TORONTO — Canadians are not flag wavers. If someone is draped in the red maple leaf, chances are he or she is a victorious Olympian or a dead soldier. Anyone else suggests a level of nationalism that makes many Canadians uncomfortable.
And yet, for the past two months, the streets of downtown Toronto have been regularly clogged by protesters waving Canadian flags alongside a strikingly different one: a yellow tiger jumping through a hoop of bullets crossed by two rifles atop a red backdrop — the symbol of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Also known as the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan guerrilla group has been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, long marginalized by the Sinhalese-dominated government. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war.
The death toll has escalated in recent weeks. Sri Lankan government soldiers have surrounded the last rebel stronghold in the north of the South Asian island, trapping civilians in the crossfire. International agencies have accused both government and rebel forces of likely breaking humanitarian laws.
Nowhere have demonstrations to denounce the killings been bigger than in Toronto, home to the largest diaspora of Sri Lankan Tamils in the world. Some estimates say up to half of Toronto’s more than 200,000 Tamils took part in the most recent protest two weeks ago.
Nearly half of Toronto's population is foreign born, and sidewalks bustling with members of visible minority groups is a common sight here. But until the recent protest, Tamils had never mobilized en masse from their enclave in the eastern suburb of Scarborough, dubbed the “capital of Eelam” by some Sri Lankans. Whole families traveled an hour on public transit to snarl traffic downtown and demand an end to what they consider the genocide of their people.
Out of nowhere, or so it seemed for many Torontonians, the Tamil community burst onto the city’s political scene.
Toronto police paid particular attention to the sea of Tamil Tiger flags being waved by young and old.
The guerrilla group was declared a terrorist organization in 2006 by the Canadian government — the United States did so in 1997 — for using suicide bombers and child soldiers. Police lawyers examined whether the flag waving violated Canada’s anti-terrorism laws, but concluded there was “nothing illegal” in displaying the insignia of a banned organization.
The Tamil Tigers have deep roots in Toronto’s community. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police — the equivalent of the FBI — last year filed court documents alleging that tens of thousands of Toronto Tamils were funding the Tigers’ secessionist campaign.
Police calculate that as much as $50,000 a month is drawn from Toronto bank accounts and sent to the Tamil Tigers. Collections across Canada amount to 15 percent of the global funds for the guerrilla group, the RCMP claims.
The force says it gathered the evidence during raids on the Toronto and Montreal offices of the World Tamil Movement, a group banned last year by the Canadian government as a front for the Tigers.
Representatives of the Tigers used electoral lists to identify and approach Tamils living in Toronto. Those who did not contribute to the cause were harassed by Tiger militants during visits to Sri Lanka, the RCMP alleges.
Most Tamils immigrated to Toronto after the civil war broke out in 1983. They speak little English and are largely from Sri Lanka’s lower middle class, which provides most of the Tigers’ fighters. Many came as refugees who lost relatives to the war.
Canada’s conservative government considers support for the Tamil Tigers an illegal act of abetting terrorism. Similar concerns were expressed years earlier about Irish-Canadians who helped fund the Irish Republican Army. And if the Tigers survive what looks like their last stand, it’s not inconceivable that someday their leaders will follow in the footsteps of others once labeled terrorists — such as Martin McGuinness, of Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein party — who now shake the hands of presidents.
The more immediate question for Canada is how to integrate Tamils into its much-vaunted multicultural mainstream, made up of what is often called hyphenated Canadians — how to eventually accept them, in other words, as Tamil-Canadians.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues that a powerful strand of multicultural politics is the demand for recognition. By taking to the streets with flags from both the Tamil Tigers and their adopted country, the message from Toronto’s Tamil community is clear: “We embrace Canada. Will Canada embrace us?”
Read more about the conflict in Sri Lanka: