Why Kingstonians should welcome Tamil refugees

Posted by admin on Sep 13th, 2010

The Kingston Whig Standard, Sep 13 2010

More than three weeks ago, a ship arrived off the coast of British Columbia carrying almost 500 Tamil refugees. After the ship entered Canadian waters, it was boarded by Canada Border Services Agency officers and the RCMP, after which the ship was escorted to CFB Esquimault where all of the passengers were subsequently detained and are now being held in three different detention centres, including a youth detention centre, in B.C. The centres have been told to prepare to hold the refugees for a period of three to four months. Sound like a familiar story? By now it should. Only last December did the Queen Lady arrive with 76 Tamil refugees, all of whom were detained while the CBSA attempted to prove they had connections to the Tamil Tigers, a group controversially labelled as a terrorist organization by Canada’s Conservative government. After more than a month, all the detainees had been released. The government was forced to admit that the men on board the Queen Lady had no proven connections to the Tamil Tigers.

Going even farther back, to 1914, brings up one of Canadian history’s dirtiest secrets — the Komagata Maru. The Japanese steamship arrived in British Columbia with almost 400 passengers from Punjab, India, and was greeted with a hysteria that demanded the exclusion of all Asian immigrants while Canada was simultaneously accepting hundreds of thousands of European immigrants. The ship was not allowed to dock, and after waiting four months in deplorable conditions, the ship was forced to leave the harbour and return to India. The story of the Komagata Maru is one of Canada’s many skeletons in the closet that reveal a long history of discrimination in immigration, which includes the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese Internment Camps of the Second World War.

The way the MV Sun Sea has been greeted by Canada today in 2010 echoes eerily of the early 20th century treatment of other Asian immigrants by Canada. Instead of opening arms to those escaping the violence of war, displacement and impoverishment, Canadian media outlets have been whipping up a frenzy. Most media discussion about what the situation in Sri Lanka has been like for Tamils has been silenced by one word: terrorism.

Yet there is little evidence that anyone aboard the MV Sun Sea (whose passengers include more than 100 women and children) has any connections to the Tamil Tigers. Cries of “terrorism” simply rely on stereotypes of Tamils and are designed to create a culture of fear in Canadian society.

The argument that the Tamil refugees are “illegal” and are somehow jumping the refugee queue is relying on a similar anti-refugee logic that has been fostered under Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

According to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, to which Canada is a party, there are no penalties to refugees who arrive without pre-authorization or irregularly. The idea that this is simply the beginning of a flood of Tamil refugees is also based on similar anti-refugee logic that paints a picture of thousands of black and brown refugees teeming out there in the “Third World”, just waiting to “invade” Canada, when in reality most refugees flee to neighbouring countries across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Many of the Tamils aboard the MV Sun Sea have come to Canada because of the large Tamil diaspora here and because they already have family here. The story of Tamil-Canadians desperate to find out if family members were aboard the MV Sun Sea has been ignored.

Looking back to the history of our city, many Kingstonians came to Canada as Irish refugees from the potato famines. Similarly boarding ships in desperation, many hundreds died of fever on the way or in the fever sheds that used to line the shore of Lake Ontario, where Kingston General Hospital now sits. Many more came from the United States, labelled “Loyalists”. They were also political refugees of a sort, some of whom may in today’s language have been called terrorists.

Mayor Harvey Rosen launched a new project this past February — a website designed to encourage new Canadians to make their home in our city. John Gerretsen, MPP for Kingston and the Islands, said of the project: “This website gives our community the opportunity to promote itself to newcomers and potential immigrants from around the world as a great place to live, work and invest.”

Yet what about the Tamil refugees? Are they not exactly the type of folks that the City of Kingston claims to want to welcome to our community? Where is their welcome? Why does our City Council remain silent?


While I am not necessarily suggesting that Kingston step up and offer to welcome the 490 Tamil refugees today, I am suggesting that it is contradictory and downright hypocritical for cities like Kingston (and others across our country that claim to want to welcome new Canadians) to stand silent as the federal government separates families, incarcerates refugees, and forces lengthy and expensive detention and legal processes.

What I am suggesting is that Kingston join the growing chorus of cities across Canada demanding that the Tamil refugees be allowed to stay. Kingston, it’s time to stand up and say: let them stay.

Fraser MacPherson Kingston

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