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Becoming Canadian, Remaining Tibetan: Asylum Journeys from South Asia to North America

Carole McGranahan

University of Colorado



In the last two decades, over 20,000 Tibetans have immigrated from South Asia to North America. In this presentation I present my ongoing research on Tibetan “refugee citizenship” in the US and Canada, as well as a consideration of scholarly responsibilities in times of political crisis for the communities with whom we work. For example, how do we turn our research into useful knowledge? What value, for example, might ethnographic knowledge have in asylum court? For the last decade, I have been involved in two separate, but related projects in Toronto’s Tibetan refugee community: (1) research on refugee citizenship and political possibility—part of a larger project on Tibetan refugee citizenship in Dharamsala, Kathmandu, and New York City, as well as Toronto—and (2) expert witness testimony in political asylum and family reunification cases. In the last fifteen years, several thousand Tibetan refugees have crossed the US-Canada border at Niagara Falls, applied for convention refugee status, and if successful, settled in Toronto as New Canadians. Becoming Canadian, however, also involves remaining Tibetan. My job, in part, is ethnographic translation between these two subjectivities, as well ethnographic insistence on the third space between the two. I do this for judges, for immigration officials, for scholars and for students, and do it with the Tibetan community in Parkdale and Etobicoke for whom Tim Horton’s is now as much a part of their cultural landscape as is the Buddhist altar each has in their home. Our responsibility as anthropologists is to bring ethnographic sensibilities to new and useful domains, and in so doing to transform them and our own practice.