In Montreal they lined up patiently in subway stations to be photographed for bus passes. In Toronto they puzzled over health insurance forms in an alien language. As the cloud of mystery that shrouded their bizarre odyssey slowly lifted, the full story—sectarian violence at home, hopelessness in a European sanctuary and misery on the high seas—emerged. But only days after their lifeboats floated into Canadian waters off the coast of Newfoundland, 155 Sri Lankan Tamils last week began the painstaking task of starting their lives anew.
Almost immediately, however, the castaways faced another obstacle: a tempestuous public debate over their right to remain in Canada. In a national outcry channelled through radio phone-in shows, letters to newspapers and protests to elected representatives, hundreds of Canadians lashed out at the Tamils for short-circuiting the regular immigration process. And they attacked the immigration system itself as grossly unfair and hopelessly snarled in red tape.
Some irate callers denounced the refugees for lying about their voyage’s point of origin—the West German port of Brake, not India. Others lambasted federal officials for allowing the Tamils to stay. Still other critics raised sweeping questions about Canada’s immigration policies—hard to understand, harder to enforce. Said Joe Cannon, host of Montreal radio station CJAD’s call-in program, Exchange: “I was astounded at the unanimity of the calls. It was like a wave of resentment.”
But amid growing concern that racism lay just below the surface of many complaints, the clearest message last week seemed to be that Canadians were confused about the laws, policies and procedures that govern the influx of newcomers to their country, projected to reach 115,000 this year. Concluded Cannon, after a series of shows that dealt with the issue: “The callers were not racist, but frustrated. They didn’t want to send anybody back. They were just concerned that this
type of thing would happen again and again.”
As the backlash reverberated, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said flatly that the refugees would be allowed to stay. In his first public comment on the controversy, Mulroney said, “Canada was built by immigration and refugees, and those who arrive in lifeboats will not be turned away.” It was a statement of principle that both oppo-
sition parties were obliged to endorse, although Liberal Leader John Turner questioned the speed with which the Tamils were granted the ministerial permits that allow them to live and work in Canada.
Describing the Tamils as “frightened human beings searching for freedom and opportunity,” Mulroney dismissed suggestions from several MPs that his decision would tempt other refugees to enter Canada illegally. Refugees who have been unable to get into the country through proper channels, he said, should continue to apply. “That’s exactly the way 99.9 per cent of the people get here, and this in no way ought to diminish your faith in the system,” he insisted. “We want more immigrants, not fewer.” Throughout the week federal officials were on the defensive. While they tried to clarify the Tamils’ position under Canadian law, they sought to assure Canadians that the new immigrants would not be allowed to “jump the queue” of refugees awaiting permanent residency. And pledging a full investigation of the case, Minister of State for Immigration Gerry Weiner defended the speed with which the Tamils were granted the permits, citing Canada’s “legal and international obligation” to consider their claims. Ottawa, Weiner said, had “acted fairly and cleanly within the bounds of Canadian law.” But the junior minister stressed that the newcomers will not, and cannot, be granted permanent residency until they pass medical, security and criminal checks. And Weiner said the investigation could lead to tighter rules for refugee claimants.
Under current policy, which adheres to the United Nations convention on refugees, claimants cannot be deported to homelands where their lives may be in danger. Nineteen countries, including strifetorn Sri Lanka, are currently on the list. But Weiner said this blanket approach might not treat “everybody as fairly as I’d like to see them treated. I have some concerns about programs that were country-by-country. If I had my way, it would be more case-by-case.” An immigration department spokesman, Gerry Maffre, added that the Tamils’ claims would remain on hold until a new refugee system is in place sometime next year. Weiner’s musings about the refugee
policy drew a sharp response from many church and immigrant groups. Members of more than 20 human rights, church and ethnic organizations convened in Toronto at midweek to voice concern that the public outcry could undermine Canada’s humanitarian policies toward refugees. “The reason people use the back door is that the front door gets them into so much bureaucratic hassle,” said Anne Squire, newly elected moderator of the United Church of Canada. Other observers cited recent Amnesty International reports of arbitrary detention and torture of Hindu Tamil prisoners in Sri Lankan jails—victims of that country’s ongoing civil war with the Buddhist, Sinhalese majority.
But it was the seemingly racist undertone of many opinions that dis-
turbed MPs. Said New Democratic Party immigration critic Dan Heap: “Anger properly directed at our immigration system is being dumped onto the Tamils because of their brown skins. It might not have happened if they had white skins.” Other MPs said they shared their constituents’ anger that the Tamils had continued to lie about their point of embarkation after they reached Canada on Aug. 11. Said Conservative MP Dr. Robert Horner (Mississauga North), denouncing the decision to admit the Tamils: “We resent claims for help based on deceit.”
Interviewed in Montreal last week, one refugee family said they “felt bad about lying” and feared that some Canadians still considered them liars even after they had told the truth.
“We are worried about that,” said Karunakaran Jeyatharan, 26, who with his wife and 11-month-old son shares a one-bedroom apartment in the city’s Côte des Neiges district with another Tamil family. “People don’t understand our problems.”
In fact, many observers agreed that one key underlying factor in the debate was widespread misunderstanding of the Tamils’ situation. Said Toronto immigration lawyer Barbara Jackman, who often acts for refugee claimants: “If people knew how difficult it is for refugees to find a country of resettlement, we would not have a backlash.”
Much of the anger emanated from Canadians who have been trying for years to bring family members to Canada through clogged immigration channels. Said Calgary West Tory MP James Hawkes, chairman of the Commons committee on labor, employment and immigration: “It has become very clear that Canadian immigration policy is a mess. There are many people who had to fight like the devil to get here.” But Hawkes cited one positive benefit of the Tamil furore: a longoverdue public dialogue on Canada’s immigration policies.
But as that debate gathered momentum, many puzzles remained. In West Germany, officials detained and then released two Sri Lankans and a Turk in connection with the group’s departure. At the same time, the Sri Lankans admitted involvement in arranging the Tamils’ passage, but a police spokesmen said that there were no legal grounds for keeping them in custody. Hamburg police, meanwhile, were investigating whether the castaways were victims of an international smuggling ring that planned to ferry other refugees to Canada. They also awaited the return of Wolfgang Bindel, the German sea captain accused of charging the Tamils the equivalent of $550,000 to transport them to Canada on his ship, the 425-ton, Honduranregistered Aurigae.
By week’s end, 25 of 61 newcomers had found jobs in Toronto. Indeed, for many of the Tamils, the principal goal is simply to prosper. “I want to make money,” said Jeyatharan.
For the moment, the new arrivals must make do with modest housing and jobs in Toronto factories, Montreal’s garment industry or other lowwage sectors of the economy. Still, as all 155 of Canada’s would-be citizens discovered last week, it was a long step up from steerage.
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