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Tamils remember the voyage that ended in Esquimalt 10 years ago

Last Updated Aug 13, 2020 at 11:52 pm PDT

(Courtesy Gary Anandasangaree)

About 100 of the nearly 500 migrants still don't have permanent status in Canada

Prianavan Thankavel was 19 when he arrived after 100 days at sea and remembers a not-so-warm welcome

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — Migrants who arrived in B.C. on a dilapidated cargo ship from Sri Lanka are reflecting on their journey this week.

Thursday marks 10 years since the MV Sun Sea docked in Esquimalt, carrying 380 men, 63 women and 49 minors.

A ceremony was held on the lawn of the legislature to mark the anniversary.

Prianavan Thankavel was 19 when he arrived after 100 days at sea. He now lives in Toronto and came to Victoria for the occasion.

“We didn’t get that much welcome,” he remembers. He recalls protesters in Victoria telling the government to refuse them entry. “At that time, people were calling us terrorists and criminals.”

In August of 2010, there was a lot of concern over whether the migrants had any ties to the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization. When they arrived in Esquimalt, the migrants, which included babies, were held in detention for months, until their refugee cases could be sorted out.

The federal government at the time was also keen to prosecute anyone on board who acted as human smugglers. There were a number of charges of human smuggling, but none of the charges stood. A handful of the migrants were deported.

“They should have welcomed us, and that’s why we had our gathering in Victoria,” says Thankavel, who is among the roughly 100 migrants still waiting for permanent status in Canada. He only received refugee status two years ago.

He has attended college in Toronto, but says it’s been difficult to hold down a job because he doesn’t have permanent residency.

“I can’t get any proper job. An employer doesn’t want to hire someone who might have to leave after one or two years.”

Gary Anandasangaree is the MP for Scarborough Park in Ontario and is a Tamil himself. He advocates for refugees and also attended the event in Victoria.

He says the migrants’ permanent resident applications went dormant for about seven years, but is confident the backlog is now being addressed.

“There was a lot of innuendo when the boats came. And I think that fear mongering essentially led to a lot of the delays. I think people looked at them very negatively and the migrants had to overcome many hurdles that most refugee claimants do not have to overcome,” he says.

“And that’s really hurt their chances of having a fulfilling and real life in Canada.”

Does Thankavel regret his journey to Canada?

“I am happy that I’m here. I finished my high school and I graduated from college, but I can’t move on until I get my permanent residency.”

Not all of Thankavel’s fellow travelers found a better life in Canada.

Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam’s life was ended by Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur. Kanagaratnam was also living in Canada without permanent resident status.

“The sad part there is that he basically did not have status and was very frustrated. And he was just disconnected from everyone for years. Nobody knew where he was until his body was found,” Anandasangaree says.

Anandasangaree believes the migrants would have had a different – and better – welcome had they arrived today.

“When the migrants arrived they were vilified. The opinion polls were negative. In the current context, I like to think we learned our lessons and we are much better than what we were before.”