In her recent piece on the Tamil protests in Toronto, Globe and Mail journalist Christie Blatchford asks “Whose rights are really being trampled?” The answer, implied but never explicitly pronounced, is that in protesting the atrocities occurring in Sri Lanka the Tamils are running roughshod over the rights of Blatchford and the group of “many Torontonians” she claims to be speaking for. It quickly emerges that her grievance isn’t only the illegality of some of the tactics employed by the protestors, but rather the fact that Tamil-Canadians feel they have the right to protest on Canadian soil at all. Blatchford complains,
Many Torontonians have long been puzzled by how without any public discussion they remember, let alone any consensus, their city has become home to so many folks from around the world who periodically hold the rest of the place hostage while they make their voices heard about the very issues or crises that drove them here in the first place.
Poor, disenfranchised Christie, robbed of her prerogative to determine who is allowed to settle in Toronto and who is granted a political voice! (Unfortunately for her, that’s just not the way that liberal citizenship and liberal democracy work.) Blatchford portrays the provision of rights and freedoms to Canadians like Tamils as a breach or a threat to the rights and freedoms of Canadians like her: “Are the Tamils merely exercising their rights,” she asks, “or have they somehow breached the covenant, unwritten but understood, they have or ought to have made with their new country?” (Question for Blatchford: What exactly is this unwritten but understood covenant, and does it apply to all Canadians?)
This jeremiad will sound familiar to those acquainted with Blatchford’s work. Her piece on Tamil-Canadians articulates sentiments similar to those expressed in another Blatchford gem – “Ignoring the biggest elephant in the room” – written following the 2006 round-up of 17 Canadian Muslim terror suspects in Toronto (the “elephant” being the fact that all 17 suspects were Muslim). “Why, it’s not those young men – with their three tonnes of ammonium nitrate and all the little doohickeys of the bomb-making trade – who posed the threat,” Blatchford sarcastically remarked. “No sir: They, thank you so much, are innocent until proved otherwise . . . It’s those bastard vandals (probably crazed right-wing conservatives, or maybe the Jews) who yesterday morning broke windows at a west-end mosque who stand before us as the greatest danger to Canadian society.” The presumption of the terror suspects’ innocence (a fundamental legal right), and the protection of Muslim institutions from Islamophobic backlash, are depicted as compromising the safety and security of Canadians like Blatchford.
As political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued, expulsion from political community is a necessary prerequisite for stripping the rights from a group of individuals. And so Blatchford attempts to justify her stance on the Tamil protests by portraying the Tamils as un-“Canadian,” questioning the legality of their very presence in Canada:
When, earlier this month, organizers were asking 100,000 Tamils to gather on Toronto streets (this particular rally was later canceled) to protest, I remember a friend asking with mild bewilderment, ‘Since when did we have 100,000 Tamils?’ . . . We live in a country where we don’t even know how many of our fellows are Tamils from Sri Lanka, but are simultaneously asked to accept on faith that they are properly and legally here and to extend to them every privilege conferred by Canadian citizenship – and to suck it up without complaint.
Armed with no evidence* other than her “friend’s” astonishment, Blatchford insinuates that the citizenship status of the majority of Toronto’s Tamil population is suspect, and their entitlement to Canadian privileges dubious.
This tactic is not new to the pages of Canadian newspapers. Veteran journalist Robert Fisk noted that following the arrests of the Toronto 17, “the accused 17 – and, indeed their families and sometimes the country’s entire Muslim community – [were] referred to as ‘Canadian-born’ . . . And the implications are obvious; there are now two types of Canadian citizen: The Canadian-born variety (Muslims) and Canadians (the rest)”.
Rendering particular groups (in these cases Tamils and Muslims) as “less-Canadian-than-thou” – as fifth columns acting in the interests of a state or nation other than Canada – is dangerous on two fronts:
1) It absolves the government of its duty to heed certain of its constituents’ calls to behave responsibly and ethically in its foreign policy (towards Sri Lanka, for instance);
2) It annuls the government’s obligation to deal justly and equitably with all Canadians (and it is becoming ever more apparent that this Canadian government feels no obligation to fulfill its responsibilities to all its citizens – witness Abousfian Abdelrazik stranded in Khartoum and Omar Khadr incarcerated in Guantanamo).
And so to return to the question that started this piece: “Whose rights are really being trampled?” Whose rights really are in danger of being trampled by the stampede of racist sentiment unleashed in the Canadian media by journalists like Blatchford? Clearly it is not Christie Blatchford’s rights that are endangered, but rather those of the groups whose “Canadian-ness” she so baselessly asperses.
*Blatchford does cite a Toronto Star article which she believes bolsters her claim that “no one really knows how many Tamils are in Toronto, or Canada.” “There was an astonishing piece in the Toronto Star earlier this spring,” she states, “trying – in vain, it should be noted – to make sense of the most recent Statistics Canada numbers (29,435 Tamils in the Greater Toronto Area) and the estimates of other studies (which suggest the number may be in excess of 200,000).” Blatchford neglects to mention that the Star article did explain the discrepancy between census results and the estimated Tamil population – in part by noting that “academics have made a good case for why a community made up of war-scarred refugees with an intense loyalty to Canada might not identify themselves as just Tamils” – and nowhere suggested that illegal Tamil immigration was significant.
Image by Flickr user vipez, used under the Creative Commons License.