The Sun Sea Saga Four Years Later: One Canadian Remembers

By: Gary Anandasangaree

It is hard to imagine that it was four years ago today that the MV Sun Sea, escorted by an RCMP vessel, pulled into the Esquilmalt Lagoon while all the major Canadian media outlets watched and recorded the event from the Songhese First Nations Reserve in Esquilmalt, British Columbia. Everyone ashore was shocked at the initial sighting of the ship that carried 492 people from Thailand to Canada. How on earth could 492 people be on a ship the size of a football field, let alone, live, sleep, eat, and play for over 110 days as the small vessel crossed the Pacific?

Many had embarked on such a journey here prior to the Sun Sea, of course. Canada has been a haven for refugees and immigrants numerous times over the last 400 years. Yet for some reason, the Sun Sea arrival created a media storm, with accusations that those onboard were jumping the queue, were not refugees but economic migrants, and of course, that they were terrorists and people smugglers. They were deemed “undesirable” without any credible assessment of who they actually were and what might have compelled them to leave their homeland. Four years later, those 492 stories have yet to be told.

I arrived in Esquimalt four years ago to hear them, and in my role as an advocate, I found myself immersed and overwhelmed by what they had to tell me.

Sun Sea ship

Part of my motivation for engaging, aside from simply a compassionate response, was to separate fact from fiction – specifically the Sri Lankan government’s rhetoric with regard to the latter. Shortly after the boat’s arrival, reports from Sri Lankan intelligence indicated that another boatful of Tamils was on the high seas seeking entry to Canada. Synonymous with the word Tamil those days was the term ‘terrorist’. Despite the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009, the Sri Lankan government continued to brand all those who disagreed with them and who criticized them as terrorists. Such a strategy served to demonize Tamils the world over, and despite the efforts of the Tamil diaspora to demand a solution to long standing issues of the Tamil Nation.

These assertions were however quickly challenged, as the first images of the so-called “terrorists” were that of an infant getting off the ship with his mother. Then came another child, and then another. Over the course of what was over 6 hours of the disembarkation process, Canadians saw such glimpses of those seeking safety and security, providing all of us with an immediate sense this story had to deviate significantly from the official government line.

Gary Anandasangaree at a Tamil Media Press Conference in Toronto on August 12, 2014

My first encounter with the Tamil refuggees was on Saturday afternoon at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women. The women at the prison were in the gym area of the compound, all bewildered and shocked, but for the first time in years, safe. I couldn’t imagine the emotions running through the women, many of who had scars. The open scars were easier to spot - the neck injuries, the wounds, the missing limbs, and the faces filled with fear. But these scars were hinted with a sense of great relief that one journey had ended, with another one waiting to begin. I could never forget an older woman, who could be anyone’s grandmother - pleasant, kind, with a smile that would charm anyone. As tears rolled down her eyes, and as we sat around in a circle, I just could not bear it anymore. The stories started to come out. One person died on the boat. Many more fell sick, although not to the levels initially expected. One woman was so worried because her brother had been taken by the “white vans” in northern Sri Lanka just before she boarded and started the journey. She didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Everyone had lost someone in the war. Most were displaced multiple times during their lifetimes, and most were in the detention camps set up by the government at the end of the war on May 19, 2009. Those being held at Alouette were just women, many of whom who had their husbands onboard, and some with adult children. Time just seemed to have passed by so quickly and it was time for me to call it a day. I just couldn’t leave without giving grandma a huge hug - one that would result in two strangers breaking down together. But I couldn’t sleep until I found out that the brother was alive. Our office in Toronto made a call to a concerned parent in Sri Lanka in the middle of the night to confirm that their daughter had arrived in Canada and they confirmed that the brother was still alive, but being harassed. That Sunday, the triage started. Fraser Regional Correctional Centre had been preparing for what seemed like the second coming. The men were transported to Fraser Regional Correctional Centre and I started to see them in small groups, as I could not simply speak to each and every one separately. I handed out a translated document outlining the process to expect, and how to reach the Canadian Tamil Congress if they needed help. Then the conversation started, and grown men started to cry. A journalist was injured while taking pictures of destruction during the last weeks of the war. The other journalist had witnessed the hospital being bombed – the same hospital that is the subject of the war crimes investigation.

I couldn’t listen to all of their stories - there simply wasn’t enough time - but the parts I heard stunned me. It made me feel guilty, and ashamed for the failure of the Tamil diaspora and the international community. Until the arrival of this boat one would think this war was without witnesses; there was propaganda from both sides; but very little from neutral parties, either locally, or from the international community. But these innocent civilians were those witnesses. No wonder there was such an effort to tell their stories before they could; the dangerous cargo the Sun Sea carried was the truth.

After my time with the refugees, I left Vancouver International Airport en route to Toronto, and I remember taking in the magnificent cityscape of Vancouver from the air, then passing through the Rockies, feeling overwhelmed by majestic beauty of this country – a nation made great by refugees and immingrants like those whom I had just spent time with, those who embraced Canada over the generations.

Of course, Canada has not always embraced those who have arrived at its shores with just claims for refuge and safety. The stories of “none is too many” and the Komogata Maru incident must be acknowledged and understood as a part of our history. Yet thankfully, with the case of the Sun Sea migrants, Canada can say it lived up to its international obligations and Canadian law and allowed these 492 Tamils to land and be processed here. Four years later, Canadians can be proud we did the right thing and gave these migrants a new home and the turn of a page on a tragedy we are only beginning to understand. The work is not done as many of the refugees have been living in limbo as the refugee determination system has consistently been obstructed by the governments resolve to limit refugees to this country.

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