The long voyage of the M.V. Sun Sea with its 490 refugee claimants from Sri Lanka reminds me of another, similar voyage almost 70 years ago. But the big difference is the people who spent what surely must have been three terrible months on board their small ship were allowed to set foot on Canadian soil, whereas the ill-fated souls aboard the S.S. St. Louis were not.
To Canada’s never-ending shame 907 men, women and children who had fled Nazi persecution in German in May, 1939 were first denied entry into Cuba, then the United States, and finally Canada. Anti-Semitism reared its ugly head everywhere they went on this side of the Atlantic. The head of Canada’s Immigration department in the Liberal government of Prime Minister MacKenzie King said, “No country, could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere
So, facing shortages of food and water on board, the St. Louis was forced to head back to its home port, Hamburg Germany. Fortunately, before it reached there, the refugees on board were taken in by several European countries, including the U.K., France, The Netherlands and Belgium. But when Germany under Hitler invaded and overran those last three countries many were rounded up along with millions of other European Jews and died in Nazi concentration camps. Of the 907 people who had been aboard the S.S. St. Louis, 254 are known to have died in the Holocaust.
I suppose I have to be careful here. It’s likely not fair to the current government of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, to run the risk of comparing it to Hitler and the Nazis and the worst mass murder-genocide in history. I’m no expert on the history of Sri Lanka for the past several decades, and can’t say who’s to blame for a civil war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 80,000 people, including 50,000 Sri Lankan government soldiers and rebel Tamil fighters, and 30,000 civilians. Some estimates put the civilian casualties much higher. Sri Lanka, an island country off the southern tip of India, is home to two very different cultures. The minority Tamils who generally inhabit the north are predominantly Hindu, while the majority Sinhalese in the south are Buddhist. The Liberation Tamil Tigers, the militant organization that led – and some might say, still lead – the Tamil independence movement has been branded a terrorist group by Canada and other western governments. In December 2001 the two sides signed a truce, but it gradually fell apart, was violated by both, and the war resumed, with the Sinhalese army and government finally cornering and defeating the Tamil Tigers in May, 2009. Estimates of the civilian casualties in the area of the final battles range as high as 20,000.
The United Nations has said the situation in Sri Lanka has “improved.” That may be, but surely it’s understandable that it will be a long time before many Tamils feel safe in Sri Lanka, especially those with any real or Sinhalese-imagined connection with the Liberation Tigers. A lot of Tamils have already left (or fled) Sri Lanka and come to Canada. The 200,000 who live in the Toronto area is the largest population of Tamils outside Sri Lanka. Do the 490 people who chose to endure a three-month voyage in a small, crowded vessel rather than stay in Sri Lanka qualify as refugees? Were they liable to be persecuted? Were their lives in danger had they stayed? I don’t know; but hopefully Canada’s immigration and refugee process will investigate and explore that question and come up with a fair and accurate conclusion untainted by politics regarding each of them. Are there members of the Liberation Tigers, and therefore “terrorists” among them? Again, that’s up to Canadian immigration and refugee officials to determine. Does it matter that they were so desperate to leave their country that they paid a lot of money to “snakeheads” to get on board the Sun Sea? I don’t think so. That sounds like more than a bit of the proverbial red herring thrown down by people who just don’t like the idea of refugees of any sort being allowed into this country.
The right-wing pundits, including some given a platform in this newspaper, are having a field day with the Sun Sea-Tamil refugee issue. Ezra Levant, My colleague on the comment pages, for example, deplores a decision the Supreme Court of Canada made 25 years ago that said the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms applied to “foreigners” and not just Canadian citizens. So, as a result, shiploads of “refugees” have to be allowed into the country. Too bad, he said in a column earlier this week, Canada can’t do what Australia does, board such ships on the high seas and turn them away or take them to a small island off the coast of Perth, Australia. It’s not considered Australian soil for refugee-claimant processing. That sounds an awful lot to me like a ghetto, a place where people considered second-rate are penned up pending whatever fate awaits them.
Well, the Supreme Court justices who supported the 25-year-old ruling that allows refugees to set foot on Canadian soil were right. Of course the Canadian Charter of Rights applies to all people and recognizes that they all deserve to be treated with dignity, respect and compassion. That’s whether they are Canadian citizens, landed immigrants, or refugees on the high seas looking for a safe harbour in Canada.
Too bad the Supreme Court ruling wasn’t in place before the S.S. St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany that fateful day in 1939.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.