Written by Tyson Brown
Although Tamil is one of the ten most spoken languages in Toronto, the Tamil-speaking, Sri Lankan community is relatively new to Toronto. Prior to the 1980s, Canadians of Sri Lankan origin numbered in the thousands. A series of events then led to the large scale emigration of Tamil-speaking peoples to urban centers around the world. Toronto would eventually become home to the largest concentration of Tamils outside of Sri Lanka and at one point, this cultural group was the fastest growing community in the city. The roots of this migration story involve conflict in the homeland, but it was Canadian immigration policies, especially regarding refugees, that made large scale immigration from Sri Lanka possible. Tamils in Toronto have since planted deep roots in their new city.
Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon prior to 1972) is an island with ancient traditions of art, religion, culture and language. It occupies a strategic naval and trading position in the Indian Ocean and has been occupied by different foreign powers, including the Portuguese, Dutch and eventually the British, who turned Sri Lanka into a colony. After years of political negotiations, the island gained independence from Britain in 1948. Decades of domestic conflict and political instability followed, with conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority at its heart. After an official language act favouring the Sinhalese was passed in the 1950s, a series of events unfolded that led to Tamils demanding succession from Sri Lanka. Following the Colombo riots of 1983, a major wave of Tamil refugees would leave Sri Lanka and make their way to Toronto.
Those Tamil refugees were not the first people from Sri Lanka to call Canada home. Given that Canada and Sri Lanka were both members of the British Commonwealth (providing familiarity with regards to language and institutions), a channel for immigration to Canada already existed. In the 1950s, the Canadian government had allowed a quota of 50 immigrants per year from Sri Lanka. Advertisements were placed in English-language Sri Lankan newspapers encouraging workers with skills matching Canadian labour demands to apply.
The 1970s and 1980s saw a drastic increase in the number of refugees around the world, as military coups, political instability and ethnic conflict forced many to leave their homelands. Rather than following the traditional immigration process of applying for acceptance into the country based on government-defined criteria relating to labour demands, refugees arrive on humanitarian and emergency grounds. When the situation in Sri Lanka reached a point of civil war and violent conflict in the 1980s and 1990s, that country became the leading source of refugees in the world. A large number of those fleeing Sri Lanka arrived in Toronto.
Upon arrival, Tamils responded quickly to the challenges of re-settlement and acculturation. The Tamil Elam Society of Canada, originally established in 1978, began to provide much needed settlement services. A Tamil community took form in the Gerrard Street East area known as Little India, where a niche of cultural and religious centers similar to their own already existed. A larger Tamil community would develop in Scarborough, with pockets of settlement in areas around Eglinton Avenue, Lawrence Avenue, Birchmount Avenue, Steeles Avenue, Markham Road and McCowan Road, among others.
In 1986, two women, Jothi Rasalingham and Mani Pathmarajah, initiated the establishment in Don Mills of the Senior Tamils Centre for recreational activities. This centre was later relocated to Scarborough North. A Tamil Co-Operative Housing building opened in 1992 on Bloor Street at Lansdowne Avenue across from the subway station, and in 1999, the Vasantham-Tamil Seniors Wellness Center was opened on Sherbourne Street and later on Eglinton Avenue East, to help Tamil seniors adjust to living in a new city. As well, the Canadian Tamil Congress was formed in 2000 to help lobby the government on behalf of the growing number of Tamils arriving in Toronto and other cities.
Tamil owned businesses have taken root in the city, along with newspapers, radio and television programs and cultural organizations. In particular, the construction of Hindu temples to serve the predominately Hindu Tamil Community, has established the community’s presence on the city’s landscape, and provided it with important centres of Tamil culture in their new home.
Perry Kendall, ‘The Sri Lankan Community in Toronto’, (City of Toronto Department of Public Health, 1989).
R. Cheran, D. Ambalavanar & C. Kanaganayakam, History and Imagination: Tamil in the Global Context, (University of Toronto Press, 2007).
R. Cheran, D, Singh, C. Kanaganayakam, S. Durayappah, World Without Walls: Being Human and Being Tamil, (Tsar Publications, 2011).
Milton Israel, The South Asian Diaspora in Canada, (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1987).
Elizabeth McLuhan, Safe Haven: The Refugee Experience of Five Families, (University of Toronto Press, 1995).
‘Emergence of the Tamil Community in the GTA : Facts and Figures’, Retrieved from: www.tamilcanadian.com/canada/report.pdf
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.