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Can one put Sikh and Tamil Canadians in the same boat?

by Senthil Ratnasabapathy

Certainly, both communities have a number of commonalities: coming from South Asia, both Sikhs and Tamils like to see themselves hard-working, prosperous people struggling hard to integrate into the Canadian society while retaining their distinct cultural identity.

Both communities have been very passionate about their support for the separatist cause, spearheaded by militant groups of their respective communities in the ‘homeland’.  In the Sikh case, it was the campaign for Khalistan, a separate state to be established for the Sikhs in the state of Punjab in India, and for the Tamils it is Tamil Eelam, a separate Tamil state in north-eastern Sri Lanka.

In the Sikh case, as with the Tamils now, the support of the Diaspora is not restricted to the reportedly millions of dollars that is collected in Canada and sent to support the struggle.  Members of both Sikh and Tamil communities have given up their comfortable life in Canada to join the militant movements.  Sadly, even though they may claim to be fighting for lost or non-existent democratic rights, these democratic rights often are forgotten when it comes to internal debate.  In the heat of the struggle, dissension is punished, and those who have different views prefer to keep silent, lest they be accused of being ‘traitors’. 

Perhaps this is where the similarities end.  For one thing, the Sikhs have a much older history in this country, and one could certainly say that it was their struggle for equality that paved the way for a better treatment of Tamils, who began arriving in Canada in big numbers only since the latter part of the nineteen eighties.

The Sikhs want to be seen as a community that puts Canadian issues, as well as its place in the Canadian society, close to its heart.  For Tamil Canadians, it appears that what still makes their hearts beat is what happens in Sri Lanka, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of that island, and not the developments in Canada.

However, the call for participation in their new society is strong in the Tamil community.  Recently, a message posted in a Tamil newsgroup urged “socially conservative Tamils” to support Stockwell Day, and indeed, although on the whole Tamils are Liberals, more than 1,000 Tamils became members of the Alliance and voted for Tom Long for Alliance leader in the first ballot.

The Sikhs have followed their path, but where will the Canadian Tamils end up?  The next generation might be less inclined to feel so close to Sri Lanka.  The Tamil students association of a well-known Ontario university used to be the hotbed of separatist as well as linguistic nationalism in the early part of the nineties.  Now union members are more keen on ‘having fun’, and meeting the opposite sex.  Perhaps this is the omen of things to come?