Can You Belong to More Than One Nation?

Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 23, 2009

A few weeks ago, I ran into a traffic jam in downtown Toronto. Thousands of people were thronging the streets and waving colourful banners. Many were families with small children. Perhaps it was a religious festival, I thought–just another piece of the kaleidoscope that makes up our multicultural city.

I should be ashamed of my ignorance. But I suspect it’s shared by most Canadians. It’s safe to say that not one in 50 would be able to explain who these people are and what they want–even though, on Tuesday, more than 30,000 of them staged one of the biggest demonstrations that Parliament Hill has seen in years. “Canada don’t fail your people,” the signs demanded.

The people in question are Tamil Canadians. The banners they have long waved are the colours of the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group banned in Canada whose goals (if not methods) are supported by most of Canada’s 200,000-strong Tamil community. They want Canada to intervene in the bloody civil war that may now be in its final stages, as the Sri Lankan government bears down on the Tigers’ last stronghold.

Is this our fight? I’d say no. But Tamil Canadians see it differently. Their relatives are being massacred as Canada stands by. Their government should be acting on their behalf. Otherwise, it will have blood on its hands.

In this new, transnational era, issues of identity and politics spill over national borders. And questions of citizenship and belonging become increasingly blurred. Tamil Canadians “belong to more than one nation,” says R. Cheran, a Tamil poet and sociology professor at the University of Windsor.

The Tamils are just one of several large ethnic groups that have sprung up in the urban ring around Toronto. Today, they are the biggest Tamil diaspora in the world. With their own newspapers, TV and radio stations (all pro-Tiger), strong community networks and Tamil-language services, they are a little world within a world. They are also a major source of funding for the Tamil Tigers, who, for decades, have been extracting “war taxes” from the willing and the unwilling alike–sometimes by threatening to harm relatives back home if people don’t pay.

The Tamils’ nationalism isn’t fading with the second generation. Instead, it’s more passionate than ever. Most of the demonstrators are second- or even third-generation Tamils. “There’s an important change taking place,” says Prof. Cheran. “They are reaffirming their ethnic identity. Their attachment to the collectivity has become much stronger.”

According to research by sociologist Jeffrey Reitz and others, this trend is increasingly pronounced among the second generation of immigrant visible-minority groups. Compared with their parents, they feel less, not more, “Canadian.” That doesn’t mean Tamil Canadians don’t engage in mainstream politics. They do–and they’re acquiring a lot of clout.

Stories about the Tamils often centre on the Tamil Tigers, who are infamous for pioneering the use of suicide bombing, recruiting child soldiers and massacring innocent civilians. To most Tamils, the Tigers are their only protection against a brutal government that has oppressed the Tamil population for years and killed its own share of civilians. But the real question for Canada is not about good guys or bad guys–it’s to what extent our government will respond to the pressures of transnational ethnic groups, as these groups become ever more influential.

There’s another question: How will Canada evolve when so many people have multiple allegiances, to homeland and to host land? “I believe it is possible for people to be loyal to more than one nation, one history and one idea,” says Prof. Cheran, who thinks we should embrace the idea of transnational citizenship.

I don’t know if he’s right, but I do know this. There are many mini-nations in our midst. And most of us don’t know anything about them.

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