David McKinnon, Canada’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka has stated, on Canada’s National Day that “Canada would continue to support conflict prevention efforts in Sri Lanka, where it has been seen how hate speech and media can entrench communal divisions”. Meanwhile back in Canada, successive Canadian governments have failed to understand how this very “hate speech” is being entrenched in Canadian municipal discourse and even in parliamentary proceedings by militant diaspora groups. They wish to replay the old ethnic animosities of their homeland in Canada too.
This has been possible because of electorates where minority groups determine the “swing vote”. Canadian politicians usually know little about Sri Lanka, and prefer to parrot what gets them the votes even when they find out the facts. Many candidates running for office in Canada believe or assume that all Sri Lankan immigrants in Canada are Tamil ethnics. They readily accept that a “genocide” of Tamils had occurred, and that most Sri Lankan immigrants are refugees from that “genocide”. This is surely very convenient for would be refugees.
The now defunct Northern Provincial Council (NPC) of Sri Lanka led by Mr. Wigneswaran had declared in 2015 that all Sri Lankan governments since independence in 1948 had practiced “genocide” against Sri Lankan Tamils (see: Island, Feb 2015,). Sri Lankan political historians and jurists have largely ignored this, conveniently treating it as mere political rhetoric of extremists who even discourage inter-ethnic marriage and strive to create mono-ethnic communities subservient to them. But the Canadian Tamil Diaspora has taken up the drum beat of a “Tamil genocide” back in Canada.
Canada’s federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls released its final report with a verdict of “genocide”, indicting Canada’s policies since the times of Sir John A MacDonald. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accepted the findings of the report, while informally endorsing the claim of “genocide”. The leader of the opposition, Andre Sheer contends that “Genocide” isn’t the right word to describe what was done to the Indigenous people.
But was it right for what happened in Sri Lanka?
Canada is a signatory to the 1948 UN Convention on the Crime of Genocide. Following the federal inquiry report, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States wants an international panel to investigate the claim and activate justice indicting Canada.
According to the University of Wisconsin scholar William Denevan and collaborators, the population of native people in the early 16th century in North America may have been as high as 110 million. Of this, an estimated native population in Canada during Jacques Cartier’s times could have been as high as 10 million. It dwindled to record lows in the late 19th century, and recovered partially. It now stands at nearly a million, or about 1.5 million on including Métiis and Inuits as well. That is, the native population has dropped by a factor of at least 10 in five centuries, while European numbers have increased exponentially. The record lows in the Native population of the late 19th and early 20th century resulted from deliberate Colonial policies. Sir John A. MacDonald’s policy of starving First Nations to death to make room for European settlers, willful denial of health needs, residential schools, negation of treaties etc., took their toll. It was a time when a “Good Injun was a dead Injun”. More recently, during WWII, refugee Jewish ships were turned way with no qualms.
However, Canada turned a page with the quiet revolution in Quebec, and with leaders like Tommy Douglas and Lester Pearson making a difference, and Canada became a country with a conscience.
And yet, in spite of all these well-known facts, Canadian legislators have been very cautious since a proclamation of a “Genocide” when Canada is at the receiving end is not in the plan. Casting stones at others is much easier, especially if there is political capital to be made.
Three Canadian municipalities, namely Toronto, Pickering and Brampton have rushed to cast stones and declare May 18 as the “Sri Lankan Tamil Genocide commemoration day”. Furthermore, Mr. Vijay Thanigasalam (a provincial legislator) has tabled the “Bill 104: Tamil Genocide Education Week in Ontario”. Clearly, inter-ethnic battles of their homeland are being imported to Canada by militant diaspora groups who work hand in hand with Canadian legislators who know very little about Sri Lanka.
Demographics indicate a robust growth, rather than a genocide of Sri Lankan Tamils, a 12% minority. The Tamil population of 734,000 in 1946 (i.e., just before independence) increased to 2.3 million at the 2011 census, after the fall of the “Tamil Tigers” in May 2009. In addition, some 0.9 million Tamils have emigrated, with most coming to Canada. So the Tamil population has increased by a factor of 4.4., strongly exceeding the 3.5 factor of growth of the Sinhalese (the 72% majority) during the same period.
The majority of Tamil speakers live in the Sinhalese areas. According to CIA fact sheets, at most 5% of the population were under the Tigers. The RCMP and the news media in Canada (e.g., Stewart Bell, National Post), as well as in Sri Lanka (e.g., see Shamindra Ferdinando’s series entitled “War on Terror”, Island) have reported how Canadian Tamil organizations funded the Tigers who are proscribed as Terrorists in most countries even today. The columns of the veteran Tamil Journalist JBS Jayaraj claim that the Tigers killed more Tamils than attributable to state terror. This view seems to be echoed by the late Sebastian Rasalingam a writer who is believed to be a rare voice of the “depressed” castes. Even Mr. Chandrahasan, the son of the iconic Tamil leader SJV Chelvanayakam seems to have echoed similar views.
SJV Chelvanayakam founded the Ilanaki Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) in 1949 claiming a part of Ceylon as the “exclusive homeland of the Tamils.”. The idea of ethnic communities living apart – apartheid – was a respectable political philosophy in 1949. However, the majority community has never accepted the concept of an exclusive Tamil homeland. The Moors living in the Eastern province have strongly opposed the amalgamation of the East and the North to form an “Eelam”. Consequently the ITAK was never trusted by the majority community or by the Moors. The ITAK in its turn did little to win such trust, printing Eelam stamps even in the 1950s, while its chief ideologue of the times, Mr. Navaratnam, wrote a text emphasizing the irreconcilability of the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The Sinhalese were themselves concerned with preserving their Identity derived from a Sinhala-Buddhist heritage, with “political monks” behaving with scant regard to the very teachings of the Buddha. The ITAK gradually morphed into a full-blown separatist party that pledged military action in 1976 at Vaddukkoddai. As an irony of history, this was an ancient garrison-fortification town known as “Batakotte”, designated to protect the country against Chola invasions. The ITAK, having roused the militancy of its “boys”, and having failed in its attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with the state, actually found itself at the mercy of its own extremists.
The northern peninsula, cleansed of Sinhalese and Muslims by the Tigers, and with Northern Tamils a mere 5% of the population, was now pitted against the military might of the state backed by the Sinhalese and the Moors. This launched a set of armed conflicts supported by unprecedented types of terrorist action, use of suicide cadre and child soldiers, now known as the Eelam wars. They lasted for three decades, mainly because the tigers were supplied with weapons and funds from the Diaspora living in the West. The Western politicians pushed for peace negotiations but took no action to control the flow of such funding of terrorism from within their shores.
Deaths during the Eelam wars struck all Lankan ethnic groups equally hard. The claim of “genocide” focusing only on Tamil deaths of a claimed 40,000 during the last days of the Eelam wars is currently under review by the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). The Organization of American States probably wants a similar review against Canada in regard to its treatment of native people. It should be noted that Canada is a main sponsor of the indictment against Sri Lanka, now that the USA under Donald Trump has left the UNHRC.
The indictment before the UNHRC is contested by knowledgeable authorities including Lord Neseby’s British House of Lords investigation. Their estimates of casualties come to some 7000, of which 5000 are Tamil-Tiger fighters. Scholarly studies of wiki-leaks of diplomatic dispatches, studies by the American Physical Society of satellite images of shelling, the report of the Paranagama commission etc., indicate similar lower figures of casualties.
However, the municipalities of Toronto, Brampton and Pickering rushed to judgment to please ethnic pressure groups. The Canadian Parliament itself sponsored a sham hearing hosted by Mr. Garry Anandasangaree where the event was announced with short notice. Admissions were controlled and cut to a short time window to just voice the genocide story.
If a genocide of 40,000 occurred in the last weeks of Eelam IV, mass graves of 40,000 killed have to be somewhere. But even the NPC under Mr. Wigneswaran who claimed a Tamil genocide has NOT succeeded in demonstrating any mass graves. The Mannar mass grave, which was excavated with great expectations of providing some support to the NCP genocide claim fell completely flat. Radio-carbon data indicated that the skeletons were from a massacre during Portuguese times by a Hindu-Tamil chieftain who exterminated fellow Tamil converts to Catholicism. Furthermore, if 40,000 were killed by shell fire and bombings, some 160,000 injured are expected as “collateral”, but very few injured were found among the 300,000 held in the war zone when freed in May 2009.
A grave injustice is being committed by the Canadian municipalities in their rush to judgment about a “Tamil genocide”. This contrasts strongly with the cautious approach of the House of Commons regarding the alleged genocide of aboriginal peoples. The good intentions contained in the Canadian High Commissioner’s statement is unfortunately not being played out in Canada itself.
*The author is a Canadian and Sri -Lankan academic living in Canada and attached to the Université de Montreal, and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org