More than 200,000 Tamils live in Canada, and like many other South Asian communities, most Tamils in Canada live in urban centres including Toronto and Montreal. The bulk of Tamil communities live in Toronto, and there are higher concentrations in some neighbourhoods in Scarborough. The “official” data from Statistics Canada indicates that the numbers are lower – and the reasons for this, like some other South Asian communities, is the complications of self-identification and limited categories for doing so. The political context of Tamil communities in Canada where the federal government has marked the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a terrorist group cannot be discounted when considering why the numbers of Statistics Canada do not match those of some academic researchers or community members themselves.
Like some other South Asian communities, Tamils in Canada began arriving from the 1960s onwards. A large number migrated in 1983 after riots and violence in Sri Lanka – at that time, the federal government permitted Tamils to migrate under humanitarian and compassionate grounds. From the 1980s through to today, a significant number of Tamils who have migrated has arrived as asylum seekers, fleeing violence in Sri Lanka. Some of the publicizes cases of migrants arriving in boats off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have been Tamil refugees – and time after time, the public reaction has been overwhelmingly negative. The official response from federal immigration authorities has shifted from a position of accepting refugees under humanitarian grounds, to automatically detaining them in a climate of pushing for penalizing of migrants who arrive by boat.
In 2009, in response to and to protest the violent conflict in Sri Lanka, Tamil communities in urban centres in Canada – more heavily in Toronto – took up public space in astounding numbers. In January 2009, a human chain was formed across Bloor Street, down Front Street and up University Avenue. Thousands of individuals participated in this human chain. Further large public protests took place in Toronto in February and April. Finally in May 2009, thousands and thousands of Tamils and their allies march in Toronto, and for the first time in activist history, march on the Gardiner Expressway. Individuals, families, allies, seniors, the crowd is large and diverse. Some public opinion of the march, including some media coverage is quite negative, yet community members continue to publicly express their frustration and concern over bloodshed in Sri Lanka. In November 2009 the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) brought together various academics and activists for “Tamil Canada in the Media Eye: Protests Under Multiculturalism” where the media portrayal of the Tamil-Canadian protests were discussed at length. Following the panel presentation and engagement, SAVAC introduced their workshop series focused on Tamil diaspora demonstrations. The workshop series looked at topic such as “subjectivity in the experience of conflict,” “the body as it relates to diasporic identities,” “aural landscape of the demonstrations” and more.
Arts as Commentary
Many Tamil communities members in Canada are engaged in arts practice. For example:
- In her widely watched short documentary, Shadeism, Nayani Thiyagarah showcase one example of critical commentary through film. Shadeism talks about the over-valuing of lighter skin within communities of colour, and Thiyagarajah talks through her personal story within her own Tamil family.
Since 2006, the Tamil Studies Conference has taken place engaging scholars, writers, activists and artists from around the world. Using an interdisciplinary approach, and highlighting Toronto as an “important centre for Tamil studies in North America,” the conference is unique in its long-standing and critical tradition. The theme for 2012 was “Traces of the Past,” while previous themes have been “Parimaanam: Images, Embodiments and Contestations,” (2011), and “Being Human; Being Tamil: Personhood, Agency and Identity” (2008).
- English, Kathy, “The truth about Tamil statistics,” The Toronto Star, April 9, 2009. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/columnists/article/613815--the-truth-about-tamil-statistics