(Lack of) Citizenship and Canada’s Angel Complex

by Mirusha Yogarajah

Canada tends to nod in agreement to the conversation about their angel complex—constantly contrasting themselves to the United States to highlight their zeal towards human rights initiatives and the galvanizing forces behind their diversity with their “reconciliation efforts” or gender-based federal budget. I’ve seen Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a myriad of South Asian fashion surrounded by racialized people around him– a spectacle illuminating the performance that is at the forefront of Canadian immigration law. In the midst of the fashion nods towards South Asia, and correcting “mankind” to “peoplekind”, there lies a history of deplorable immigration policies that that have treated racialized people as disposable. Canada is no angel, let’s get that straight.

Rewind to 2009, which marked the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War that spanned 26 years and killed over 150,000 people. Tamils, the minority in Sri Lanka and victim to alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, were coerced into detention camps following the war. There is no formal institutional recognition of the alleged war crimes as genocide, but that does not undermine individual and organizational arguments as to why it is genocide.   Sri Lanka’s history of persecution against Tamils began with violent attacks and segregationist policies, which prohibited Tamils from participating in education and government, amongst other sectors of life. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an armed resistance group against the war crimes, were marked as terrorists by the Sri Lankan government and the international community, Canada being one of them in 2006. You can read more about this history here. As a result of the mired oppressive history, many people of Tamil descent are marked as terrorists by the state itself and transnationally, even if they have no affiliation with the LTTE. How does this relate to Canada’s angel complex?

In 2010, under the Harper administration, Canada passed Bill C-49, the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act, which said that asylum seekers that come into the nation through “irregular means” can be detained and have a minimum one year jail sentence. There is little of the bill that addresses the issue of human smugglers, and it more so targets refugee claimants. Migrants who come to Canada by boat can be subject to the holding procedures of Bill C-49, as arriving by boat is considered an “irregular” means of transportation. Canada used the rhetoric of “monitoring human smugglingand “terrorismas a euphemism for the detainment and criminalization of refugees entering Canada. There are international and domestic violations intrinsic of the Bill–for example, it violates Section 9 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states individuals cannot be arbitrarily detained or arrested. It is an institutionalized manifestation of the fear of racialized people, and their potential access to the lands of Canada.

Ocean Lady and the MV Sun Sea were two boats that came to Canada filled with a total of 569 Sri Lankan Tamils, seeking safety from the resounding alleged war crimes they faced in Sri Lanka. Individuals on both ships were immediately detained upon their arrival to Canada. They were questionably interrogated and implicated with terrorism activities. The Globe and Mail published an editorial stating that the “expected arrival of a second cargo ship ferrying Sri Lankan Tamils to Canada exposes a gap in our country’s ability to deter terrorists and people-smugglers” with absolutely no evidence that the people on board have links to terrorism.  According to the refugee seeking cases of the Sri Lankan Tamils aboard the boats, once individuals landed in Victoria, they were jailed and deemed ineligible to seek refugee status. Many of the children who were aboard the boat were placed into the British Columbia foster care system. The detained were subjected largely to the will of the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, who would determine if their identity was properly established, a process required before beginning any refugee claim process. This was mostly due to the larger allocation of power given to the Minister through the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

However, there were notably higher standards for the requirements of establishing identities for the Tamil individuals aboard Ocean Lady and the MV Sun Sea, which is necessary in order to apply for refugee status. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, while the Sri Lankan National Identity Card or Passports were accepted to establish identity in the case of other Sri Lankan entrants to Canada, the documents, which contain security features, were not recognized for the individuals arriving on the Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea. There were thorough attempts to exempt valid forms of identification.

Furthermore, in a memo titled “Marine Migrants: Program Strategy for the Next Arrival”, the Canadian Border Service Agency stated that “detention is an effective tool against those who circumvent immigration processes” and that it “will take maximum advantage of this tool, recognizing that there may be limitations if no legal grounds to detain exist.” These institutional and legal barriers exemplify the ways in which individuals aboard the boats were prone to discrimination by the Canadian government and proactive detainment, when seeking security. Nine years after the onerous process of events, the National Post found that 30 Tamils were deemed inadmissible, 266 refugee claims accepted and 128 claims rejected. This total still leaves 145 claims to process.

Canadian citizenship is venerated globally, and immigration reform in the 1960s catered to diversifying the racialization of the Canadian landscape, but it was also in accordance with the shifting global paradigm at the time. Immigration politics is convenient; it is an adjustment to the mainstream, and in 2010 it wasn’t convenient to be seen letting in “terrorists” (or perhaps, people seeking safety from genocide). Thus came the process of detaining innocent people and children for up to a year in egregious conditions and without the possibility of applying for refugee status. Canada’s angel complex is a joke – from the settling of Indigenous lands to the detainment of Tamils merely seeking security.

Mirusha Yogarajah is a Tamil kid doing her Masters of Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She cares deeply about policy innovation and social equity. She is the Editor-in-Chief of SPICYWTR Mag, plays Bananagrams and has an affinity for cheese plates. She writes to heal.