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

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Several of the interviewees in Cambodia noted the increasing possibility of Cambodian youth from Canada returning to Cambodia for limited terms to participate in professional and community development programs. The involvement of these youth was viewed as essential for Cambodia’s economic and social reconstruction, and the social cohesion of overseas communities. Politically, the situation in Cambodia remains volatile, and there is no certainty as to which political party would encourage the return of overseas Khmer, or the extent to which they would be welcomed. Several Cambodians in Ontario express bitterness over the 1997 coup and subsequent scandals, and when their years of support for a particular political party was not reciprocated when they returned. Consequently, support for one particular party, FUNCINPEC, has declined among overseas Cambodians, and increased for another party under the leadership of Sam Rangsey; however, few Cambodians will publicly acknowledge any political ties or interests. The extent to which the Cambodian government encourages or supports overseas Khmer to work, invest, or participate socially and politically in Cambodia remains limited and selective. Recently, the Cambodian government gave overseas Cambodians the right of multiple visa entry with no entry fees. This was viewed as a move to welcome them. No formal governmental support is given for individuals wanting to invest in the country, start a business, or create an NGO community development program. Encouragement and recognition by the Cambodia media and global internet sites is given, however, to the massive financial contribution that overseas Cambodians give to rebuilding the Cambodian monastic infrastucture, and to providing disaster relief. Articles often feature pictures of overseas Cambodians handing a cheque to local provincial politicians against a backdrop of supplies (bags of rice or building supplies) and displaced people, or sponsors standing beside monks in front of a newly built temple.
This paper has presented the role of religion in the negotiation of cultural and social identity among Cambodian Canadians, in the development of social cohesion, and in transnational networks and linkages. Personal family and friendship ties, religious support, sponsorship, and the vicarious connections to cultural traditions of music and dance are the most significant facets of identity, especially among first generation Cambodians. Religious and cultural traditions are not only retained within local communities, but their symbolic and institutional powers provide strong historical and cultural links to Cambodia and other overseas Cambodians. The influences of global transportation, mass-media, and communication networks remain crucial for the re-creation and redefinition of Khmer religious and ethnic identities in the diaspora. Due to the deficiency of teachers in Buddhism, and in Cambodian forms of traditional, classical, and popular music and dance, instruction and training opportunities increasingly rely upon the use of cassettes, CDs, DVDs, Karaoke, and the internet. Although Cambodia continues to be the primary source through which these connections are maintained, communities in the United States and France are increasingly involved in their own forms of cultural production. The processes and adaptive strategies employed in re-creating religious cultural traditions, as well as their redefined symbolic and social significance, reflect the degree to which community social cohesion and transnational connections, linkages, and networks are interdependent.
Through the process of resettlement, the struggle to generate new grounds of identity and legitimacy results in readjusted power relations and privileges. New forms of social, political, and economic arrangements and structures emerge with new sets of pragmatic rules and ritual narratives, new manifestations of power and activity and multiple adaptations, all of which are evident in the different manifestations of Cambodian remittances and return visits to Cambodia. Apart from family ties, transnational Buddhist networks and linkages remain the important culture-specific support system for Cambodian refugees in Canada, and for their respective homelands. The psychological and social benefits of being linked to others in the homeland help Cambodians in Canada with their cultural transition and adjustment, social adaptation and integration. As individuals successfully resettle and engage in upward mobility, their money and efforts toward homeland reconstruction, family support, temple building, and sponsorship provide essential resources in rebuilding social capital. These linkages and networks of support assist refugees to transcend their initial sense of helplessness and trauma to one of purpose and prestige both in their Canadian communities, and in their homeland extended families and villages.
Transnational linkages encourage numerous interpretations of identity embodied in local contexts, evident among Cambodians from Cambodia, and the Kampuchea Krom (ethnic Khmer from Vietnam). Transnational religious identities become one response to situations of transition wherein facets of the traditional are retained, but modified to reflect new roles, activities, generational interests, and unique time/space demands. They simultaneously reinforce and alter traditional patterns of social cohesion, and provide confidence to develop a sense of place and identity in new social contexts. Despite the different perceptions each Khmer group has of one another through their own distinct religious identities, beliefs and practices, each group strengthens the individuals, families, and communities involved, and contributes to overall social cohesion of the larger community. Religious identities link Cambodians with one another in different but complementary spheres of interaction. Local contexts link Cambodians within the various Ontario cities through the sharing of monks or communal gatherings; regional ties connect communities and religious leaders from Ontario, Québec and the United States; and transnational networks, while primarily arising from Cambodia, extend extensively to France and Australia, and, for Kampuchea Krom, to Vietnam. The re-creation and redefinition of religious identities, practices and institutions is essential for the development of community social cohesion, inter-group collaboration, and connections with others in the diaspora.
Although linkages with political organizations in Cambodia remain an important transnational connection, especially for those who return, the conflicting ideologies and discourses of the various partisan groups can lead to divisive community relationships in Canada, resulting in little concrete activity beyond fund-raising events. Unlike Québec Cambodians, Ontario Cambodians have few overseas commerce or business contacts with Cambodia, reflecting differences in pre-migration educational levels and social status. For most Cambodians, transnational networks and linkages remain deeply embedded in pre-existing connections of family, religion, ethnicity, or class. The increasing educational abilities and profiles of Cambodian youth in Ontario, however, may significantly increase their transnational value and enhance their emerging identity as Cambodian Canadians. As Cambodia slowly recovers political and economic viability, as well as increasing peace and social security, Cambodians in the diaspora slowly rebuild their shattered lives, families, and community institutions. Each is dependent on the other.


This article was first presented at the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association meeting in Banff, October 2003, as part of a larger research project on social cohesion. Field work in Cambodia was made possible through the support and encouragement of Dr. Michael Lanphier, director of the Social Cohesion Project at the Centre for Refugee Studies, York University, and a short-term research grant from Wilfrid Laurier University.
Biographic Info:
Janet McLellan is assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario. She is the author of Many Petals of the Lotus: Five Asian Buddhist Communities in Toronto, and is currently working on a manuscript concerning the resettlement, adaptation, and integration of Cambodian refugees in Ontario.
Dr. Janet McLellan

Department of Religion and Culture

Wilfrid Laurier University

Waterloo, Ontario

Canada N2L 3C5
e-mail: jmclella@wlu.ca


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