Ontario’s ‘Tamil Genocide Education Week’ faces constitutional challenge

Still a toddler, Katpana Nagendra saw her family home in Colombo set on fire during the anti-Tamil riots in 1983. Her mother, with Nagendra and her sister in tow, fled to the north of Sri Lanka and ultimately resettled in Canada two years later as sponsored refugees.

Like many Tamil Canadians, the Vancouver woman says the decades-long conflicts with the Sri Lankan government and the fight for justice for her people have always played a huge part in her life.

Last year, when the Ontario legislature passed a private member’s bill designating May 11 to 18 each year as the Tamil Genocide Education Week, the event hardly made the news in Canadian media. But it was a big deal for the 140,000-strong Tamil-speaking diaspora in the country.

“Our community was elated. It’s like a sense of relief, like, ‘Wow, finally, someone is listening to us and recognizing that the atrocities happening in the north and east of Sri Lanka is real,’” says Nagendra.

“Yes, it’s a distant, small island in the Indian Ocean, but it has a significant impact on a major community within Canada who has been asking for this recognition for many, many years. It is a victory and a milestone for the Tamil community because of the plight of our people. It gives us an opportunity to talk to other communities.”

While Sinhalese people — the ruling majority in Sri Lanka — and Tamils ​​were hardly friends before, being two distinct ethnic groups with a troubled history, old wounds have been reopened in their adopted homeland as an upcoming court case in Ontario, pitting the communities against each other, plays out.

A group of Sri Lankan Canadian organizations and individuals have launched a constitutional challenge against the Ontario government over the Tamil Genocide Education Week, arguing the province doesn’t have the authority to adopt the term “genocide” and the designation would promote hatred for one group over another. A hearing is scheduled for May 24 and 25.

“The declaration of a Tamil genocide is wrong as a matter of fact and law, and thus cannot have a valid educational purpose. In proclaiming a ‘Tamil Genocide Education Week,’ the (act) propagates a factual and legal falsehood that in both form and content is devoid of any valid educational purpose,” the applicants said in their court submissions.

“It is nothing more than a propaganda victory of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) that it will seek to influence other jurisdictions to follow suit.”

The preamble of the proclamation of the Tamil Genocide Education Week states that Tamil Ontarians have lost loved ones and have been physically or mentally traumatized by the genocide that the Sri Lankan state perpetrated against the Tamils ​​during the civil war which lasted from 1983 to the Tamil Tigers ‘defeated in 2009.

“Genocide is the deliberate and organized killing of a group or groups of people, with the intention of destroying their identity as an ethnic, cultural or religious group,” said Bill 104, which was tabled by Progressive Conservative MPP Vijay Thanigasalam (Scarborough-Rouge Park).

“Acts of genocide against the Tamils ​​started in 1948 after Sri Lanka gained its independence and were perpetrated through Sinhala-Buddhist centric government policies, pogroms, land grabs and ethnic cleansing.”

Citing a UN report finding that about 40,000 to 75,000 Tamil civilians were killed in 2009 during the final days of the civil war, the law calls on all Ontarians to educate themselves about, and to maintain their awareness of, the Tamil genocide and other genocides that have occurred in history.

In his legal challenge filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Neville Hewage, an Ottawa man of Sri Lankan descent, said there was no evidence to substantiate the death tolls.

“The Government of Sri Lanka fought against the proscribed terrorist organization LTTE … a Tamil Terrorist group that occupied a portion of Sri Lanka’s territory. It is pertinent to recall that Sri Lanka was subjected to a brutal 26 years of a secessionist campaign unleashed by the LTTE,” wrote Hewage, who declined the Star’s interview request.

“It is important to note that during the 26-year (of) armed conflict, not only Tamils, all ethnic groups, including Sinhalese and Muslims, also died and were injured.”

The province does not have the jurisdiction in making a genocide determination, which falls under the federal powers over foreign policy, foreign relations, and criminal law, argued the Sri Lankan Canadian Action Coalition and Sri Lanka Canada Association of Brampton, which joined the court challenge .

In a statement written to the Star, Anura Ferdinand and Sena Munasinghe, presidents of the two respective organizations, said the genocide allegation is created by the Tamil diaspora for political and economic reasons.

The bill, they said, is one-sided, created without consultation with the larger Sri Lankan community, which is made up of Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, and Burgher people.

“A Tamil MPP brought forward a controversial law and we are simply asking the courts to look at it and serve justice to the truth we have brought forward,” said the joint statement.

“These are all lobby work of remnants of pro-LTTE diaspora that venerate suicide bombers and child soldiers as freedom fighters while they are responsible for thousands of innocent civilian deaths in Sri Lanka. They have lost the warfare and now come forward with lawfare using lobby power.”

Anura Ferdinand, President of the Sri Lankan Canadian Action Coalition.

Neither Canada nor the United Nations have come to the conclusion there was a genocide in Sri Lanka, they argued, adding that the LTTE has been a designated terrorist group in Canada since 2006.

However, both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers have both been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the UN, which included “indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence, and recruitment of children .”

In a report released in April, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights remained concerned about the continued lack of accountability for past human rights violations and recognition of victims’ rights in Sri Lanka, particularly those stemming from the long-concluded war.

“There has been a further drift towards militarization and an emphasis of Sinhala nationalism and Buddhism in State institutions has become more visible, increasing the marginalization and uncertainty of minority communities, and undermining reconciliation,” Michelle Bachelet cautioned.

The pandemic and economic crisis, as well as the Sri Lankan government’s heavy-handed response to criticism and dissent, she said, would “further fuel the prevailing marginalization and discrimination against minority communities.”

Nagendra, who is part of a group of Tamil that have been granted intervener status in the Ontario court case, said it’s important for the community to participate in the proceedings organizations to ensure the Tamil perspectives on the conflict in Sri Lanka are taken into account.

There are disputable facts cited in the constitutional challenge that again fuel the assumption that the Tamil Genocide Education Week came from LTTE propaganda, said Nagendra, a member of the Tamil Rights Group, a human rights advocacy organization.

“We’re saying that it is the Sri Lankan government and government policies that are in place that are oppressing the Tamil community. So we need to be very clear about that,” she said in an interview.

“It’s another emotional roller-coaster for us to think that we got that recognition and now someone is challenging me even more, so we need to defend it even more. Our community is always struggling to affirm our place, to affirm our story, and we’re always going to be challenged. Maybe that’s the plight of the Tamil community.”

Opponents to the legislation ask the court to declare the Tamil Genocide Education Week Act unlawful and respinded.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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