The Boat People by Sharon Bala - In late June of 2009 a cargo ship filled with 503 Sri Lankan Tamils is intercepted by the Canadian Navy just off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
In a heart wrenching scene Mahindan is separated from his 6 year old son, Sellian. Men and women will be in different camps. The children go with the women but Chithra, Sellian’s mother had died in childbirth. Father and son had never spent a day apart. Mahindan encourages Sellian saying it will only be for a short time and the Aunties will take care of him. With his son gone “Mahindan’s hand felt oddly empty at his side”.
On July 1, Canada Day, Peter Gigovaz and Priya Rajakaran , a senior counsel and articling student respectively at Elliott, McCadden and Lo in Vancouver are on their way at 4:00 in the morning to Vancouver Island. Gigovaz has chosen Priya because of her Tamil Sri Lankan heritage. She does not tell him her Tamil language skills are rudimentary.
Gigovaz speaks of Canada having “a split personality” with regard to refugees - at times welcoming and other times rejecting.
They are assigned several clients. Mahindan and Sellian are two of them. The arrivals cannot understand why they are not just accepted as refugees. They left a war torn land on a rusting ship to travel almost half-way across the world. They had thought they would be free to enter Canada on arrival. Now they face a complex refugee process with an uncertain end.
The book shifts back and forth between the proceedings in Canada and the circumstances, starting 7 years earlier in Sri Lanka, that led the 503 to flee on the rusting cargo ship.
Mahindan and his wife, Chithra, had lived in Kilinochchi, the capital of Tamil Eelam, with friends and family. In 2002 they speak almost abstractly of the Tamil Tigers who chased the government soldiers away and govern the area.
It is a book with unsparing stories of suffering and death that are the consequences of the brutal civil war coming to its end in Sri Lanka. I could barely read of the earlier time knowing what was to come after the ceasefire ended in 2002.
Moving back to 2009 Grace Nakamura is a new Immigration Adjudicator. A long time mentor, Fred Blair, who is now in the Federal Government cabinet has obtained the position for her. She is not a lawyer. Grace is confident she can master the rules and guidelines and policies and law. The Minister is looking for adjudicators that will not merely admit a refugee because of a claim of persecution. He believes many on the ship were Tigers.
Of Japanese descent Grace’s family had been interned and badly treated during World War II. Her mother, despite being afflicted with dementia, is striving to gain recognition of the mistreatment of the Canadian Japanese. They were considered dangers to Canada during the war.
The hearings, detention and admissibility, grind on month after month.
Horrific stories are told to Grace. Some appear carefully crafted. Are they true? There is usually no evidence of either corroboration or contradiction. Of what use is general knowledge of the violent and vicious end to the war. Will the claimants be persecuted if returned? Who among the 503 should Canada admit?
From life and legal experience how evidence is given is as important as the words said. Most of the evidence of the claimants is given in Tamil. When interpretation is involved the task of discerning truth becomes more daunting. Nuance is lost in translation.
I am grateful I have never had to handle such hearings. The lawyers are diligent in advancing the cause of the claimants. The toil on their psyches would be immense for losing sends clients back to an, at best, hostile land.
And what if one or more of the claimants was a committed Tiger? The Tigers were designated a terrorist organization. Would Canada ever admit such a claimant? Such claimants would face the greatest risk if deported back to Sri Lanka.
Priya’s family had left Sri Lanka after earlier persecutions by the Sihalese majority. They had applied to emigrate to several countries and been accepted by Canada.
For Canada the underlying question is whether the boat people should have applied to come to Canada officially. Is systemic discrimination and periodic violence towards the Tamils sufficient for claiming refugee status?
Conflicting emotions run through all in the book and myself as reader. I am the grandson of Norwegian immigrants on one side of my family and on the other side the descendant of Irish immigrants who came almost 200 years ago. None of them faced hearings to justify their staying in Canada. At the same time I am not comfortable with a policy that lets anyone who reaches Canada stay here. I have yet to work out in my mind the balance on who gets to stay.
I was completely absorbed in Mahindan’s fight to stay in Canada with Sellian. His cause was aided by skilled lawyers. It has been some time since I became so identified with a character and wanted him to succeed.
I appreciated that despite the great issues and emotions Bala did not demonize any of the main characters. Mahindan, Priya and Grace are all treated with respect. There is empathy for each of them.
It is a powerful book that will make every reader think about immigration law and recognize it will be a never ending issue. Bala has written a great novel that is all the more impressive for being her first novel. The Boat People is one of the finalists for the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for legal fiction. (July 8, 2018)