The other day, one of the least soft-headed of Canadian columnists, Lorrie Goldstein, wrote a piece in the Toronto Sun called “Protest backlash unearths racism”:
“Let’s not pretend that much of the condemnation of Tamils in Canada for protesting the plight of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka isn’t racist.
“Any journalist who’s been around knows what’s going on and we have an obligation to speak up.”
I’ve been around. Well, okay, I’ve been nearby, as Mary Tyler Moore liked to say. And, insofar as I feel an obligation to speak up, it’s only to wonder at how far even the remarkably tensile concept of “racism” can be stretched.
First, let us note that his headline is hooey: there is no “protest backlash.” The protesting Tamils shut down a Toronto city block near the U.S. consulate for days, openly supported a terrorist organization banned in Canada, stormed the Gardiner Expressway and brought traffic to a standstill, and may or may not have been responsible for the burning of a Buddhist temple attended by many Sri Lankan Sinhalese. The “backlash,” by contrast, is little more than some irate calls to talk radio by non-Tamil commuters, plus one fellow who flew a plane over Queen’s Park with a banner saying “Protect Canada. Stop the Tamil Tigers.” (Despite reports to the contrary, he’s apparently not being investigated for perpetrating a “hate crime.” So far.) Nevertheless, while failing to supply a single example thereof, Mr. Goldstein objects to “the ranting of many ‘Canadians’ ” on this issue—“Canadians” in scare quotes, presumably, because no real Canadian would be so nakedly Tamilphobic.
What position should the average racist Canadian—or “Canadian,” as Mr. Goldstein would say—take on this subject? An old-school racist (clinging to the purist position usefully distilled in the old English expression “Wogs start at Calais”) might take the view that he couldn’t care less if one bunch of crazy natives sticks it to another bunch of crazy natives on some rinky-dink island in the Indian Ocean. As the then-U.S. secretary of state James Baker famously observed of the disintegrating Yugoslavia, “We don’t have a dog in this fight.”
But, on the other hand, an impeccable multiculturalist might take that position also. For, between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, who are we to judge? Lorrie Goldstein complains that, pre-Gardiner lockdown, Canadians failed to give credit to the Tamil community for its months of peaceful protest. But the peaceful protests had had all the impact they were ever likely to have: right up until the moment when the Sri Lankan army stormed the Tamil Tigers’ last redoubt and killed its leaders, the United States was calling for a ceasefire and the poseurs of the European Union were demanding “war crimes” investigations into each side. Amidst the celebrations that swept Colombo on news of the Tigers’ final liquidation, Sri Lankans nevertheless found time to swarm the British High Commission and burn an effigy of the foreign and commonwealth secretary, David Miliband—a degree of geopolitical celebrity he’s unlikely ever to enjoy again. What sort of deranged mob would take the trouble to construct an effigy of an entirely obscure London cabinet minister? Well, if Mr. Goldstein feels Canadians are Tamilphobic, many Sinhalese feel that Western opinion is profoundly Sinhalphobic.
Hey, but who cares? What happens in Lanka stays in Lanka, right? Er, no. “In the last few days,” complained Haroon Siddiqui in the Toronto Star, “we’ve heard, over and over again, an old Canadian myth: let the immigrants not import their old country troubles to Canada. Except that they always have: the British and the French, to start with . . .”
I suppose it’s possible to type that line with a straight face, if you sincerely think of the British and French as “immigrants” rather than settlers—or, if you prefer, conquerors—building a new land in their own image. But I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Siddiqui’s larger point that the oft-retailed leave-it-in-the-old-country argument is unpersuasive. It’s a feint, a proxy for what a lot of people really feel but can’t quite articulate lest Lorrie Goldstein call them racist.
Like the revelation during the 2006 war with Israel that half the population of Lebanon hold Canadian passports, the Tamil protests were one of those rare moments when the veil lifts and Canadians glimpse the sheer scale of societal transformation. The obvious question prompted by the size of demonstrations in Ottawa and Toronto is: how did Canada acquire that many Tamils? News reports suggesting that Toronto is home to “200,000 Tamils” prompted a lot of pooh-poohing about inflated figures and unreliable statistics. And surely they are. I doubt there are verifiable numbers on the Tamil population of Ontario. But, even if they’re half that 200,000, it would seem to be more Tamils than anyone might reasonably need—or indeed, even if you did need them, more than you could reasonably expect to acquire. A six-figure population of Germans, Russians, Chinese, Indonesians, sure. But Tamils are a small minority (15 per cent or so) of the population of a small island of 20 million people on the other side of the world. Yet Canada has somehow managed to preside over a bigger population transfer than the British did when they ran both Sri Lanka and India and imported a massive Tamil population from the mainland to work on tea plantations. The largest Tamil city in Sri Lanka is Jaffna, population 85,000. Is Toronto now the largest Tamil city in the world? And, if so, why?
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