The Tamil Problem: Tip of an Iceberg?

June 10, 2009

Doug ThomasLast month the offensive of the Sri Lankan army on the Tamil Tiger rebel army territory prompted Canadian Tamils to stage several large, disruptive demonstrations demanding action by the Canadian government to protest the Sri Lankan army actions.

The Canadian Tamil community developed shortly after the 1972 establishment of a Tamil (Hindu) territory demanding independence from Sri Lanka (Buddhist). The rebel army quickly took to terrorist tactics. As of last month, the Tamil Tigers have been defeated; their key leaders are dead.

While many similar Canadian groups hold demonstrations the Tamil demonstrations were fundamentally flawed in at least two ways and demonstrated a serious problem with such support of foreign causes.

The first flaw was the choice of targets for the primary demonstrations. Perhaps because of the large Toronto Tamil population, the organizers targeted a major highway in Toronto and the Ontario Legislative Assembly. The former target was a big public relations error. One Canadian survival rule, right up there with don’t tease the Grizzly Bears, is don’t interfere with a Torontonian’s right to commute.

The latter target simply didn’t make any sense. Foreign affairs are the federal government’s domain. The Ontario Legislative Assembly looks after provincial affairs only. While there were some demonstrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, they paled in size and media attention to those in Toronto.

The second flaw was the presence of many Tamil Tiger flags. The Canadian government declared the Tigers to be a terrorist organization some time ago. No Canadian government or opposition leader would come out to support a demonstration under that banner. The suspicion arose that the demonstrations were actually Tiger organized.

In a belated effort to blunt these suspicions, the demonstrators started to include Canadian flags in the mix. Bad move. Now they were trying to associate Canada’s national symbol with that of a terrorist group.

The underlying problem for Canadians predates these recent Tamil activities. How do we keep immigrants from bringing their fights to Canadian soil? From Canada’s beginnings, violent foreign organizations have received support from landed immigrants or even Canadian citizens from countries embroiled in religious conflict.

The line between legitimate support for relatives in the "old country" and even political interests in those countries and support of terrorist organizations is often fuzzy. In many cases the supporters may not even realize that their donations are being funneled into these terrorist groups.

Perhaps, our immigration laws should include background checks on people’s political histories. Surely we can devise a policy that would not discriminate on the basis of other aspects of their lives while identifying those who wish to use Canada as a base for terrorist operations in their former countries. Is a person who seeks to overthrow his country’s legitimate government automatically a refugee?

As Canadian humanists, we need to balance humanitarian concerns with our own security. The Tamil demonstrations, as annoying as they were, may just be the tip of an iceberg that Canada has to deal with and soon.

Doug Thomas is an English teacher and novelist, an agnostic member of SOFREE (Society of Ontario Freethinkers), and an active member of the Humanist Association of Canada. He is also Managing Editor of Canadian Freethinker.