Shan Vincent de Paul is a Canadian recording artist and director who was born in Jaffna. He is part of a Toronto-based artist collective, sideways, which includes Coleman Hell, La+ch, and Michah.
Today it’s Libya, in the summer it was Myanmar, last year it was Syria, in 2009 it was Sri Lanka. Every once in a while our timelines will get flooded with horrific photos and articles bringing to light some form of mass injustice occurring in another part of the world, that’s not North America. Whether that’s a refugee crisis or a genocide unfolding. Hashtags will float around for a good week and armchair-activism becomes rampant, then poof! – back to our regularly scheduled program of sharing memes and daily news. There’s a misconception that these horrific events are a rare or a yearly occurrence, when in reality it’s every day life for millions of refugees and asylum seekers around the world. Though it just takes the right amount of viral content and a catchy hashtag for it to be recognized within the western cultural sphere.
I still remember the protests that unfolded in 2009 so vividly. The Sri Lankan civil war was reaching a boiling point and the death toll was climbing at an alarming rate. Every time I’d see images of the war and the aftermath of the attacks, my stomach would turn into knots and I’d feel an unbearable sense of guilt. Here I was in Toronto, in the safety of my own home, watching thousands of my brothers and sisters being wiped out, feeling completely powerless and privileged at the same time. My family had fled from the conflict early, we left the country and through various underground networks managed to make it to Canada as refugees on June 13th 1986. Canada was a promised land to so many Tamil refugees, not only as an escape from the ongoing conflict, but as a place that offered so many new opportunities.
The Tamil population in Toronto is one of the largest in the world, so organizing a mass crowd to protest throughout 2009 was not the difficult part. Getting the attention of our fellow Canadians and the rest of the world was the real challenge. All forms of protests including human chains, sit-ins, hunger strikes, internet activism and occupation of major streets took place throughout the year. It was a cry for help, and yet we were widely ignored. Though many political powers like the late Jack Layton and several parliament members urged the Canadian government to call upon Sri Lanka to cease fire and begin negotiations – it was still not enough to make any significant change. I still recall being amongst a massive crowd at Queen’s Park during one of the protests and above us flew one of those low flying planes that carry banners for advertisers. Except this one wasn’t flying an advertisement, the plane was trailed by a sign that read “GO BACK HOME!!”. Someone had actually taken the time, effort and money to create a sign to tell us we weren’t welcome during our time of crisis. It was a clear a moment of realization for me, that no matter how long we’ve lived in this country or how hard we try to integrate ourselves into this society, we’ll never fully be “Canadian”. I’ve come to learn that the feeling of not belonging and displacement doesn’t ever go away, accepting that has been crucial in defining what being Canadian means to me.
I’ve tried several times over the years to write about the Tamil plight in my music and my family’s journey as immigrants, nothing stuck. It all felt too heavy-hearted and political. It’s when I realized I was looking backwards into our dark history rather than looking forward into our potential and growth. That’s when “Walk on Water” came to me. It felt right. The song spilled out in a matter of minutes, like it was brewing up in me for years. I wanted to write the ultimate redemption song. A song not only for my family and the Tamil people, but for refugees and immigrants around the world that have to live with a perpetual sense of displacement for their entire life. It was also my response to that fucking plane that flew over our protest that day. It’s heartbreaking to think about why we were protesting, however, I’ve never seen that many Tamil people come together in the city my entire life, it was deeply moving. I’ve felt a sense of belonging I’ve never felt in Toronto before. Despite the sign that plane was carrying that day, I felt right at home.