Article Credit: The Toronoto Star -
By GARY ANANDASANGAREE - Wed., Aug. 10, 2016
Allowed 155 Tamils to start a new life in Canada was also a turning point in Canadian refugee and immigration history
Thursday is a special day not only for Tamil-Canadians and Newfoundlanders, but for all Canadians alike, for it was 30 years ago that 155 Tamil refugees were found drifting off the shores of St. Shotts, Newfoundland by three local finishing boats.
The rescue on that fateful day on Aug. 11, 1986, not only allowed 155 Tamils to start a new life in Canada, but it was also a turning point in Canadian refugee and immigration history.
Capt. Gus Dalton and his crew from Admirals Beach, St. Mary’s Bay, Nfld., along with two other fishing trawlers, found two decrepit life boats overfilled with Tamil refugees. They were dropped off at night by an unscrupulous human trafficker, and were told to go west toward Montreal.
Dalton called the Canadian Navy to assist, and each of the boats immediately started dumping their catch of cod, in order to find space in their trawlers to rescue the Tamil refugees. They emptied their canteens, and fed the ever grateful newcomers who were at sea for three days.
The CCG Leonard J. Crowley, a Coastguard patrol vessel, arrived shortly afterward to help. The Tamils were taken to shore in St. John’s and then to Memorial University where they received food, lodging and were processed as refugees.
Canada has not always been so welcoming of non-European refugees and immigrants who arrive at our shores. In 1914, the Komagata Maru arrived in Burrard Inlet on the western coast of British Columbia, carrying 376 passengers from the Punjab, India, comprising mostly Sikh men. They were held at sea for two months before being forced to leave Canadian waters. Upon return to India at least 19 passengers were killed and countless others were imprisoned.
This spring, after 101 years, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered an unequivocal and sincere apology in the House of Commons for the Komagatu Maru tragedy.
A tragic echo of this incident occurred in 1939 when 908 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were denied entry in Canada. The Jewish refugees returned to Europe where many faced Hitler’s death camps.
Canada would not make the same mistake again in 1986 or thereafter.
The Tamil arrival was not without controversy. Like all refugees, they feared the worst, and initially lied about where their voyage originated. They were Tamils, born in Sri Lanka, and faced countless atrocities before they were forced to flea due to the outbreak of the civil war in 1983. Most had sought asylum in Germany, and due to the draconian refugee protection laws in that country, they were looking for a more free and secure place.
Some Canadians were outraged, and accused the refugees of fraud, queue jumping, and were called undesirable. As the controversy heated up, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney muted those who called for the return of the refugees.
He was unequivocal and he spoke for all Canadians when he told the national media, “we are not in the business of turning away refugees.” Within days, all of the 155 Tamils were settled in Montreal and Toronto, where they started careers, families and new lives.
However, the welcome that awaited the Tamils in 1986 was not there in 2009 and 2010 when 76 Tamils on board the MV Ocean Lady and 492 Tamils on board the MV Sun Sea arrived in British Columbia. Both of these groups were vilified and labelled as terrorists.
The 2011 federal election campaign even used images of the MV Sun Sea to demonize refugees. Due in part to the negativity surrounding the arrival of the MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea, their cases continue to linger in the courts and many of the refugee claimants continue to live in limbo.
Thirty years from their arrival in St. Shott’s, the Tamils are returning to Newfoundland, where their Canadian journey started, this time as Tamil- Canadians, who built extraordinary lives to thank the people of this great province and our country for doing the right thing.
They are joined by many members of the Tamil community, from those who were in leadership positions in 1986, to those in leadership positions today, to future Canadian leaders born to refugee parents who put this project together. All of them are coming together to mark a remarkable journey that in many ways defined the 300,000 strong Tamil-Canadian community.
Our country will never be the same again, and collectively our doors should always be open, not just to those who come to our shores, but those taking extraordinary risks to cross other shores in search of refuge. We must understand that people in normal circumstances do not risk their lives — and the lives of their families — to flea for reasons such as economic stability. They do so out of desperation and as a last resort.
Canadians were moved by the story of Alan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy who drowned and was found lying dead on the beach. In recent months, we have taken the right steps in welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees, but much work needs to be done, and Canada must do more to help those in dire need.
We thank the great people of St. Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland, for their generosity and we thank Canadians across the country who open their hearts whenever the need arises. Equally, as Canadians, we should commit to never repeating our history of turning away those who come to our shores seeking refuge, and we should commit to doing more for those escaping turmoil.
Gary Anandasangaree is the Member of Parliament for Scarborough-Rouge Park