Understanding Race, Ethnicity and Social Change in Canada through the Sociological Imagination


This essay will discuss how the famous American sociologist Charles Wright Mills coined the term “sociological imagination” during 1900s. The sociological imagination refers to the ability to perceive how dynamic social forces influence individual lives (Mills, 1959 [2000]). Mills explains that “personal troubles” and “social issues” are inextricably linked, influencing each other at a micro and macro level (Mills, 1959 [2000]). This essay will begin with my “personal troubles” as a visible minority, a Sri Lankan Tamil, and how Tamils transformed into a “social issue”. Lastly, in looking at the “quality of mind”, my personal circumstance will be understood in a social context. The sociological imagination is therefore an important tool in understanding race and ethnicity, and social change.

Personal Trouble

Mills discusses “personal troubles” as personal challenges that require individual solutions (Mills, 1959 [2000]). My name is Kagusthan Ariaratnam and I am a visible minority in Canada. The ethnic identity group I belong to is the Sri Lankan Tamil. I came to Canada as a war refugee in September 1997. Due to my involvement in the civil war in Sri Lanka, my opposing political opinions, and my fear of persecution, I could no longer live there. Since Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948, the minority Tamils have been faced with marginalization, discrimination and oppression. Most of these minorities have lost all hope that the Sri Lankan government will ever accommodate Tamils socially, economically, culturally, or politically (ICG, 2010). Thus, like many other Tamils, I wanted to immigrate into a western country and complete my education which I could never previously due as a consequence of the ethnic conflict. Unfortunately, it is impossible to obtain a visa from the high commissions of western countries even though Sri Lanka is a member state of the Commonwealth of Nations. Therefore, I had no choice but to travel as an undocumented refugee, also known as an “illegal immigrant”, to Canada. Also known as “Alien Smuggling”, these kinds of migrant activities have been very popular among the Sri Lankan Tamil community for quite a long time (UNHCR, 1996).

Social Issue

Mills discusses “social issues” as the challenges caused by larger social factors that require collective solutions (Mills, 1959 [2000]). On the 19th of October 2009, I was watching the CBC National News when I learned that a ship carrying 76 Sri Lankan Tamils had been captured by a joint operation between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) in Vancouver. All of the ship’s passengers were seeking asylum. This was not the typical mix of people who travel into Canada by boat – this was a group of men, all between the ages of 18 and 30. The Tamil Tigers, a secessionist-cum-insurgent group, who fought for an independent homeland for Tamils in Sri Lanka, own their own fleet of merchant vessels. It was publicly known that the Tamil Tigers were dispersing to Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and India – mostly their closest neighbours – with the intent to reorganise and rebuild. Thus, at first, I made the same assumption as the Canadian government that they were rebels. To me, the possibility of Tamil Tiger cadres was obvious, as the men were Tamils of prime age. Whoever they were, I knew that they were fleeing murder at the hands of the Sri Lankan government.

I had hoped that once the Tamil Tigers were obliterated, the Sri Lankan government will look for a political solution to the internecine conflict. This is what most of the Sri Lankan government officials and the military had promised to the international community. By winning the war, however, the Sri Lankan government became a merciful victor. The percentage of the Sri Lankan population of Tamil origin has plummeted from 20% to 14%, and recently to just 8 % (Weerasinghe, 2009). The Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka has no intention of offering a political solution to this dwindling fly in their ointment. The Sri Lankan government already insists that no Tamil problem exists – they will simply eliminate the ethnic Tamil minority group by ongoing ethnic cleansing.

In a storm of emotions, my mind spun wildly. These men had fled Sri Lanka and travelled thousands of miles to get to Canada – how could anyone justify sending them back to where they would certainly be tortured and murdered? I myself had been a Tamil Tiger cadre and so many like me had been forcibly recruited – did these men not deserve the possibility of a second chance for their lives as well? On the other hand, if they were coming to Canada in order to recruit more members to continue a violent struggle, I did not want this on my conscience. There are many young Tamils here who were sent by their parents from Sri Lanka in order to save them from forcible recruitment or assassination. In Canada they struggle with their identity. They often live with aunty and uncle, have little or no guidance, and could be easily influenced or inspired by macho Tamil Tiger cadres who indoctrinate them to violent Tamil nationalism.

In order to identify the men on the boat, the Conservative Prime Minister at the time, Stephen Harper, hired a Sri Lankan-born and internationally acclaimed counterterrorism expert, and professor of security studies, Dr. Rohan Gunaratna. As Canada struggled to determine who these migrants were, border officials summoned the opinion of Gunaratna who heads a counterterrorism Think Tank at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. That was a controversial decision because Gunaratna is viewed by Tamils as a polarizing figure with hawkish views. Gunaratna told Canadian officials that he believed all the Tamil boat people were likely Tamil Tigers who came to Canada to continue their fight abroad and establish a separate state in Sri Lanka. One of the primary complaints about Gunaratna has been that he panders to the opinions of those who hire him. The lawyers representing the men on the boat said they were war refugees seeking safety and asylum in Canada.

It was during this time I was reflecting on my long and difficult associations with Gunaratna whom I saw as my mentor and trusted friend for more than fifteen years. I was first interviewed by him for his book titled, “Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Crisis and National Security” in the summer of 1996 when he was the national security advisor to the president of Sri Lanka. During this time between 1995 to 1997 that I was detained by the Sri Lankan security forces as a prisoner of war even though I had defected from the ranks of the Tamil Tigers. In my opinion, Gunaratna was painting whoever spoke up for the Tamil’s rights with a broader brush arguing that they were Tamil Tiger terrorists. He was trying to paint a picture of Tamils in Canada as smugglers, criminals and terrorists. As such, Gunaratna was perpetuating a stereotypical version of the Tamils which contributes to their oppression in Sri Lanka and Canada.

This is the reason why I submitted an affidavit against Gunaratna’s testimony, arguing that he was too cozy with the Sri Lankan government, and as such, the Canadian government should independently investigate the Tamil men on the boat. Gunaratna was an academic trying hard to relate to real life situations. Terrorism springs from the very soul of a grieving man! Gunaratna on the other hand has no friends from the Tamil community, other than professional acquaintances. Furthermore, he was trying to address the symptoms of an issue in an extreme way which may cause other injuries and other sets of symptoms that others may have to deal with.The purpose of my affidavit was to show that Gunaratna was not a credible witness – he is a Sri Lankan government official who is ethically compromised. Ms. Barbara Jackman, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer representing Tamil migrants, wrote my affidavit. She used the rest of my information in her cross-examination of Gunaratna. Gunaratna admitted to most of the major points that were brought against him, and he was consequently demoted as an expert witness to someone able to present factual evidence. Conclusively, there is a publicity ban on the 106-page report from the cross-examination. Until it is lifted, I will not know exactly what was said during the proceedings.

Quality of Mind

Mills discusses the “quality of mind” as the ability to view personal circumstance within a social context (Mills, 1959 [2000]). In January 2010, all of the 76 migrants were ordered to be released by a judge from the Immigration and Refugee Board since the Canadian agencies could not find any evidence against them or links to the Tamil rebels. I was relieved that they were not sent back to Sri Lanka to their possible deaths. I believe that each one of them is now undergoing an individual investigation into their eligibility for Canadian citizenship. The result of the Canadian government’s actions towards the men on the boat has been the perception of wasted money, since these immigrants had a negative first impression. Since the immigrants are not perceived in a positive light, they may face alienation and antagonizing interaction which is characteristic of a host society wherein suspicion is sown amongst the various minorities living together within the countries’ boundaries. Harper government’s tactics of being unwelcoming refugee claimants in an effort to slow down immigration is not only ineffective, but it fosters animosity and resentment in the hearts of refugees, most of whom will eventually become citizens. This seems to be a recipe for trouble, a dissenting rather than peaceful coexistence. We have to approach this dilemma politically, socially, culturally, and economically together with broader policy initiatives involving development, environment, critical infrastructure, immigration, and humanitarian intervention in which a nation’s civil society plays a vital role.

Migrants come to Canada both illegally and legally for security and economic reasons; they seek freedom. Much of the global south, roughly 5 billion, are living under extreme poverty, and as such, relationships around the world are not balanced (Shah, 2009). Poverty involves powerlessness and invisibility, including a lack of money, basic nutrition, health care, education, freedom, personal autonomy. In fact, 80 percent of global resources are consumed by only 1 billion (World Bank Group, 2010). Is it fair or justifiable that developing countries must try to survive on only 20 percent of the world’s resources?

When the first migrant ship, the MV Ocean Lady, arrived with Tamil war refugees, they were labelled as terrorists/criminals/smugglers by the Conservative government, and when a second ship of Tamils arrived during the summer of 2010, the Liberal party argued against Harper in that they were war refugees in need of shelter, safety and healthcare. Tamils were therefore in support of Trudeau during the 2015 election. It is clear that a micro cultural group have macro social implications. Tamils, as a visible minority group, have become an international topic. Former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau reminded us that the true measure of any democracy is the manner in which the majority treats its discrete minorities (Trudeau, 2014). Justin Trudeau followed in his father’s footsteps, opposing Harper’s anti-immigrant policies, and embraced all minorities, cultures and religious views, uniting Canadians. Harper represents the “melting pot” while Trudeau represents the “mosaic” (Porter, 2015).


Gunaratna submitted a 109-page report to the Immigration and Refugee Board outlining his position, but his opinions obviously did not carry a lot of weight. In January 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led the new Liberal government to sponsor 25,000 war refugees from Syria under similar circumstances and the majority of Canadians are welcoming them. As such, one person can make a difference; this particular war refugee issue has transformed from a micro personal trouble to a macro social issue. Therefore, I believe that Mills’ concept of the “sociological imagination” is still relevant today and useful in examining Canadian society because we must understand that social forces influence individual lives and vice versa. We must be able to understand and evaluate micro and macro issues using the sociological imagination.


Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. (1 Mary 1996). Sri Lanka: Alien Smuggling. Retrieved from http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8660.html (6 April 2016)

International Crisis Group (ICG) (23 February 2010). The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora after the LTTE, Asia Report N°186.

Mills, C. W. (1959[2000]). The Sociological Imagination (Fortieth ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Porter, J. (2015). Vertical mosaic: An Analysis Of Social Class And Power In Canada. University of Toronto Press.

Shah, A. (2009). Poverty facts and Stats. Retrieved (6 April 2016) from http:// http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

Trudeau, J. (2014). Common Ground. HarperCollins. Ebook.

Weerasinghe, A. (15 October 2009), Economic and Political Weekly Tamil Tragedy in Sri Lanka Vol. 23, No. 42 pp. 2186-2188

World Bank Group. (2010). Development. Retrieved (6 April 2016) from http://youthink.worldbank.org/issues/development/


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