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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 May, 2003, 07:58 GMT 08:58 UK
Canada's Tamils dream of peace

By Daniel Lak
BBC correspondent in Toronto

In a secondary school auditorium in an outer suburb of Canada's largest city, Hindu gods walk the stage and talk in monologues about a homeland for the Tamil people.

Actor playing a Hindu God in a Tamil centre in Toronto
Tamil groups act out traditional Hindu stories

An audience of about 700 applauds and laughs and children run in the aisles.

The play is from the north of Sri Lanka and it is a nationalist look at the Tamil peoples' longing for a place of their own called Tamil Eelam.

It is a channel for the feelings of the Tamil diaspora in Canada.

Outside, a late spring snowstorm dusts parked cars in a mantle of white.

Vast highways arc off into the night and anonymous tower block apartments surround the school.


It is hard to imagine a place more unlike the Jaffna Peninsula, but Toronto has become home to most of Canada's 200,000-strong Sri Lankan Tamil community.

"People [from Sri Lanka] started coming here in the 1980s, escaping violence and discrimination," says Sitha Sittampalam of the Tamil Eelam Society.

I'm a Canadian but I want to be a Tamil too
Shiyanthi Thavapalan

"Families joined the first arrivals, and we realised this was a land of opportunity."

Tamil Canadians have prospered and asserted their distinctive cultural identity in a North American setting, but they have also maintained close links with the situation back home.

"We are watching the Sri Lankan process very closely," says Mr Sittampalam.

"We welcomed it but we worry that the government and president of Sri Lanka are not on the same wavelength.

"And if our community's needs are not recognised, not advanced at the negotiations, then I've no doubt that Canadian Tamils - the whole diaspora - will once again support the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE] in whatever course of action they may choose."

The Canadian Government froze assets and banned financial contributions to groups linked to the LTTE in October of 2001.

Before that, it was alleged the Tamil Tigers received much of their overseas funding through front organisations in Canada.

Now that support seems largely channelled into reconstruction efforts in Jaffna town and elsewhere, say leading members of Canada's Tamil community.


Another factor in the changing nature of Tamil Canadian involvement in events in Sri Lanka is the attitude of the younger generation.

Malathy Mancharan - Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre
Ms Mancharan says they discuss a wide range of subjects

Each Sunday, at a shopping mall in eastern Toronto, Tamil Canadian teenagers gather for an hour of discussion and debate.

It is not that politics is a "no-go area", according to organiser Malathy Mancharan, but the participants have a lot of other things to get off their chests.

"Some people take some issues very seriously and a religious or a political discussion can be dominated by two people and others get excluded," says Ms Mancharan.

"So we like to keep it to things like dating, homework, language, that sort of thing. But we do talk about politics and events in Sri Lanka if people want to."

Sixteen-year-old Shiyanthi Thavapalan is a regular at the Sunday sessions and she does not come to talk about issues from the other side of the world.

"I live in an area where there aren't that many Tamil-Canadians," says Shiyanthi, "so everything I say and hear in this place is valuable to me.

"It's about coping with Canada, fitting in, yet maintaining our identity, sharing the difficulties and supporting each other.

"I'm a Canadian but I want to be a Tamil too."

Almost every young person at the shopping mall meeting was aware of the details of the peace process and the conflict in Sri Lanka.

They all said their parents remained passionately interested.

But almost every one of them agreed that straddling two worlds, Canada and Sri Lanka, was difficult enough for people also coping with being teenagers.

"But we all want peace," one of them said.

"Especially with all the other wars in the world, we want peace for our relatives there."

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