In the 1980s and 1990s, before the internet age, members of Toronto’s Tamil community would head down to the Toronto Central Library on the weekend to peruse the latest editions of newspapers dispatched from Sri Lanka.
It’s how they kept up with the clashes and casualties in the conflicts between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government.
Some community groups would reprint news from the island and distribute the information by fax to local Tamils. There were those who would record stories on outgoing answering machine messages so others could dial in and catch up.
Whether it was news of a family member who had fought and fallen victim to gunfire or a former neighbour, co-worker or classmate who had been injured, there always seemed to be some connection.
Ram Selvarajah’s grandfather, uncles and numerous relatives were killed during the Sri Lankan civil war, which began with the anti-Tamil riots in 1983 and took tens of thousands of lives before the ultimate defeat of the Tigers in May 2009.
“My whole family was very pro-LTTE. I was one of the first people to hang a LTTE flag in my house back when I first bought my house in 1997. We identified with them because people who were joining the LTTE were known to us,” says Selvarajah, 51, whose family came here in 1988 via Nigeria.
“One of my friends was going to school when he saw the army forcing his older brother to lick” — yes, lick — “a poster off the wall because the LTTE had placed posters overnight. He goes, ‘How could I not join the LTTE after that?’ That’s the sort of dilemma people were put into.”
To Selvarajah and many in the Tamil diaspora, members of the LTTE — the largest separatist group fighting the Sri Lankan government — were freedom fighters taking on an oppressive regime to win an independent state to be called Tamil Eelam in the north and east of the island.
But to foreign governments, including Canada, the Tigers, founded in 1976, were terrorists who engaged in suicide bombings, attacks on civilians and assassinations of high-level politicians, successfully killing former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
“The Tamil Tigers are among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world. For more than three decades, the group has launched a campaign of violence and bloodshed in Sri Lanka,” according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Its ruthless tactics have inspired terrorist networks worldwide.”
In 2006, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government listed the LTTE as a terrorist organization within three months of taking office. The designation has been reviewed and confirmed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, and continues today.
Yet questions persist about whether the designation was ever appropriate and whether its continued use — 13 years after the Tamils were officially defeated — is addressing valid concerns that the group might somehow reconstitute itself or serving only to stigmatize a community.
Tamil Canadians say they have been dogged and demonized by the terrorist label, even as strides are made to recognize what has been, again not without controversy, described as the genocide of their people.
Canadian politicians are keen to court the votes of 140,000-plus Canadians who identify Tamil as their mother tongue.
Patrick Brown, who is in a race for the federal Conservative leadership as he and other contenders seek to sign up new party members, has raised the issue of the terrorist label from the Tigers in its most high-profile way so far. Brown has promised to “lift the ban,” reigniting that hope for the community.
“I have been working on this issue since 2009. Canada and the global community took the wrong side in the Tamil genocide,” Brown said in a statement about his commitment, repeating a criticism he made in a leaked video that the Sri Lankan government “has committed heinous war crimes.”
“The war has been over for 13 years. Too many Tamil Canadians continue to be stigmatized due to this ban.”
Last week, Canada’s Parliament adopted a unanimous consent motion endorsed by all political parties to recognize each May 18 as Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day.
While Selvarajah welcomes the support from Ottawa, he sees the delisting of the Tigers from the terrorist list as a real step to help the community move forward.
“The LTTE technically doesn’t exist anymore. The war ended. And it was done with. But the Tamil rights and the struggle for our rights continue. We have strongly identified with the LTTE because they were fighting the war on our behalf. Does delisting the LTTE mean suddenly we’re going to start fundraising for arms and establish that war again? No,” said Selvarajah.
“It’s just an acknowledgment that these people — these young men and women, our relatives — were … fighting for the rights of the Tamil people because nobody else came to fight for us. Nobody else came to stand by us. That’s why the delisting is important to us.”
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino did not respond to the Star’s request for an interview or questions about the LTTE and its continuing designation as a terrorist group or the potential security threats posed by the now defunct organization.
Sri Lanka was under the control of Portugal, the Netherlands and Great Britain from the 16th century until 1948. The relationship had always been tense between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, who make up three-quarters of the population, and the mostly Hindu Tamils, who account for 12 per cent.
It got worse after the then-Ceylon became independent, according to an article in the Harvard International Review, which said the Sinhalese gained power and gradually passed laws “effectively disenfranchising their Tamil counterparts.”
Queen’s University professor Amarnath Amarasingam, who specializes in terrorism, radicalization and extremism, said there was general support in the West for the LTTE in the 1980s, in response to policies hostile to Tamils that were put into place by the Sri Lankan government.
But the tone shifted after a series of events, including the Tigers’ expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province in 1990, the assassinations of Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, as well as the 1998 bombing of the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth, an attack that killed and injured many civilians.
Amarasingam said that after 9/11, then U.S. president George W. Bush “kind of drew a line in the sand” when it came to perceived terrorism abroad.
“A lot of this fundraising (for LTTE) became suspect as well,” said Amarasingam, author of “Pain, Pride, and Politics: Social Movement Activism and the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora in Canada” and co-editor of “Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War.”
“The main consequences are financial. Bank accounts can be frozen now. People can’t move money around as easily. People are less likely to give donations to these organizations. You can’t send weapons to them. You can’t send anything that would benefit the organization.”
A UN report estimated 40,000 civilians died just in the months leading up to the end of the conflict in 2009, which came with the death of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaranan. The report blamed both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers; the government has steadfastly denied allegations of wartime atrocities against the Tamils and insisted the remnants of the LTTE and similar groups are still active overseas, posing security risks.
(The report hasn’t materially affected Canada’s relationship with the Sri Lankan government, which has had “close and cordial” political and diplomatic links with Canada since Ottawa opened its resident mission in Colombo in 1953. Annual trade between the two countries totalled a modest $579 million in 2017, the most recent figure available.)
There are other defunct groups — jihadist and al-Qaida-linked — that also remain on Canada’s terror list. Amarasingam suspects that Ottawa is worried these groups, along with the LTTE, might start up again.
In Sri Lanka, he said, Tamils are still discriminated against and subject to continued atrocities, arbitrary arrests, torture and detention. There may be still holdouts and leftovers of the movement that are active in Canada, though he said the community’s activism has shifted to lobbying the UN against human rights violations.
“Why was the LTTE brought into Sri Lanka? Why did they come out? Why did Tamil students in 1983 take up arms to fight? So we need people to understand that perspective that it was systemic oppression that led up to the armed resistance that started in 1983 and carried on to 2009,” said Katpana Nagendra of the Tamil Rights Group, a human rights advocacy organization.
“I don’t identify as a Sri Lankan Canadian, because I feel like that country is not my country. The younger generation who were born and raised in Canada, who have never probably even been to Sri Lanka, but still identify as Tamil,” added Nagendra, whose family came to Canada in 1985 when she was five.
She said the history shaped the identity of Tamil Canadians. “They’re Canadian. They’re born and raised here. They have no connection to it, but they do because their parents are so traumatized by what has happened to them. It carries on from generation to generation.”
While the Harper government’s ban of the LTTE was a shocker, Selvarajah said the bigger affront to the community was in 2010 when Canada labelled refugees fleeing war and arriving in Vancouver shore on the MV Sun Sea and Ocean Lady as terrorists and put even mothers with children in detention. Some of the asylum-seekers were deemed inadmissible and deported.
Immigration officials have continued to ban Tamil refugee claimants and permanent-residence applicants from Canada based on alleged — and often loose — ties to the LTTE. Many are left in limbo without status, separated from their family back home, because Ottawa also considers it unsafe to return them to Sri Lanka.
“We have to have political reconciliation. We have to legitimately accept what happened and where it went wrong. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Sri Lankan government or the LTTE or anybody who was involved in the conflict. We have to be able to hear each other out and then come to how we move forward,” said Selvarajah.
While Tamils began arriving in Canada in the 1980s, the wave peaked in the 1990s and 2000s. Early settlement was challenging and many ended up working in restaurant kitchens and struggled to raise their families while sending money home to support the Tamil independence movement.
Despite what the community has accomplished through the children who grew up here and who found success in all professions, Krisna Saravanamuttu, whose parents fled anti-Tamil riots to Canada in the late 1980s, says the first generation had to fight hard to get by.
On top of stigmatizing Tamils as refugees, media also portrayed the community as a security threat, painting Tamil street-gang violence in those days as having a direct relationship with that faraway war — further fuelling the stereotypes that Tamils were terrorists, he said.
Growing up in Scarborough, according to Saravanamuttu, now 36 and an Osgoode Hall Law School graduate, Tamil youth were used to police surveillance. While a student at L’Amoreaux Collegiate Institute, he said, he once had an officer push a gun into his face as he and his friends were filming a documentary outside a mall.
As a student leader first at York University and later with the Canadian Federation of Students, he said he would be met by officials with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for something he had said.
“That’s the kind of discourse that exists around the Tamil Tiger terrorist discourse. It has implications for our political resolution in Sri Lanka. It also has negative implications for the community members here in Canada,” he said.
“So it’s the Tamil people that are criminalized because they have a certain political aspiration in their homeland, for self-determination and for national liberation.”
That stigma and impact didn’t go away for Priyanth Nallaratnam, who came to Canada with his family much later, in 2004. Born a refugee in India, his family sheltered him there from the conflicts back home until they settled in Toronto.
“I was completely ignorant when I was in India. My mom never talked about it because of the fear of the Q branch (Indian police) that’s watching us. And if we’re going to have a conversation about the war, that’s going to destroy our family. So we never had a conversation about it,” said the now 31-year-old Toronto man.
That changed when he was in Grade 11 at George Vanier Secondary School in Toronto and brought a Tamil Eelam flag to represent his heritage at the school cultural show.
“Oh my God, we got sent to the office and they were like, ‘You’re about to get suspended.’ We were told that we can’t bring in this flag because it’s terrorism,’ said Nallaratnam, who said he gets emotional whenever he reflects on that incident.
“I’m not promoting violence, but why is it that whenever I’m standing up for myself, I get called a terrorist every single time? Why are people asking for freedom getting hit again and again? And I started going to demonstrations and participating in fasts for my people.”
Kumuthini Kunaratnam, who was born in Canada, said she grew up in Toronto just as another “brown person” until around 2006 when she started getting called by peers as the “Tamil Tiger.”
“I always say I’m from Tamil Eelam. I don’t like to use the word Sri Lanka because Tamil Eelam is what we’re fighting for. I would try to educate my white friends that I’m from Tamil Eelam. But they still really didn’t understand. They would still say, you’re Sri Lankan or you’re Paki,” recalls the 34-year-old woman.
“For me, all the negative perceptions with the Tamils started when Canada banned LTTE. (That) plays a complicit role in supporting the persecution of Tamils at the hands of the Sri Lankan state. So even though LTTE ceased to exist, the ban continues to have a profound impact on the civil and political rights of Canadian Tamils.”
Today, Tamils still are subject to suspicions and extra scrutiny by the public, employers and law-enforcement authorities here, Kunaratnam said. Those running for public office would still get painted as “terrorist sympathizers” if they posted anything deemed pro-LTTE on social media.
As recently as last year, at a protest at Queen’s Park, Kunaratnam said a security officer mistook her Tamil Eelam flag as an LTTE flag — the two look almost the same, except the latter has the movement’s name on it — and she was not allowed on the property, accused of carrying a terrorist flag.
“This is actually our flag. He didn’t seem to know the difference and didn’t even take the time to listen, and then he just proceeded to escort me off the property. I was really hurt, embarrassed and angry,” said Kunaratnam.
“I was questioning myself: This is Canada. They didn’t even know the difference and didn’t want to listen and quickly labelled and judged me. That’s because the ban is still in effect in Canada.”
Phil Gurski, a retired senior strategic analyst at CSIS, who wrote the first al Qaeda entry on the list back in 2001, said to designate an organization as a terrorist group, officials have to demonstrate the definition of terrorism under the criminal code — a serious act of violence for political, ideological or religious reasons — is met. It must also be shown that the group is capable of and has carried out such acts.
Gurski said the listing process should not be politicized and if there’s evidence that the remnants of LTTE still pose risks to Canada’s national security, then the Tigers should be kept on the list.
“The nature of terrorism is to use violence to achieve political, ideological or religious goals. And if that goal hasn’t been achieved … it’s highly possible that you might see a group resurrect itself again,” said Gurski, now president and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting after a 32-year career in intelligence.
“You and I may have this conversation 10 years from now where there’s a resurgence of violence in Sri Lanka because the Tamils haven’t got to achieve what they think is their rights.”
While Tamil Canadians have traditionally voted for the Liberals, the community has become more sophisticated and politically savvy over the years, diversifying their allegiances to other political parties.
But those loyal to the LTTE may still find Patrick Brown’s promise appealing, said Amarasingam, the Queen’s University terrorism and security expert.
“For some members of the community, this is the single issue. The entirety of their politics is kind of about the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, not necessarily what affects their families locally,” he said. “So some of them are likely going to support people like Patrick Brown.”
Selvarajah said Tamil Canadians just need to understand how the political system works in Canada and it’s not just up to Brown to delist LTTE.
“Politicians pander and try to give you an answer you’re looking for to get your vote,” said the staunch unionist and NDP supporter. “Nothing matters unless you win an election. There’s no second prize for it.”
With a file from Tonda MacCharles
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