Sri Lankans in Canada

A Community in Legal Limbo

Sri Lanka's foreign minister
On a Sept. 15, 2000 visit to Winnipeg, Former Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar appeals to Canadians to stop financing the Tamil Tigers (Photo: AFP).

Manickavasagam Suresh is in legal limbo and so, it seems, is much of Canada’s Sri Lankan Tamil community. Suresh, now 45, was granted refugee status in 1991, detained in 1995, and ordered deported. He was released under strict supervision in 1998 pending appeal. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ordered further review of the case against Suresh, which rested largely on secret evidence that Suresh and his lawyers could not review and rebut.

Even so, Suresh could still face expulsion under new counterterrorism laws that some Tamils fear bode ill for their community in Canada. Suresh is an alleged fund-raiser for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is fighting the Sinhalese-dominated government of Sri Lanka for a separate Tamil homeland. He has denied engaging in any terrorist activity. From the state’s point of view, Suresh is a suspected member of an organization that has committed terrorist acts. His deportation originally was ordered on the grounds that he had misrepresented himself by hiding this information from authorities. Even if the legitimacy of his refugee claim is upheld, however, he could be sent back to Sri Lanka as a suspected terrorist under harsh new immigration laws enacted last fall, said University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes.

From Francis Xavier’s point of view, however, the Canadian government must recognize the right of freedom of expression for refugees from countries governed by oppressive regimes. Xavier is director of the Canadian Council of Tamils and a lawyer who has documented cases of torture directed against members of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. “As long as the Prevention of Terrorism Act and emergency regulations [in the Public Security Act] are in place in Sri Lanka, people can be arrested and tortured,” says Xavier. Hence, like many in the Tamil community here, Xavier welcomed news that the Supreme Court stayed Suresh’s deportation.

Troubling to Xavier and others in the community, the Supreme Court’s Jan. 11 ruling stated that under “extraordinary circumstances” Canada is justified in asking refugees to return to countries where torture is practiced. Canadian officials countered that torture was not inevitable, that U.S. authorities had proceeded with deportations after assurances from foreign governments that returnees would not be tortured. Sri Lankan diplomats said they had given Canada such assurances. Whatever the outcome of Suresh’s case, he and other supporters of Tamil self-determination “are being persecuted for their beliefs,” says Xavier.

Suresh’s lawyer, Barbara Jackman, says the Canadian government has failed to distinguish between legitimate political expression and violent terrorist activity. The LTTE was not an unlawful organization in Canada when Suresh was charged, says Jackman. Jackman says Suresh lawfully worked for a community center that supported the LTTE, but it is inadmissible to forbid Canadians from supporting groups engaged in armed struggle that might have killed civilians. Government officials, however, say Suresh raised funds knowing the money would be used to buy weapons that would be used to kill civilians. Traditionally, Canada’s ruling Liberal Party has been popular among immigrant communities in [Toronto], where the majority of Canadian Tamils live. Community organizations have contributed to the party’s coffers while also sending money back to Sri Lanka for schools, health clinics, and other services they say have fallen victim to war. The National Post, a leading newspaper, and the right-wing opposition Canadian Alliance Party have attacked Finance Minister Paul Martin and another member of the Canadian government for attending Tamil community events.