What does it mean to be an immigrant on stolen lands?

Canada tells us to be proud on Canada Day but what is there to be proud of?

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A Canadian flag flying against a blue sky
This Canada Day, we can hold space for the nuances that make up the immigrant experience. PHOTO: Hermes Rivera / Unsplash

By: Meera Eragoda, Features Editor

Content warning: war, genocide, colonialism, anti-Indigeneity, racism

It’s uncomfortable but necessary to think about what it means to be a racialized immigrant settler on stolen lands. For many of us, life is better than in the countries we came from. But at whose expense has this been possible? And what forces went into making our home countries places we needed to leave in the first place? Understanding this might help us all learn how to better work together in solidarity.

I came to this country with my single Tamil mother, fleeing both the genocide of our people in Sri Lanka and my abusive father. My mother struggled, disconnected from the community, with a law degree worth little here. I grew up shopping in thrift stores long before it was cool — and not in a way-ahead-of-the-game way but in a deeply shameful and poor kind of way. I saw her struggle between pride and accepting hand-me-downs from strangers who knew me. 

Life wasn’t easy at first but it slowly became more stable. And regardless of what it was like here, she taught me English first for a reason: she knew that she wanted us to leave Sri Lanka. And it was a privilege to be able to leave, as fucked up as that is. To not be one of over 300,000 internally displaced people, to not have been killed or disappeared by the Sinhalese government, and to know where our family members are (even if we don’t talk to them). We also lived in Colombo, the capital, as opposed to the north and east of Sri Lanka where Tamils are concentrated, and therefore targeted. Aside from when we visited my grandparents, we were relatively separated from the conflict with enough money to leave.

My grandparents lived in a city called Kalkudah in the east and I have vague memories of being there, surrounded by my grandfather’s rough voice and whiskey breath and my grandmother’s scratchy saris contrasting with her soft skin. Their love for me permeates into memories of dusty roads, the sea, and their farm with monkeys rustling in the trees above. I was shielded from the context we were living under but I also remember hearing practice drills at the military base beside their farm. 

Placing this into historical context, I learned how colonialism touches everything. On the surface, the civil war in Sri Lanka is a straightforward conflict between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority. However, this conflict emerged from tensions British colonizers capitalized on and exacerbated. Once the British left, they handed power back over to the Sinhalese who started enacting discriminatory policies, culminating in the two genocides of Tamil people in 1983 and 2009. 

Like many other Tamils fleeing the genocide, our first point of entry was Toronto. This is where the largest diaspora of Eelam Tamils outside of Sri Lanka resides. I, like many of us, grew up being told Canada was a utopian alternative to the US. Canadians are polite, multicultural, and more progressive than the US. We’re told this even as we face racism and discrimination. On the other one hand, I am safer here. I have more opportunities, I can be openly queer, my non-binary identity is accepted, I can have tattoos, and I don’t live under a state that is trying to enact genocide on my people. 

At the same time, fleeing one genocide just to benefit from the genocide of another group of people places me, and others like me, in a complicated position. The more deeply I examine my place here, the more I see the intersecting threads of colonialism that make up this country. The British created a problem in my country and left a sea of wreckage behind them as they exited. Then they sold us the solution by way of immigration to countries like Canada. Canada has a history of using immigrants to claim ownership over the land and continue their displacement of Indigenous people. In many ways, we are all pawns in this game.

When I immigrated to Canada, there was little education about Indigenous people and Canada’s genocide and displacement of them. What I was taught made it seem like this history was so long ago. I didn’t learn that the last residential school closed in 1996. I didn’t learn that the residential school system morphed into the foster care system. I didn’t learn about the over-incarceration of Indigenous people or how many still grapple with very real intergenerational trauma resulting from displacement and colonialism. I didn’t learn about the vast diversity of Indigenous cultures, their resistance, their resilience, their creativity, and their care for the land

The more I learned about colonialism, the more I realized how interconnected oppression is and, conversely, how it would be so powerful to come together to dismantle the system. Conservatives of any ilk like to tell us the success of other groups comes at our own detriment.

We’ve been taught to divide so they can conquer. And we have been taught this. Who told us to see brown people as terrorists? Who told us to see Indigenous people as criminals? But how do we all unite so we can conquer colonialism and capitalism? Sometimes I think like we silo our own movements instead of fighting for collective liberation. But who taught us this? When we should be seeing a win for one group as progress and as opening space for us all to uplift each other and unite against colonial and capitalist structures. 

It’s true that many of us can’t go back to our home countries. I, for one, have been so separated from the language and the culture that even if I wanted to, I would not be able to live in Sri Lanka. We can hold multiple truths about our experiences here. We can be thankful for the opportunity and the relative safety and we can also recognize we’re here because of colonialism and capitalism. We can realize we can’t return to our countries but also understand that our presence here perpetuates settler colonialism. For those of us who are vocal against oppression in our home countries, we need to see the connections here and show up in solidarity with Indigenous people. That means paying attention to Indigenous voices calling to change the system, that means showing up when they ask us to, that means educating ourselves and our communities, and that means holding politicians accountable.

None of us are untouched by colonialism, whether we benefit or not. And this Canada Day, I think all of us have a duty to examine our history and help other immigrants to understand that when we celebrate “Canada,” we celebrate the same forces that set the stage for volatility in our countries that are responsible for the loss of so many cultures and languages, are responsible for the destruction of land, and an ongoing legacy of genocide right here. Britain has colonized the world. We don’t have to let them colonize our minds.