Identity Formation in the Sinhalese Transnational Community in Toronto, Canada

Sankajaya Nanayakkara

The current literature on diaspora makes a break from the old assimilationist and methodologically nationalist perspective on migration. The older perspective took the nation-state as the unit of analysis, assumed immigrants severed relations with their homelands, migration trajectories as unidirectional, migration ended in assimilation (Brubaker 2005: 8), and eventually immigrants become citizens of the host-state.

The new perspective discounts these assumptions. It does not assume that immigrants make a sharp break with their homelands. Pre-migration networks and cultures continue to remain important in the lives of migrants in post-migration contexts. The journeys are not unidirectional or final (Brubaker 2005: 8). Migration projects are conceived as a series of “fragmented journeys” as people perpetually strive to improve their lot under conditions of regular dissatisfaction with working and living conditions. In other words, the idea of fragmented journeys is a way of conceptualising migration as a process, in which migrants slip from one category to another:  internal vs. international, permanent vs. temporary, or legal vs. illegal in the journeys of life (Collyer and de Haas 2012: 478-479).

Drawing upon these ideas, this paper discusses the formation of transnational identities in the context of social, cultural, and political life of the Sinhalese community in Toronto, Canada. I argue that unfair labour practices against and under employment of Sinhalese transnationals in the Canadian labour market have resulted in class dislocation and alienation from the larger Canadian society. This in turn has contributed to the build-up of nationalist sentiments within this community. I further argue that old and new Sinhalese social, religious, political organisations and media platforms contribute to manufacturing and reproducing this imaginary among transnationals.

Unlike the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, which has been well documented by researchers (Fuglerud 1999; McDowell 1996; Cheran 2001, 2002, 2003; Thurairajah 2011; Amarasingam 2015), there are only a few scattered studies on Sinhalese transnationalism (Gamage 1998; Gamburd 2000; Henayaka-Lochbihler and Lambusta 2004; Siddhisena and White 1999). This article seeks to make a contribution to this literature.

Demographic and Settlement Patterns of Sinhalese Transnationals
According to the 2016 Canadian Census of Population, 7,285 persons identified themselves as wholly or partially of Sinhalese ethnic origin (Statistics Canada 2019). However, based on informant accounts, the actual figure is most likely anywhere between 25,000 and 50,000 in the entire country. This number includes those who come to Canada under the skilled worker category and as refugees. The largest concentration of Sinhalese in Canada is in the province of Ontario, mainly concentrated in Toronto. According to Ferdinands (2002), large numbers of Sinhalese are found in Central Scarborough, Eastern East York, North York, and Northern Mississauga. Moreover, high concentrations of Sinhalese reside around Toronto in areas such as Brampton, Markham, Ajax, Etobicoke, and Pickering. Apart from these places, sizeable Sinhalese pockets are located in Hamilton, Richmond Hill, Waterloo, Niagara Falls, Windsor, and Ottawa. Outside the province of Ontario, Sinhalese also reside in Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, Calgary, and Edmonton.    

The first phase of Ceylonese immigration to Canada took place soon after independence in 1948. A total of 27 Ceylonese, all of them Burghers, are reported as having immigrated to Canada during the period from 1946 to 1955 (Ontario Ethnocultural Profiles: Sri Lankans 1981). In the second phase (1956-1965), Sinhalese and Tamils started to arrive in Canada (ibid). Many of these early anglicised immigrants were the privileged of the old order, who felt uneasy about their prospects in their homeland that was gradually coming under a Sinhalese nationalist agenda. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, besides direct immigration to Canada from Ceylon, large numbers of Ceylonese who had earlier settled in Britain immigrated to Canada (ibid). Until ‘Black July’ – the anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka in 1983 – and the subsequent large-scale influx of Tamil refugees, the Sinhalese constituted the largest community in Canada from Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

Socio-Economic Profiles
Today, the Sinhalese are found in all walks of life in the Canadian society. They work as security guards, dishwashers, and in production-line jobs in factories. They are found in occupations such as nursing assistants, paralegals, account clerks, and in junior positions in banks. There are also Sinhalese public sector employees who work as teachers and officials in government agencies such as Revenue Canada. In addition, they are found in such professional occupations as professors, lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants, engineers, and IT professionals. A significant number of Sinhalese are self-employed as real-estate agents, immigration consultants, and private tutors. A small number of them maintain their own businesses, such as importing foods and crafts from Sri Lanka, freight forwarding, plastic recycling, automobile service and repair, restaurants and catering. The offices of Sinhalese professionals (mainly law offices) and Sinhalese-owned business premises are predominantly located in Brampton and Scarborough. Many of these businesses and self-employed Sinhalese are heavily dependent upon the community economy for their survival. Moreover, these individuals and entities strategically use their ethnic identity for material interests.

Underemployment in the Sinhalese transnational community is a major concern. A significant number of highly skilled Sinhalese immigrants experience underemployment. It is not a temporary situation. Among the, there are those who worked as judges and university lecturers in Sri Lanka who work as security guards in Canada. There are engineers who drive cabs for a living. A significant number in the community who arrived in Canada as skilled immigrants have experienced downward social mobility and class dislocation. Before arriving in Canada, these members of the community led middle to upper-middle class lives in Sri Lanka. It has become a norm in the Sinhalese transnational community in Toronto not to ask the current occupation from fellow members, as it may cause embarrassment and loss of face.

The reason for the underemployment of skilled Sinhalese immigrants is mainly the prejudice and discrimination in the labour market, insistence on ‘Canadian experience’ and devaluation of foreign work experience, the non-recognition of foreign educational qualifications, and overt racism (i.e. discrimination based on appearance and accent). Canada is said to be one of the most multicultural countries in the world and a sought-after destination for large numbers of immigrants annually. Canada has a policy of multiculturalism and encourages it. However, recent research indicates a widening gap between immigrant and native-born outcomes in the Canadian labour market. Moreover, the persistent and widening gap between immigrant and native-born incomes is not predicted to converge in the future. This situation is causing resentment in immigrants and undermining the policy of multiculturalism and social cohesion. Hence, some researchers have come to characterise the racially polarised nature of the Canadian labour market as a form of “economic apartheid” (Galabuzi 2006).

This prejudice and discrimination in the labour market has resulted in a number of outcomes in the Sinhalese transnational community in Toronto. Some of the skilled immigrants have packed their bags and returned to the home country. The others grudgingly remain in Canada for the sake of their children’s future. Many of them turn to self-employment as real-estate agents and brokers who make a living in the community economy. Moreover, I contend that unfair labour practices have contributed to class dislocation and economic and social alienation of Sinhala transnationals from the larger Canadian society. This in turn has fostered an attachment to ethno-nationalism as a means of overcoming the sense of alienation felt in the host country. Many ‘Sri Lankan’ (more or less Sinhalese only) community-based organisations and media outlets provide a space for the expression of this sentiment and for its reinforcement.

According to the theory of reactive ethnicity, when people experience racism, they begin to increasingly identify with their ethnicity as a buffer to this situation (Nagra 2011: 426).  Similarly, Ayon, Ojeda, and Ruano (2018) argue that the highly discriminatory and restrictive immigration policies in places such as Arizona have led Mexican immigrant parents to culturally socialise their children to strengthen their ethnic identities as a buffer against prejudice and discrimination.

Sinhalese Transnationals
The Sinhalese transnational community in Toronto has a vibrant social and cultural life. It revolves around events and activities organised by numerous community based organisations. Some of these events include New Year festivals, sil campaigns, dinner-dances, sports events, dramas, and musical concerts. Moreover, the Sinhalese transnational community in Toronto has active electronic and print media including community television programmes, a community radio broadcast, and several newspapers.

At times, the Sinhalese transnational cultural life transgresses the norms of the homeland Sinhalese culture. Such transgressions include instances of women performing ceremonial drumming in community events, bhikkunis delivering sermons in temples on significant religious occasions, and Buddhist monks driving automobiles. This is a good example of cultural hybridisation: mixing of cultures as a result of globalisation that results in unique combinations (Ritzer and Dean 2015: 215-216). However, a close reading would reveal that the core of the Sinhalese transnational culture remains highly conservative and ethno-nationalist.

The Sinhalese transnational community identifies with a hegemonic notion of the Sinhalese nation constructed by Sinhalese nationalist ideologues such as Gunadasa Amarasekara. According to this construction, the Sinhalese nation is conceived in terms of a romanticised authentic egalitarian village devoid of inequality and exploitation. The Sinhalese transnational imagination celebrates and reproduces this notion through performances in the form of song, dance, and drama in many of the events organised by community-based organisations. These performances tend to generate a sense of nostalgia in the host country for a lost pastoral past, and perpetuate an illusion of a more authentic way of life in the home country. According to Purvis (1999), the celebration of an edited or invented nation is a means of maintaining a sense of connectedness with the past in a context of physical and emotional rupture and discontinuity under capitalism (230-231). It is to the work of some Sinhala community-based organisations in Toronto that I now turn to.

Community Organisations
The Canada-Sri Lanka Association is one of the oldest organisations in the community. It was founded in 1968 in Toronto, and remains active to this day. It was formed by middle to upper-middle class, well-educated and English-speaking Sri Lankan professionals who immigrated to Canada in the 60s and 70s. It was multi-ethnic in composition at the beginning. However, with the onset of ethnic tension in Sri Lanka, Tamil participation in its activities declined. The other prominent community organisation is the Sinhala Association of Canada. Reflecting the heightened ethnic tensions and conflict in the homeland, the association asserted its Sinhalese identity in place of a broader Sri Lankan identity. This association was formed in 1998 and has a base in the Sinhalese transnational community in Toronto. There are Sinhala Associations of this type in many cities across Canada.

Both of the above associations hold festivals and functions. Of these, the New Year festivals are noteworthy as a site where an “authentic” Sinhalese identity is asserted. These festivals are cultural spaces where “authenticity” and “tradition” are asserted in the form of dress, food, music, and dance. In many of the theatrical performances in which the 1.5 and the second generation take part, a romanticised Sinhalese village life is celebrated. Festivals such as the New Year celebrations tend to (re)produce a hegemonic conception of the Sinhalese nation as an egalitarian community rooted in a timeless Sinhalese village. Large numbers of Sinhalese, including members of the 1.5 and the second generation, are drawn to these community events. This is a good example of cultural socialisation of immigrant children through participation in community events (Ayon, Ojeda, and Ruano 2018: 61-62). This is a site where the children of Sinhala immigrants are socialised into a hegemonic construct of the Sinhala identity.

Benedict Anderson reflects on the nation as an imagined community in the following manner (2006: 15-16):

Imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them or even hear them, yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion [and] a community, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, it is always conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.

In events like the New Year festival, the Sinhalese nation is imagined as a community characterised by deep horizontal camaraderie glossing over the actual relations of inequality and oppression that prevail within it.             

Religious Practices
Buddhist temples function as religious, social, and cultural centres of the Sinhala transnational community. The temples are materially sustained by the community. Thus, the geographical distribution of Buddhist temples in Canada give a general sense of the geographical distribution of the Sinhala population. Buddhist temples tend to wield considerable influence over the Sinhala transnational community.           

The Toronto Maha Vihara was established in 1978 in Scarborough. The monks at the Maha Vihara are the pupils of the scholar-monk and Sinhalese nationalist thinker, late Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha, who also functioned as the patron of the temple. This temple is the oldest and the most prestigious Buddhist institution in the Sinhalese transnational community in Canada.

Large numbers in the Sinhalese community participate in the activities organised by the Maha Vihara. Some of the activities of the temple include programmes that observe Buddhist precepts or sil campaigns on days of religious significance, ritual pirith chanting and blessings for the Sinhalese New Year, and bhakthi geetha sessions during Buddhist festivals. It has a Dhamma School, which caters to the children of Sinhalese immigrants.

The other leading Buddhist institution is the West-End Buddhist Centre. It was formed in 1992 in Mississauga out of a bitter split that took place between two groups of monks at the Toronto Maha Vihara. Like the Maha Vihara, the West-End Buddhist Centre functions as a religious, social, and cultural centre for a large section of the Sinhalese community. The temple also runs a Dhamma School with the participation of hundreds of children of Sinhalese immigrants.

By participating in religious and other cultural activities hosted by these temples, the members of the Sinhalese transnational community affirm their ethnic identity. The Dhamma Schools in these temples function as a powerful enculturation agent of the children of the Sinhalese community. They cultivate in them the imagination of belonging to the Sinhalese nation rooted in Buddhism and Sri Lanka. In these Dhamma Schools, the children are taught the Sinhalese language, Buddhist religious teachings, and an ethnically mediated history of Sri Lanka.

Moreover, the ‘religious’ discussion forums in these temples, where adults in the community participate, function as discursive spaces where Sinhalese nationalist ideas are reproduced and re-affirmed. This may account for arson attacks on the Toronto Maha Vihara, attributed to supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the war ended in Sri Lanka in May 2009, and once again in November of the same year.

Political Organisations
The Sri Lanka United National Association of Canada (SLUNA) is the leading political organisation in the community. It was formed in August 1983 soon after the anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka, by a group of middle-class Sinhalese in Toronto, to counter Tamil separatist propaganda in Canada. In 1985, the SLUNA organised an international conference in Toronto and formed the World Federation of Sri Lankan Associations. It was a project to link all expatriate Sinhalese nationalist groups. Moreover, the SLUNA played an active role to de-legitimise the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord – which recognised Tamil political rights in Sri Lanka – by hosting conferences of Sinhalese nationalist activists in Canada to mobilise Sinhalese transnational opinion against it. Further, the organisation initiated legal action that challenged the Provincial Councils Bill, a provision of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord on political power sharing with Tamils, in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. 

As the Sinhalese transnational community’s undisputed spokesperson during the height of the war in Sri Lanka, the SLUNA plays a central role in articulating the community’s political imagination. The SLUNA subscribes to the Jathika Chinthanaya (‘National Consciousness’) ideology. Jathika Chinthanaya views Sri Lanka as the exclusive homeland of the Sinhalese Buddhists and all other ethnic and religious groups as outsiders, or at best as guests who live on the sufferance of the Sinhalese people (Nanayakkara 2004). The SLUNA maintains close relations with like-minded expatriate Sinhalese groups and with ultra-nationalist elements in Sri Lanka. It is one of the leading carriers of nationalist ideas in the Sinhalese transnational community in Canada.

Appiah (2006) speaks of politicisation of identities: how politicians or political activists mobilise feelings or associations of belonging to certain identities for political gain (16). The SLUNA politicises ethnic identities. It mobilises transnational Sinhalese political imagination in a way that undermines inter-ethnic solidarity and coexistence, and reproduces exclusivist and hegemonic notions of ethno-cultural identity.

Ethnic Media
The electronic Sinhalese media consist of two community television programmes and a community radio broadcast. All the programmes are operated from Toronto. These television and radio shows mainly focus on performances of Sinhalese artists in Sri Lanka and Canada, events in the Sinhalese transnational community, announcements of forthcoming events in the community, interviews with prominent members in the Sinhalese community or prominent personalities from the home country visiting Canada, old Sinhala film footage, and so on. Most of the Canadian coverage of the Sinhalese community events is focused on Toronto.     

The content of these programmes creates a sense of an imagined community (Anderson 2006) among Sinhalese immigrants in Canada. The identity constructed in these media consists of images of both the home country and the images of life in the host country. There is a complex interplay between mobility and place. As Easthope argues, mobility and place are essential components of identity construction (2009).

The Lanka News was founded in April 1989 in Toronto. It was the first English language newspaper that catered to the Sri Lankan community in North America. It was launched by Percy Seneviratne, the founder-editor, and his brother. They were Singaporeans of Sinhalese origin who had immigrated to Canada (Seneviratne 1990: 42), sometime in the mid-late 1980s. At present there are four Sinhalese transnational community newspapers, two in Sinhala and two in English, published in Toronto. These newspapers are also circulated in other cities in Canada where sizeable Sinhalese communities are found.

All the newspapers have a major focus on the home country, Sri Lanka. The mobility aspect (Easthope 2009) of the Sinhalese transnational identity is weak in print media constructions of the community. Sinhala language community newspapers are instrumental in reproducing Sinhalese nationalist ideas. For example, one Sinhala language newspaper serialises the Mahavamsa, a heroic mytho-historical account which chronicles the Sinhalese kingship on the island, written in the sixth century C.E. by the Buddhist monk, Mahanama. The text is one of the wellsprings of contemporary Sinhalese nationalist imagination. Moreover, it is considered a source of historical legitimacy for Sinhalese nationalism in post-colonial Sri Lanka (Kemper 1991). The powerful contemporary nationalist imaginary of the historical nexus between the island, Buddhism, and the Sinhalese people, is based on the Mahavamsa. According to the Mahavamsa, the Sinhalese people are a chosen race who will safeguard Buddhism in the island of Sri Lanka, long after the passing of the Buddha.

The Sinhalese transnational community in Toronto strongly identifies with hegemonic notions of the Sinhalese nation. They remain loyal to the state of Sri Lanka. Most of them attend the Sri Lanka Day that celebrates the country’s independence regardless of the government in power in the home country. Sinhalese immigrants underscore the importance of sending their children to Sinhala language classes and Dhamma Schools conducted by the Buddhist temples, in order to maintain their cultural roots. They faithfully support and nurture the Sinhalese Buddhist establishment in the home country.

Cultural identity is perceived by the community in essential terms, as an underlying Sinhalese-ness that is somehow beyond the play of history. Identity is conceived as a matter of the ancient past, something that awaits its discovery. It is not conceptualised in terms of the evolving present; as a matter of becoming (Hall 2003: 234, 236). This is evident by the lesser emphasis the community places on the mobility aspect of their transnational identity (Easthope 2009). This line of thinking has sapped the community of critical imagination and has led to a fixation with the past.

The Sinhalese transnational imagination has a nostalgic bent and is preoccupied with the glorification of the nation’s past. Its ethnic media contribute significantly in this regard through old Sinhala film footage, listener reminiscences, documentaries that celebrate the pristine natural beauty of Sri Lanka, and past Sinhalese Buddhist cultural achievements. Furthermore, Sinhala-language print media contribute to reproducing Sinhalese nationalist ideals. They hardly engender a critical perspective in the community or focus on life in the host country, the mobility aspect of identity (Easthope 2009). Usually, deep dissatisfaction with marketplace pluralism and its unwillingness to correct the injustices of dominant racism leads to this uncritical diasporic gaze on the home country (Radhakrishnan 2003: 128).

Sentiments of attachment and loyalty to the Sinhalese nation and the state of Sri Lanka run deep among the members of the first-generation Sinhalese immigrants. Hence, many of them tend to take a hard-line position on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. The driving force of political organisations such as SLUNA is made up of first-generation Sinhalese immigrants. Continuing ethnic tensions in the ‘homeland’ and the host country contribute to perpetuate such hard-line views in this generation.

This contributes to the narrowing of space for inter-ethnic relations between the Tamils and the Sinhalese which have been on the decline in Canada with the gradual intensification of the conflict in Sri Lanka. Tamil-Sinhala couples confront many awkward moments in the company of their kith and kin. Hence, some distance themselves from both communities and attempt to forge a Canadian identity (Abrahams 1999: 1168).

Perhaps the only partial space of exception to polarisation of Tamils and Sinhalese is in the sphere of cricket. In Toronto, cricket clubs such as the Centurions are multi-ethnic. Cricket, a legacy of the British Raj in South Asia, is now an organic part of Sri Lankan culture. It binds Sri Lankans across ethnic, religious, and class divisions at home and abroad. With the coming of age of the 1.5 and the second generation of Sinhalese immigrants, the contours of the Sinhalese transnational identity in Canada will continue to change.

Sankajaya Nanayakkara is an independent researcher currently based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.


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