Janet McLellan Cambodian Refugees in Ontario: Religious Identities, Social Cohesion and Transnational Linkages

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Janet McLellan
Cambodian Refugees in Ontario: Religious Identities, Social Cohesion and Transnational Linkages
Ethnic, political, and religious identities among Cambodian refugees in Ontario are in large part constructed through connections with transnational communities and homeland linkages. Although local expressions of identity reflect responses to resettlement and adaptation to Canadian social norms and mores (especially the politics of multiculturalism), they remain firmly embedded in traditional hierarchies, ideologies, lines of power (leadership), political authority, and legitimacy. Despite horrific circumstances and experiences, the tenacious spirit of Cambodian refugees in Ontario enables them to cope with their extensive pre-migration suffering and continuing resettlement difficulties. Religious identities, practices, and institutions, traditional monastic/lay relations, and performances of music and dance play vital roles in social cohesion and community viability. The legacy of holocaust survival and the subsequent process of re-creating and re-defining these identities and roles have challenged traditional religious identities and cultural activities, creating numerous divisions within the community. Yet, apart from kinship support and visits, religious and cultural contacts in Canada remain the primary means through which transnational linkages are maintained with Cambodia, influencing generational dynamics and a variety of community development and rehabilitation projects.
Les identités religieuses, politiques et ethniques parmi les réfugié(e)s Cambodgiens et Cambodgiennes en Ontario sont construites en grande partie par les connections avec les communautés transnationales et par les liens avec la mPre patrie. Les manifestations d’identités locales reflPtent des réactions B l’installation dans un nouveau pays et B l’adaptation aux normes et moeurs canadiennes (en particulier la politique du multiculturalisme); néanmoins, ces manifestations demeurent enrobées par hiérarchies et idéologies traditionnelles, et aussi par les liens qui existent avec les politicien(ne)s, et les hommes et femmes d’affaires. Malgré des circonstances et expériences horrifiques, l’esprit tenace de ces réfugié(e)s leur permet de tenir tLte B leurs souffrances au Cambodge et aux difficultés de réinstallation qu’ils connaissent au Canada. Identités religieuses, pratiques et institutions, relations traditionnelles entre moines et laVques, la musique et la danse — tous aident énormément B renforcer la cohésion sociale et la viabilité communautaire. Mais l’héritage du passé et les difficultés du présent mettent aussi en question les identités religieuses traditionnelles et les activités culturelles, créant de nombreuses divisions B l’intérieur de la communauté. Cependant, exception faite du support de la parenté, les contacts religieux et culturels au Canada offrent les moyens principaux pour maintenir des liens transnationals avec le Cambodge; ceux-ci influencent la dynamique entre les générations, en plus d’un grand nombre de développements communautaires et projets de réhabilitation.


For over two thousand years, Theravada Buddhist beliefs and teachings have influenced Cambodian social norms and systems of social stratification. Over ninety percent of Cambodians are ethnic Khmer Buddhists. In rural villages, the Buddhist wat (temple) was the primary institution outside of the family, and played a key role in disseminating information from outside the village. Theravada Buddhism inspired Cambodian national and cultural identities and gave broad guidance as to standards of conformity for men, women and children. Traditional Khmer society consisted of three main status groups: urban royalty and government officials who lived in small towns and urban areas; rural based peasants; and Buddhist monks (Bitt l99l). By the mid-twentieth century, however, two separate Buddhist systems were identified, affiliated with rural and urban locales (Harris 1998). The urban, referred to as Thommayuth, was first introduced in 1864 from Thailand and represented an aristocratic approach to Buddhism that emphasized Western ideals and education, strict adherence to the vinaya (rules of monastic discipline), as well as classical Khmer culture (Mysliwiec l988; Harris 1998). Mohanikay, the original rural village-based practice of Buddhism, remained entrenched in traditional behaviour and folkways, and supported a conservative, rather than reform, approach. Mohanikay was present in every village, town, and city, effectively integrating the entire country with some sixty-five thousand Cambodian monks residing in over three thousand temples (ibid).
Between 1970 and 1975, when Cambodia was under the pro-American government of Lon Nol, more than one-third of the wats were destroyed by American bombing and communist retaliation (Keyes 1994). During the four years (1975 to 1979) under the Khmer Rouge (communist Cambodians), the entire Cambodian religious and cultural system, famous for its tranquillity and temperate lifestyle, was brutally dismantled and ravaged: few temples were left, most Khmer sutras and Buddhist commentaries destroyed, and all monks either killed or defrocked (ibid). Over twenty-five thousand monks were executed or died from numerous hardships, many of them senior monks with religious knowledge (ceremonial training and meditational insights) and capable of providing ritual healing therapies (Mysliwiec l988; Keyes 1994; Harris 1998). During the Vietnamese occupation (1980 to 1993), most defrocked monks were not allowed to resume monastic life. Ordination was restricted to men fifty years or older, thus creating a severe shortage of monks for ritual services, the teaching of pali chants and suttas, and the rebuilding of pagodas. In the late l980s, when younger men were finally able to be ordained, many senior monks had already died, taking with them years of experience and historical knowledge of Khmer Buddhism. Despite the extreme shortage of monks and teachers, Cambodians in both Cambodia and the diaspora continue to strive to re-create religious and cultural traditions, and to redefine their significance as crucial icons of national and individual identity.
Impact of the Khmer Rouge:
For over thirty years, Cambodian people experienced unrelenting war, violence, and catastrophic stress. The massive five year U.S. military bombing campaign in Cambodia, beginning in the late l960s, and the fall of Saigon to Vietnamese communists gave rise to four years (l975 to l979) of genocide against the Cambodian people by Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot. The extremist rule of the Khmer Rouge enforced a countrywide administration based on open force, intimidation, murder, and torture. The evacuations and abandonment of cities, the forced rural labour and the purges of class enemies were based on Maoist methods learned by Khmer Rouge leaders during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Many of the Khmer Rouge soldiers who entered the capital city, Phnom Penh, on 17 April l975 were young (twelve to sixteen years old), uneducated, rural children orphaned by American bombing campaigns. Few had ever been to a city and all were indoctrinated into extreme communist ideology (Ngor l987). Within three days of the Khmer Rouge occupation, all inhabitants of Phnom Penh were forced to evacuate; those who resisted or questioned were instantly shot (ibid). Roads leading to rural areas were clogged with over two million evacuees. For weeks, no food, shelter, or water were provided; there were only orders to keep moving away from the city. Khmer people who are now resettled in Canada speak of how men, women, children, and even hospital patients were forced at gunpoint to leave Phnom Penh and other cities. Several recall how, during this time, family members were separated or died of exhaustion and illness along the roadside (McLellan 1995).
As simultaneous evacuations occurred in every major city and town in Cambodia, the schools, hospitals, banks, post offices, libraries, and temples were systematically plundered and destroyed by Khmer Rouge cadres. Individuals associated with these institutions were either immediately shot, or imprisoned and executed. The Khmer Rouge hastily established rural work communes across Cambodia to accommodate the millions of displaced people. Every Cambodian man, woman, and child was affected by the forced evacuation of Cambodia’s cities and towns: the horrific living conditions in rural slave labour camps, mass killings and executions, starvation, rampant disease, family separation, and complete social disintegration. Former government officials, soldiers, merchants, educated and professional people, classical dancers, members of the royal family, artists, Buddhist monks, and anyone perceived as being Western influenced (for example, speaking French or wearing glasses) were targeted by the Khmer Rouge for immediate execution. Almost two million Cambodians, one quarter of the population, died during this time (Kiljumen l983). Cambodians now in Canada who survived the communist Khmer Rouge regime recall their hard labour in fields, working long hours without rest, lack of food and sanitation, being under constant surveillance, and being witness to numerous acts of brutality and killing. They speak of watching their children and parents die of starvation, family members being shot and beaten, countless acts of petty cruelty and suffering, and feeling unceasing indignity, despair, fear and terror (McLellan 1995). In the words of one Cambodian-Canadian woman, “those who survived were leftovers from the dead.”
Canadian Resettlement:
Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, hundreds of thousands fled Cambodia to

Thailand and Vietnam. Approximately three hundred thousand Cambodians eventually resettled in several Western countries (United States, France, Britain, Australia, New Zealand), with Canada becoming home to over twenty thousand of them (ibid). Most Cambodians who entered Canada arrived as refugees during the early l980s. The few before l980 were diplomats, business people, and students, most of whom resided in Québec. These Khmer were granted permanent resident status when Cambodia became internationally isolated after l975. Several others outside Cambodia also came to Canada during this time as UNHCR convention refugees. Both groups were subsequently able to sponsor surviving family members and friends from Thai refugee camps. After 1979, the majority of Cambodians came to Canada as “designated class refugees” through federal government and private sponsorship programmes (ibid). Their accomplishments in resettlement, their gradual re-creation of Cambodian culture and community ties, and their successful attempts to rebuild shattered lives are a testament to the strength and tenacity of the Khmer spirit.

From l980 to l992, Canadian resettlement opportunities were provided for l8,602 Cambodians (McLellan 1995). Fewer than five of these Cambodians were Buddhist monks, most of whom continued on to the United States to join the large Cambodian temples there. Immigration totals do not include the small numbers of Cambodians who arrived prior to l980, nor do they include children subsequently born in Canada. Further, the Canadian immigration statistics do not account for the approximately one thousand Khmer Kampuchea Krom (individuals who identify themselves as ethnic Khmer but were born in Vietnam, and are, therefore, listed as Vietnamese refugees), or those Cambodians who had claimed they were Vietnamese in Thai refugee camps in order to gain a better opportunity for resettlement in Canada. Figures for the l99l census show considerably fewer Cambodians (l4,440) than the immigration data for the twelve year period between l980 and l992. Recent 2003 census data reports less than 22,000 Cambodians in Canada, despite over twenty years of family sponsorship and natural increase. The under-representation of census data stems from a variety of factors: language difficulties prevent many Cambodians from completing census forms, while others remain suspicious about divulging personal information, or revealing the number of Cambodian families living in one household. In 1990, only 214 Cambodian persons entered Canada, and in subsequent years annual numbers have not increased substantially, reflecting the continuing difficulty in sponsoring family members.

Fifty-five percent of Cambodian refugees accepted by Canada were government sponsored, and 45 percent were privately sponsored, with approximately equal numbers of males and females in these categories (McLellan 1995). Most private sponsorship was through Christian congregations under the “Master Agreement” mandate of three main groups: the Christian Reform Church, Catholic Immigrant Aid, and the Mennonite Church. Except for Québec, the majority of Cambodians who resettled in Canada were rural people, with little education or knowledge of urban life. Approximately 84 percent of Cambodian refugees admitted into Canada reported receiving little or no primary education in Cambodia, 3 percent completed primary school, 2 percent stated they finished high school and had some post-secondary education, and 92 percent could not speak either of Canada's official languages (ibid).
Outside of Québec, there were few Khmer translators in l980 who could provide interpretive services or arrange orientation and support activities for Cambodian refugees. Government and social service programmes were limited, overextended, and oriented towards the considerably larger Sino and ethnic Vietnamese groups. Since the total number of Cambodians in Canada comprised a very small portion of the Indochinese refugees, Cambodians were frequently assumed to be “Vietnamese Boat People,” and their special needs (as survivors of genocide) were not adequately understood (McLellan 1995). The virtual absence of an intellectual elite among Cambodian refugees in Ontario meant that there was little advocacy or cultural brokering on their behalf. Neither government nor private sponsors had the experience or the resources to effectively recognize and address the background and psychological requirements of Cambodian refugees, especially those highly vulnerable individuals such as widows and orphans. The lack of culturally appropriate services has affected Cambodians at both personal and community levels. In Toronto, a Cambodian Association (funded by provincial and federal government grants) has provided basic settlement services to Khmer newcomers since l98l. Until the mid-1990s, the Toronto association was separate from the large Khmer Buddhist and Cultural Community groups; unlike Montréal where a close cooperation always existed between the Communauté KhmPre du Canada and the Pagode Khmer du Canada (Khmer Buddhist temple). By 2000, little government funding (either provincial or federal) was available for Cambodian programs in Ontario, although a few agencies, such as the Carlington Community Health Centre and the Somerset West Community Health Centre in Ottawa, the Jane-Finch Family and Community Centre in Toronto, and the London Cross-Culture Learner Centre continue to provide assistance and counselling to Cambodians in need.
Cambodian community sources approximate the number of Cambodians living in Ontario to be ten thousand. Half are in Toronto and the rest in Ottawa, Kingston, Hamilton, London, St. Thomas and Windsor. Montréal is the city with the largest concentration of Cambodians, with estimates ranging from eight to ten thousand. According to 2001 census data, British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba have fewer than one thousand Cambodians each. Until 2003, most of the Toronto Cambodians were living in the high-density newcomer neighbourhoods of the Jane-Finch and Jane-Sheppard areas. Despite their high community concentration, few individuals with leadership and organizational skills could be found to help establish and maintain a Cambodian community centre or related mutual aid associations. This reflects the absence of Cambodian teachers, administrators, medical doctors, military professionals, traditional healers, and monks in Ontario. Further, due to past conditions of distrust, miscommunication, and power conflicts, networks beyond family and friends remain weak. The continuing legacy of the Khmer Rouge keeps Cambodians suspicious and critical of those aspiring to, or already in, positions of authority. Political representatives from Cambodian partisan groups continuously visit overseas communities to garner funds and support, but their activities exacerbate painful memories among older Cambodians in Ontario and further alienate the younger generation.
Cambodian refugees have not only lost families (immediate or extended), homes, possessions, social identity, and status, but also a sense of trust in one another - what Giddens (1990, 140) refers to as “ontological security.” The lack of trust is difficult to overcome and hinders the development of what Coleman (1988) refers to as a community’s “social capital,” those social structures which make it possible to achieve particular goals and replicate familiar structural relations between people to generate networks of obligations, expectations, and trustworthiness. Social capital is an “asset created by trust, solidarity and social cohesion embedded in the individuals of a community,” yet is most absent among Cambodians, the majority of whom experienced massive mistrust, fear, and broken relationships (Mehmet et al. 2002, 2336). The lack of social capital and the limited social networks not only impact on a community’s economic and institutional development, but also result in low levels of defence when their collective interest is threatened (Woolcock and Narayan 2000). An absence of social capital has existed throughout Cambodian resettlement in Ontario, and is especially evident in the lack of culturally appropriate services and programs for their social and health needs, and in their limited cultural activities, advocacy for sponsorship issues, and effective strategies to resolve youth difficulties or deal with neighbourhood hostility. Given the dimension of psychological trauma experienced by Cambodian refugees, the enormous challenges they have faced in adapting to Canada, and the overwhelming need to re-establish family networks, nor enough time or energy has been available to rebuild their community networks and social capital.
Several areas of success, however, are now increasingly evident: the recent expansion of Buddhist temples in Maple (north of Toronto), Hamilton, London and Windsor; large numbers of Cambodians purchasing homes in new neighbourhoods north of Toronto; greater participation of Khmer youth in higher education; considerable stability in marriages; the appearance of several Cambodian dance troupes (especially in Ottawa); and annual gatherings such as the Cambodian picnic in Long Sault Provincial Park in Ontario where upwards of ten thousand Cambodians come from Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, and elsewhere in Canada and the United States.
Despite educational and linguistic barriers, Cambodians remain employed in the work force. Clusters of individuals tend to work at the same organizations, such as Apsopulse (electronic assembly work) in Ottawa, high-tech factories in Kanata, Cuddy Foods in London, car assembly plants in Kitchener, factories in Hamilton, and manufacturers in Newmarket. Those with tailoring skills have become employed in clothing factories, with additional home-contract sewing. Several Cambodian women have home-based flower arranging or sewing businesses in addition to their regular employment. Some operate a small store or a booth at local markets. Some men make extra money playing popular music in Cambodian bands, and those few with skill in traditional classical music are in high demand for weddings and religious celebrations. Few Cambodians are self-employed, and those who do tend to be Chinese Cambodians who have small family-run specialty stores (grocery store, exchange currency, flower store) or food franchises (Subway Sandwiches, Coffee Time Donuts). One Cambodian owned business, Angkor Marble Import and Export, is a large organization with numerous employees. There are only one or two Cambodian identified restaurants in Ontario, although several Cambodians own restaurants featuring Thai and Vietnamese food.
Among the younger generation born and raised in Ontario, two different employment patterns emerge. Those who have left school early (age sixteen), either for marriage, family pressure, or lack of support and interest, tend to find employment where other friends or family work, such as in local factories. Those who have remained in school, completing college or university, are more likely to work in offices or in skilled professions (social work, nursing, engineering, computer science). Despite the class background similarity amongst the parents generation, subtle but distinctive class identities based on education and professional skills are now appearing among these younger Cambodians.

Most Cambodians are committed to the priority of work. This is often connected to remittance arrangements with dependent family members in Cambodia, and to facilitate return visits to Cambodia, either of which can require thousands of dollars in gifts and donations per year or per visit. Older people especially favour sending remittances to rebuild religious and cultural institutions in Cambodia. The recent success of temple fundraising in Ontario further demonstrates the overwhelming importance among Canadian Cambodians to support and rebuild religious activities and institutions in home villages and regions.
Religious Identities Among the Cambodians:
The majority of Cambodians in Ontario are ethnic Khmer who identify themselves as Theravada Buddhist, with a small number converted to Christianity. Large community gatherings generally occur on Buddhist holidays: Cambodian New Year in April; pcum bin festival honouring the ancestors held in September; kathin festival to present gifts to monks in late October; and Visak Bocie, the celebration of the birth, death and enlightenment of the Buddha in May. Among the many Buddhist communities in Toronto, Cambodian refugees have had the greatest difficulties in re-creating Buddhist practice and traditions (McLellan 1999). These difficulties reflect the absence of strong social networks and relationships from which cultural and religious bonds can be reaffirmed and reestablished (i.e., social capital), and the continued consequences of extensive physical and mental health debilitation caused by the Khmer Rouge genocide (McLellan1995).
In the Ontario cities of Toronto, Hamilton, and London, three distinct religious identities among Cambodians are evident (Buddhists from Cambodia, Kampuchea Krom and Christian Cambodian), each with its own type of transnational connections and degree of social cohesiveness. Buddhist Khmer from Cambodia retain limited transnational linkages, most involving extensive personal relations with family and friends, mediated cultural forms of music and dance, support for religious reconstruction, and the dependance on a severely limited monastic availability from Cambodia for religious leadership. In contrast, Kampuchea Krom, who are ethnic Khmer from Vietnam, exhibit extensive transnational networks and linkages and have merged political, economic, family, religious, and cultural facets into a successful nationalist discourse that is effectively articulated. In Vietnam, Kampuchea Krom are religious and ethnic minorities clinging tenaciously to the identity and practices of Theravada Buddhism. The distinct language and expression of Theravada Buddhism (especially in contrast to Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism) provides the foundation of their ethnic-based nationalism and their strategy of resistance to the overt Vietnamese assimilation efforts. Although Kampuchean Krom support by lay leaders and monks has been crucial for the expansion of Cambodian Buddhist temples in Ontario, most of their transnational networks have been established apart from the larger Cambodian community. Kampuchean Krom transnational activities include mutual aid associations, professional advocacy and interest groups, unique religious organizations, and effective political mobilization in both Vietnam and globally. The small numbers of Khmer from Cambodia who converted to Christianity, in the refugee camps or through sponsorship, also have significant transnational connections. Conversion-based linkages and networks tend to be through highly organized, very active Christian involvements in Cambodia, usually American-based Evangelical groups that offer a variety of support systems to new Christians throughout the world. Through this support, numerous Khmer Christians from Ontario and the United States have returned to Cambodia to “seed” churches and initiate educational and healthcare programs (McLellan 2003). Transnational faith connections provide all three groups with meaningful frameworks through which people contribute time, effort, and support. The networks and linkages enhance social cohesion within local Canadian communities and in the homeland communities.
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