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Tamil Heritage in Canada

In Canada, January is designated Tamil Heritage Month, providing an opportunity to acknowledge the vibrant history and culture of the Tamil community while reflecting on its valuable contributions to Canadian society.


Recognizing and celebrating cultural heritage allows Canadians to cultivate a more inclusive and equitable society, aligning with the principles of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10, which aims to diminish inequalities within and among countries.


A brief history of the Tamil people


The Tamil people are an ethnic group with a documented history spanning over 2,000 years in southern India and Sri Lanka. The first Tamil migrants to Canada arrived as early as the 1940s. More recently, however, migration increased in the wake of escalated ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka, which led to the 1983 riots or Black July. This event sparked a 26-year civil war, leading to the loss of thousands of lives, the destruction of homes and businesses, and the forced uprooting and displacement of thousands of Tamils. Many fled to Canada as refugees.


Today, Canada is home to one of the largest Tamil diasporas in the world, with a population of nearly 240,000 in 2021, nearly half of which resides in the Greater Toronto Area.


Tamil celebration


Unanimously declared in 2014, January was selected for Tamil Heritage Month because of Thai Pongal, a harvest festival celebrated by Tamils worldwide. Pongal’s celebration spans four days and signifies the start of the Tamil month, ‘Thai’ (mid-January to mid-February).


On Bhogi, the first day of the four-day Pongal festival, old belongings are cleaned or discarded to welcome the new year.


The second day, Surya Pongal, honours the Sun God. Colourful decorative floor patterns called kolam are drawn at the entrance of one’s home—households cook pots of fresh rice with milk until it overflows. This meal is offered to the Sun God, and family members have a feast with Pongal dishes.

A Pongal festival kolam depicting an overflowing cookpot


The next day, Mattu Pongal, is devoted to honouring cattle (Mattu) in remembrance of the labour they provide in ploughing land. Cows are bathed and embellished with multi-coloured flowers and garlands.


Pongal ends with Kanum Pongal, a day emphasizing community bonding. Families gather for lavish meals, and younger family members seek blessings from their elders.


In Toronto, Tamil Heritage Month events occur at City Hall and the University of Toronto, Scarborough. Local Tamil artists perform captivating musicals and traditional dances, and cultural cuisine and rituals are shared amongst community members.


Tamil growth in Canada


Since arriving in Canada, Tamil people have made great strides in their involvement and contribution to the fabric of Canadian society. Notably, they have actively participated in the Canadian legislative system at the municipal, provincial and federal levels.


In 2011, Rathika Sitsabaiesan was elected as the first Tamil-Canadian member of Parliament, a New Democrat in Scarborough-Rouge River.


Sathiyasangaree “Gary” Anandasangaree was also elected as a member of Parliament for Scarborough-Rouge Park in 2015. He has extensive experience in the federal government and played a pivotal role in the declaration of January as Tamil Heritage Month.


In 2018, Vijay Thanigasalam was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and is currently the associate minister of Transportation in Ontario. He introduced Bill 104, an act to proclaim Tamil Genocide Education Week in Ontario.


Tamil representation in various aspects of Canadian society is essential for improving cultural understanding and delivering well-informed and inclusive policymaking. It also promotes civic engagement and advocacy for critical issues like human rights and cultural preservation, aligning with Canada’s dedication to pluralism and diversity.


There are also Tamil organizations like the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC), a non-profit entity representing Tamil-Canadian voices and the Tamil Youth Organization - Canada, which empowers Tamil youth through arts and culture, athletics, education and career development, and human rights and advocacy.


In 2021, funding from all three levels of government was secured for the construction of the Tamil Community Centre in Northeast Scarborough, a space intended to unite the vibrant Tamil community under one roof.


Canada continues to grow as a country, and we must continue to stand united for equal opportunities, embrace cultural diversity, and strive for a future without disparity. Together, we can create a more inclusive nation that embodies the spirit of a cultural mosaic.

Edited by Angel Xing and Ali Shahrukh Pracha

Image source (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)


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