The Future of the Tamil Community


Growing up, I wasn’t always proud to be Tamil. After all, when your ethnic group is stigmatized in the media as a community of gangsters, fraudsters, terrorist sympathizers and refugee queue-jumpers, it can’t help but take a hit to your cultural ego.

Going to school in Scarborough in the 90s and early 2000s, Tamils had a less than stellar reputation. Occasionally I would be subject to snide remarks from my peers. “He’s Tamil. But he’s cool though. Not the shooting, stabbing type.” Another high school friend wryly observed that there were only two types of Tamil guys – “nerds and thugs.” And from witnessing all the Tamil guys on the Honour Roll and in the VP’s office, I couldn’t help but concede his point.

As a visible minority, one is always privy to racial stereotypes. A rotten apple spoils the barrel, and far too often the misdeeds of one besmirch the good deeds of many. I admit that there are times when I’ve wanted to distance myself from my Tamil identity. Owing to a somewhat non-Tamil appearance and demeanour, the inevitable “Where are you from? What’s your background?” would arise. This question would make me cringe. I would respond “my parents are from Sri Lanka” and leave it at that.

Like many who make an effort to adjust to societal norms, I’m guilty of certain practices that some may see as dissociating from my ethnic identity. In a professional context, I’ve contracted my name to make it appear less visibly ethnic and more palatable to a non-Tamil demographic. I feel this helps me with interviews and promotions in the corporate world. In a personal context, I’ve used an Anglicized nickname when going out with girls of other ethnicities. And I know I’m not the only one – I’ve met way too many Tamil guys claiming to be “Jay” and “Sean.”

But the reality is the Tamil diaspora has come a long way since its arrival on Canadian shores. As a refugee group fleeing war and persecution, Tamils came with little in material wealth but with big hopes and dreams. Driven by ambition, a high regard for education, a relentless work ethic and a fierce competitive streak, the Tamil community has made tremendous progress in just a little over two decades.

Whereas Tamils once populated housing projects in at-risk neighbourhoods, today many of us reside in large homes in upscale suburbs. Whereas Tamils once drove rusty clunkers, today many drive luxury vehicles. And whereas Tamil parents once toiled over kitchen sinks and on factory floors, today their sons and daughters excel in academia, in the professions, in business and in government.

Moreover, we are fortunate to live in a country with tremendous opportunities. Few places in the world will embrace a destitute people so alien in language and culture with such openness and tolerance as Canada has. And when freed from the shackles of parochialism that plagued our parents, we now see what Tamils are capable of in a just and open society where one’s potential can truly be realized.

Today, there is a perceptible vitality and dynamism within the Tamil-Canadian community. A veritable alphabet soup of acronymed Tamil organizations abound – Tamil political and philanthropic organizations, Tamil festivals and cultural organizations, Tamil university and alumni associations, Tamil business and professional networks, Tamil youth organizations, village organizations and Old Boys networks, Tamil dance troupes and recreational leagues, Tamil newspapers, media outlets and more.

Moreover, I am seeing our young people coming out of high school and university today more confident, secure and proud of their bicultural Tamil-Canadian identity than my generation ever was. And this, too, makes me more proud than ever to be Tamil-Canadian.

Yet with Tamil immigration slowing to a trickle, with rising interracial marriage rates, and with a growing number of our young professional men and women unmarried and childless, it is likely that the Tamil community has already peaked, and will shrink in proportion to the general population in the coming years.

And this is where we must ponder our future as a community. As the first wave of born-and-bred Tamil-Canadians enter their child-bearing years, will our children adopt the same drive, zeal and passion that arises out of growing up in difficult circumstances? Will they share the same sense of ethnic solidarity and kinship? Will they keep the vibrancy and strength of our thriving community alive?

Or will we be Tamil in name and appearance only, with little ties to language, culture and traditions? Will we simply vanish and blend into the broader Canadian mosaic in three generations?

These are questions our community must ponder as we look collectively to the future.

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Sen grew up in Toronto and currently calls it home. An avid social commentator, he is particularly interested in the evolution of the Tamil diaspora and its integration to the Canadian mainstream.

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6 thoughts on “The Future of the Tamil Community

  1. Amazing article! it makes me ponder will this “ethno-change” actually change the cultural values our parents taught us or will it just die off like the west Indians .. we shall see in the coming years, and hope we can still keep our culture like the Chinese who to this day still speak mandarin or Cantonese even if they have doctored the English language and culture..

  2. Excellent Article, very well written. I admire our community a great deal, however the concern I have among the youth is that the community built is more often than not, very insular. The aforementioned student groups, dance teams, etc, are great and all…but everyone, competition included, is our people. This will present problems. The Chinese are wonderful at maintaining their own culture, but in keeping insular during their formative years, the way they interact with outside the community tends to border on one dimensional.

    I see it in the working world all the time, the students while growing up who stuck within their core ethno-group (including University), struggle far more than any other in connecting within the new diverse environment. You can almost feel the division, and it really hurts their progress in the workforce. To understand a white man from timmins, a chinese woman from agincourt, an italian from woodbridge; you truly will need to have meaningful relationships within those societies.

    Without true exposure in our formative years, you end up with a far more short-sighted and stunted community.

  3. What is “ethnic solidarity and kinship”?

    You mean the zealots that wave LTTE flags at every single Tamil event while forgetting the extortions and crimes committed by the very same people they defend?
    Or do you refer to the “caste system” that can still be seen at any given instance in our generation?
    You cite the Japanese-Canadians for reasons that I’m not sure you have fully understood. Think about it, simply because they don’t hide into clavicles of their communities and interact with the broader community does not constitute them as having “vanished” into the Canadian mosaic. Instead, they’ve created a hybrid culture that has taken from liberal-democratic values while maintaining the cultural elements that they enjoy.
    As a Norwegian-Tamil, I would rather be judged by my abilities and skills than my name or my ethnic background. The whole idea that being “Tamil” is a singular identity is problematic as I find several people with a dichotomous approach to what “Tamil” means tend to create difficulties for the more trans-cultural individuals with Tamil upbringing.

  4. @tamilstudent i agree with the notion that we should keep our culture intact and passing it down to our kids which includes speaking the language but you quoting the Chinese as an example is so far off its not funny.. they may speak their own language/dialects, but when it comes to their names, almost everyone has an english name. and they are not christians by faith.. i ask 2 ppl on why so, why the additional english name? and they say its cooler, modern compared to their chinese name. yes. i did actually ask them. Even Jackie Chan once said that the most Chinese youngsters think other cultures are more cooler than theirs that they will mimic/idolize them.

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