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Tamil community reflects on change in New Year

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In many ways, it’s a community that is still new. As their New Year arrived last Thursday, representatives of Scarborough’s Tamils - 70,000 of them, counting just those who speak Tamil as a first language at home - want to talk about their many successes.

Young people at universities. Thousands of businesses and professionals. Institutions taking shape.

They would like to hear less about their community’s so-called gang problem or what a human rights group last month alleged were “clear patterns of intimidation and extortion” by local fundraisers for Tamil Tigers rebels in Sri Lanka.

For members of the Canadian Tamil Congress, however, talking about all these things is part of moving to the mainstream in Canada - exactly where they say the country’s 250,000 Tamils are headed.

Most came here as refugees after anti-Tamil riots in 1983 made them feel it wasn’t safe to stay in Sri Lanka. “We came with a suitcase,” is how Scarborough resident Ted Antony put it this week.

But in the 1980s, the choice for Tamils fleeing the former British colony was London, not Toronto.

“Really, if you’re talking numbers-wise, our community is only a decade old,” community activist Parthi Kandavel said last week around a table with other CTC members in an Ellesmere Road real estate office where the group shares space.

Organizations such as the Tamil Eelam Society formed to take care of immigrants’ needs and speak for the community. “They saw the gap. They didn’t wait for the government to fill it,” said Neethan Shan of Markham.

Tamil-Canadians are looking to fill the next gap, which is becoming a voice in government, said Shan, among several Toronto-area Tamils running for municipal office this fall.

Though many came to Canada with a distrust of politicians learned at home, the community’s thinking is changing; its members are ready for the mainstream, joining school councils and hospital boards, Shan said.

“We’ve learned the art of politics, Canadian politics. This year, we’re confident there will be at least one Tamil representative.”

The community is also working with Toronto police to clear up misconceptions and hopes to see young Tamils go into policing, added Shan, who said police have lacked information about Tamils. That “my last name is my dad’s first name,” for example, could be confusing when identification from both are checked.

The issue of violence and gangs among Tamils here is “a Canadian-born problem” that stems from settlement difficulties and lack of support. Every immigrant community goes through such stages and it’s a mistake to say “this is because of where they are coming from,” said Shan, arguing groups of Tamil youth hanging around are called gangs by the media and such stories actually fuel crime by conferring them status.

“These are a bunch of boys trying to find recognition,” he said.

“The amount of incidents is a fraction of what it used to be” during the late 1990s, Kandavel added.

The Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre, with its annual Awards of Excellence for young Tamil-Canadian role models, also helps to combat stereotypes of Tamil youth.

There are many, however, who remain concerned about the well being of Tamils who may still carry emotional scars from the conflict in their homeland.

In 1999, a Scarborough man named Jeyabalan Balasingam jumped on the tracks in Victoria Park Station with his three-year-old son Sajanthan in his arms and both died. The Family Service Association of Toronto’s advisory council was concerned about the tragic incident and some others.

With the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, it launched the Tamil Mental Health Project in 2001, a study with 1,600 interviews, so that the community could ask governments for more culturally sensitive programs. (The study was completed last year but remains unreleased due to lack of funds.)

“We know the level of trauma in the community,” said longtime FSA worker Naga Ramalingam, suggesting the realities of getting a job, finding affordable housing and adjusting to life in Canada can compound problems Tamil-Canadians already have. “People here always think about relatives back home. That also re-traumatizes you,” he said.

Last month, when community leaders thought they had finally banished the “bad headlines” of the previous decade, the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report suggesting Tamil-Canadians live in fear of local supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Widely reported in the media, the report was based on around two dozen interviews, “on innuendoes, (from) nameless, faceless people,” charged David Poopalapillai, the official CTC spokesperson.

“We didn’t witness any extortion. That report portrayed the Tamil community as living in dark ages.”

HRW “were taken for a ride,” said Poopalapillai by people intent on tilting the balance at the current peace talks in Sri Lanka in favour of the Sri Lankan government. “There are government agents working all over the world.”

Shan said non-Tamil co-workers and schoolmates in Scarborough have been asking Tamil friends if they are indeed living in fear. “I got asked, a lot of people are asking,” he said. “This has put us backward. In the name of human rights, this report is a threat to our human rights in Canada.”

The community, with more than 20 newspapers and three television stations, is well informed and well connected, so HRW’s recommendation there should be a campaign to make Tamil-Canadians aware of their rights is “an insult,” Shan argued.

“We believe in open communication. Things we didn’t get in Sri Lanka we are celebrating.”

Though the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 devastated the Tamil community, it also brought more interaction with fellow Canadians and made the community stronger, Shan said. “A lot of people who got involved in the community because of the tsunami are still sticking together.”

Tamils are particularly grateful Canadians donated about $400 million for relief.

“It was so overwhelming how Canada showed its compassionate face,” said Poopalapillai. But he and others say they’re upset because the Sri Lankan government has so far prevented money from reaching the worst-hit areas on the island’s Tamil north and east coasts. “We all donated money and nobody knows what happened to it.”

Growing up feeling they are no different from other Canadians, the younger generation of Tamils expects equal treatment here, said Shanathela Easwarakumar, a student at University of Toronto in Scarborough.

This summer, the university will offer its courses on the Tamil diaspora and the Tamil language, the beginnings of a Tamil studies program for which Easwarakumar is on the board of directors. “I have full faith that it will rise to the highest of expectations.”

Organizations are also working on plans for a home for the aged and a Tamil community centre. “We need a central location where the community can celebrate its contribution to the country,” Shan said.

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