July 28, 2010). Perhaps Somali poet, Warsan Shire puts it best, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Tamil Heritage Month – Celebrated January 2017
Tamil Heritage month is recognized for the first time in Canada this January 2017, with the passing of Motion M-24 by the Canadian Parliament in October 2016. Tamil Heritage month has been designated to “recognize the contributions that Tamil-Canadians have made to Canadian society, the richness of Tamil language and culture, and the importance of educating and reflecting upon Tamil heritage for future generations” (The Minute News, October 8, 2016). January was chosen as Tamil Heritage month as it aligns with the harvest festival of Pongal which is similar to a Thanksgiving (Pongal the Harvest Festival web site, n.d.). During the festival, Tamil people celebrate and honour the earth, animals and relationships with others.
Tamils are an ethnic group from India, Sri Lanka and South Asia. Tamil people are one of the largest and oldest living ethno-linguistic cultural groups that exist today with a population of about 90 million worldwide (Tamils, n.d.). Tamils comprise 24.87% of the population in Sri Lanka, 5.91% in India, 10.83% in Mauritius, 5% in Singapore and 5.7% in Malaysia (Tamils, n.d.).
Tamil people have a strong connection to their language which unites them as a people across religions and countries and, forms the basis of their identity (Tamils, n.d.). A common saying in Tamil culture is “every place is our village and every person is our family” (Krishanth Arunasalam, September 20, 2014). Tamil poetry, specifically the Thirukkural written in 3-1 century BC, is learned from a young age and consists of ethical teachings of how one should live on the earth with respect and compassion. Tamil arts, literature and philosophy are of great pride to the Tamil people, and Tamil Heritage month is an opportunity to celebrate and share their rich cultural legacy.
According to the 2006 Canadian Census, the total Tamil population in Canada was 138,130; however, more realistic estimates would put the population between 200,000 to 300,000 (Amarnath Amarasingam, January 2, 2014; Tamils, n.d.). Toronto is home to the largest Sri Lankan Tamil population outside of Sri Lanka (Amarnath Amarasingam, January 2, 2014; Tamils, n.d.). Unlike Toronto, British Columbia, and specifically Vancouver Island, has approximately 20-30 Tamil families.