Janet McLellan.rtf by censhunay


									Janet McLellan

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


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 mre patrie. Les manifestations d’identités
locales refltent des réactions  l’installation dans un nouveau pays et  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
tte  leurs souffrances au Cambodge et aux difficultés de réinstallation qu’ils connaissent au
Canada. Identités religieuses, pratiques et institutions, relations traditionnelles entre moines et
laques, la musique et la danse — tous aident énormément  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  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

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 Khmre 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

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.

Cambodian Buddhists:

The struggle to establish and maintain Cambodian Buddhist temples has been exacerbated by
the chronic shortage of Buddhist monks from Cambodia. Until November 1996, the Ottawa
Cambodian Buddhist temple had the only permanent monk in Ontario. The Toronto temple
(Cambodian wat) did not have a resident Cambodian monk, although several elderly nuns
(Duan chee) would go daily to attend to the shrine and recite prayers. One or two learned lay
men (achaa) would be available as well for some ritual and religious services. An elderly
Kampuchea Krom monk associated with the temple in Montréal resided there intermittently
between l983 to l995. To provide Buddhist ceremonies, the Toronto temple relied on inviting
guest monks from Cambodian communities in Montréal and the United States, or requesting the
services of Theravada monks from the Laotian community. In April l995, the Toronto
Cambodian Buddhist community purchased a large house in Maple, just north of the Toronto
city boundary. This has became a monastic institution, housing a permanent monk who arrived
from Cambodia in 1996 (there were three but two disrobed soon after arrival); Khmer Buddhist
monks who can stay only as long as their visitor visas allow (reflecting the continuing
difficulties in sponsorship); temporary ordained monks; and Duan chee who live there short-
term to cook, clean, and do temple maintenance.

For many Khmer, Buddhism remains their primary expression of the Cambodian way of life.
Much of the traditional Cambodian culture still practised in Canada is through family and life
rituals (weddings, blessings, funerals), traditional cuisine, language, and behaviour patterns
(gender roles, age/status hierarchy) influenced by Buddhist beliefs and practices. Community
gatherings are geared towards the ceremonial cycle of celebrations and commemorations,
beginning with New Year festivities in April, all providing opportunities for wearing Khmer
clothing and participating in traditional music and dances. Traditional leadership roles are
maintained through the activities of the monks and achaas who provide temple services and
rituals, and through men’s participation in temple organization and administration, financial
accounting, fund-raising, and monastic sponsorship attempts. Achaas and monks are actively
involved in numerous aspects of Cambodian community life, facilitating funerals, memorials,
exorcisms, blessings, healings, merit-making, and life transition events (such as weddings). The
chronic shortage of monks, however, severely restricts these activities. The continuing lack of
social and economic capital among Cambodians, combined with bureaucratic indifference,
makes sponsorship a very difficult process. To alleviate the shortage of ritual specialists, temple
leaders invite monks from Cambodia to visit for a year and then apply to extend their visa. To
this end, connections with temples in Cambodia and elsewhere are diligently maintained.
Conversely, temples in Cambodia continually solicit donations to rebuild temples and train
monks, most of whom are newly ordained. Canadian Khmer bring large sums of money with
them when they visit Cambodia. The money is primarily to help their families, but also to re-
establish temples in the home village, or to become recognized as a patron in the building of a
new temple. Any kind of support for Buddhist temples and monks is recognized as meritorious
and enhances social status and prestige in both Cambodia and Canada.

The transnational role of religion is also connected to that of the performing arts, such as music
and dance, both crucial to the negotiation and expression of socio-cultural identity in Cambodia
and the diaspora. Classical music and dance remain an integral part of Buddhist ceremonies and
life-cycle rituals, distinct from the non-religious popular forms evident at large community
dances and informal parties among family and friends. Cambodian religious, music, and dance
traditions are actively retained within the community; their symbolic and institutional power
providing strong historical and cultural links to Cambodia. Most Cambodians listen to classical
and popular Khmer music in their homes, and many own hundreds of videos featuring a wide
variety of dances and songs. Music and dance performances are especially elaborate during
New Year’s celebrations, at traditional Cambodian weddings, or as an enhanced feature during
social events, such as a fashion show. The influence of global transportation, mass-media, and
communication networks is especially crucial for the re-creation and redefinition of Khmer
music and dance in the diaspora communities. Since few experienced teachers survived the
Khmer Rouge, many dance and music instructors are self-taught from videos, CDs, and the
occasional travelling troupe of performers (McKinley 2003). In addition to classical and
popular music and dance being transmitted via cassettes, videos, CDs, DVDs, Karaoke, and the
internet, religious teachings from respected monks and laymen in Cambodia are increasingly
becoming available in these forms. As they are shared among family and friends in the
diaspora, transnational identities and connections between Cambodian Canadians and Cambodia
are nurtured.

 The establishment of three new Cambodian Buddhist temples in Hamilton, London, and
Windsor was primarily accomplished through the organization and commitment of Kampuchea
Krom monks and lay people. Despite their significant involvement, the label of not being
“really Khmer” has frequently been directed towards the Kampuchea Krom. In this regard they
readily acknowledge their liminal status in Cambodian communities (McLellan 2003). Because
Kampuchea Krom have lived generations in Vietnam and most speak Vietnamese as a second
language, their identities as Khmer are different from the ethnic Khmer who were born and
raised in Cambodia. Much of the suspicion directed towards Kampuchea Krom is rooted in the
centuries old aggression and mistrust between Cambodia and Vietnam. Further, Kampuchea
Krom were not subject to the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge and thus do not manifest
the same degree of psychological trauma and distrust, or limited social capital. In Toronto and
Hamilton, Kampuchea Krom feel they are not fully accepted by ethnic Khmer, and so tend to
remain marginal to Khmer community networks and associations, keeping a low profile in
leadership positions. The one exception has been their dedicated involvement in sponsoring
Kampuchean Krom monks and in facilitating the purchase and support of the new temples.
Although the Cambodian community directly benefits by the presence and activities of these
temples, the Cambodian Khmer leadership is not entirely supportive, remaining suspicious of
the Kampuchea Krom political advocacy and their innovations in Buddhist practice and
organization. At the temple in Hamilton, for example, the Kampuchea Krom monk has re-
introduced the traditional alms round, but since the surrounding neighbourhood is primarily
non-Khmer, participating monks stop only at homes known to offer food. This monk is
extensively involved in multi-faith and co-religious Buddhist activities (he is fluent in English,
Khmer and Vietnamese); has organized annual summer ordination ceremonies for Cambodian
youth, and extended the temporary ordination opportunity to young Khmer women; has
ordained a young Caucasian monk who resides at the temple; and is the first monk in Ontario to
open the Cambodian temple and Theravada Buddhist training to non-Khmer interested in
meditation practice (McLellan 2003).

Some 130 Kampuchea Krom families live in Ontario (personal interview June 22/02 with the
Director of the Kampuchea Krom National Association of Canada). In the early years of
resettlement, relations with Cambodian-born Buddhist community leaders in Toronto were
strong and joint activities common, but once the Toronto Cambodian temple stabilized
financially and organizationally, changing attitudes of the temple board and leaders created
difficulties (ibid). These attitudes caused many Kampuchea Krom to focus more on their own
concerns. Some, however, continue to work on Cambodian Khmer committees. The
availability and training of Kampuchea Krom monks also creates tension. Kampuchea Krom
monks tend to be well-educated and speak English, making them attractive candidates to meet
community and youth needs. For over one hundred years in Vietnam, Kampuchea Krom
temples have actively retained a Khmer cultural and national identity through advocacy,
education, community activities, and constant efforts to resist Vietnamese attempts to assimilate
the youth. Vietnamese policies to rename Kampuchea Krom communities to dispel their
Cambodian distinction were weakened when the name of the village temple became an informal
identifier. Monks from the network of Kampuchea Krom temples in Vietnam are the crux of the
Kampuchea Krom Khmer identity among those in diaspora. Monks are encouraged to go
overseas for education to keep abreast of modern media technology in order to retain links with
Kampuchea Krom outside of Vietnam. Kampuchea Krom monasticism is seen as a vocation,
an essential calling to help support people to retain ethno-religious identity. It is not surprising
that the Kampuchea Krom temples are said to be affiliated with the Thommayuth (reformist)
movement (Director of the Kampuchea Krom National Association of Canada, June 02). In
contrast, since the majority of Cambodian temples are Mohanikay (more traditional rural-based
approach with an emphasis on ritual practices), they are not seen as “progressive” or “modern.”
Becoming a monk in one of these temples is rarely a vocation, but more frequently a short phase
for a young man previous to his marriage.

In Ontario, Kampuchea Krom youth are active participants in maintaining the global
Kampuchea Krom identity, constructing their own web-sites and posting networks. Kampuchea
Krom monks in Ontario play an active role in the United Association of Kampuchea Krom
Buddhist Monks, regularly attending and organizing the annual meetings in Australia, France,
United States, Canada, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The issues raised through these transnational
meetings extend beyond Khmer Buddhism to broader social interests, such as participation in
interracial and interfaith forums (ibid). The largest transnational organization is the World
(International) Kampuchea Krom Association, which involves monks, political leaders,
professionals, academics, and interested individuals. Association activities include media
broadcasts, websites, magazines, the production of videos and CDs, Dragon Boat races, political
advocacy for the recognition of Kampuchea Krom (e.g., a delegate accompanied the Clinton
Presidential visit to Vietnam in 2001), and participation in global organizations such as the
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), which includes over fifty peoples
such as the Tibetans, Taiwanese, and former East Timors (ibid). To maintain these international
connections and keep informed of new developments, monks and laypeople from Canada also
attend the World Convention of Kampuchea Krom, held every four or five years in different

Kampuchea Krom in Canada recognize the important role of Buddhism in helping to retain a
Khmer minority identity in their new country, and are willing to organize and work together
with Khmer from Cambodia. The successful strategies employed by Kampuchea Krom to
preserve an ethnic Khmer identity in Vietnam could be utilized by ethnic Khmer from
Cambodia to help develop and maintain their Buddhist identity in Canada. Differences remain
between the two groups, however, and the collective memories of each are quite distinct:
Kampuchea Krom utilize the Thommayuth classical approach to Buddhism, while Khmer from
Cambodia are more familiar with the ritualism of Mohanikay; Kampuchea Krom monks are
more politically and socially active; and most importantly, the Kampuchea Krom never
experienced the ultimate powerlessness, unrelenting fear, horror, and hopelessness of those who
survived the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.

The lingering psychological trauma experienced by Khmer from Cambodia is an enormous
challenge that has not been adequately addressed, either within the community or by
psychiatrists, centres for Victims of Torture, Community Health Services, and Children's Aid in
Ontario (McLellan 1995). The after affects of mistrust, apathy, and the lack of support to
improve their lives relentlessly impact on the difficulties of Cambodians in resettlement,
including their ability to seek help. Buddhist beliefs and practices continue to provide the only
culturally appropriate modes of healing and intervention, through ritual practices or
consultations with a Buddhist monk, and on occasion, a nun. Yet, most Cambodians are only
willing to address and identify their deep lingering trauma and its consequences if the monk is
“true” Cambodian and can thereby relate to their own experiences.

Christian Cambodians:

Christian Cambodians provide a different example of resettlement dynamics and transnational
connections. Conversion to Christianity is evident within all Cambodian communities in
Ontario, but primarily involves only those from Cambodia. Large scale conversion first
occurred in the refugee camps where a Christian identity enhanced the opportunity for
Cambodians to participate in Christian sponsored educational and vocational training, medical
and social services, or resettlement opportunities. Written testimonials and personal interviews
indicate that many Cambodians converted through psychological or spiritual need, finding in
Christianity a mechanism to come to terms with their past actions (survival behaviours), and
their enormous hatred and thoughts of revenge against the Khmer Rouge, who perpetuated so
much violence and suffering. Several converts note that what fuelled their conversion and
enabled them to live through acute depression was the opportunity to receive God’s forgiveness,
then to develop their own forgiveness towards others (McLellan 2003). During the resettlement
process, most conversion among Cambodians in Ontario occurred through ongoing contact with
the private sponsors who brought them to Canada and provided them with one year’s support
thereafter. Sponsors were recognized as “patrons,” and refugees felt it necessary to “pay back”
their sponsors by attending church when they were asked to come. This identification of the
traditionally understood patron/client relationship enabled the Cambodians to understand why
strangers offered financial and other forms of assistance to them. Reciprocally, they as “clients”
felt the need, in return for this assistance, to demonstrate obligations of loyalty (Mortland and
Ledgerwood 1988, 294).

Of the approximately five hundred Cambodians in Ontario who converted to Christianity, the
majority have assumed a strong evangelical Protestantism. Catholicism, Christian Reform,
Lutheran, and Seventh Day Adventist are other Christian affiliations. A few have also become
Mormon. Evangelical delineations of beliefs and acceptable behaviours are frequently at odds
with traditional Khmer cultural and religious practices. One Cambodian man noted that, as
Christians, “we don’t smoke or drink so the other Cambodians feel uncomfortable with us”
(personal interview 2002). There are no fewer than twenty evangelical Protestant Cambodian
churches across Ontario, some of which are involved in national and transnational networks of
faith. The Cambodian Evangelical Fellowships in Ottawa, Hamilton, London and Toronto, for
example, belong to the Cambodian Christian Network of Canada (CCNC) and to the Cambodian
Christian Services (an international organization). An annual conference of the Federation of
the Cambodian Evangelical Churches in Canada has been held for over ten years, usually
meeting in one or another Ontario location for a long weekend in July. Guest speakers include
Khmer and non-Khmer pastors from the United States and Canada who have recently returned
from Cambodia, thus blending Canadian-based issues with those of Cambodia. In contrast,
although the American-based Seventh Day Adventists are active in Cambodia, and a Cambodian
pastor is now working in the London area serving two non-Khmer congregations, church
linkages between Ontario and Cambodia remain family oriented rather than institutional.

Christian congregations with Khmer speaking ministers try to preserve a Cambodian
atmosphere during services and celebrations by reading from a Khmer translation of the bible,
singing traditional Khmer tunes with new Christian words, serving Khmer food, and on
occasion, encouraging Khmer dance. Christian pastors advocate steady employment, strong
marriage commitment, educational achievement, reduced reliance on welfare, and avoidance of
drinking and gambling. They consider strong Christian ethics and attitudes to be a more
meaningful model for behaviour in Canada than the retention of Cambodian cultural traditions
based on Buddhism. A few older Cambodians have found that Christian groups with an
emphasis on communal prayer and Bible study meet their needs of isolation and loneliness.
Often these individuals are women who have lost husbands, children, and parents, and have
become marginalized in Khmer communities with little social or economic support. Religious
differences among Khmer have led to some instances of community divisiveness and tension,
but increasingly, people attempt to balance conflicts, especially during interfaith weddings and
youth activities.

Several Khmer Christian lay people and pastors from Ontario are returning to Cambodia for
missionary work. The medical, educational, and sponsorship benefits which these people
received as a by-product of their conversion are now being used by them to convert others in
Cambodia to Christianity in (Mclellan 2003). One pastor first returned to Cambodia in 1992 to
visit his home village. His conversion attempts were so successful that he has returned
numerous times and has built seven churches there. Evangelical churches in Ontario link
Cambodians with one another and with non-Khmer from other countries. In 2002, a Toronto-
based Korean Evangelical church sponsored several of their members, as well as a Khmer pastor
in Ontario, to proselytize in Cambodia. Others return to Cambodia as part of a personal
mission. One Ottawa-based Cambodian woman has worked for different Christian
organizations in several Asian countries, and regularly returns to Cambodia in response to her
inner beliefs and to advocate for women’s equality. These transnational linkages help Christian
Cambodians facilitate a sense of global connection, expanding their identity beyond ethnic or
refugee boundaries, especially when they belong to American-based Evangelical networks.

The activities of Christian group meetings, study sessions, women’s workshops, and youth
counselling have provided such successful models that Buddhist Cambodians have begun to
emulate them in recent years. A small number of Cambodian youth who attended these sessions
have increased their commitment to Buddhism and found a sense of purpose and collective
action in helping other Cambodian youth. They are active in the formation of Buddhist youth
groups providing sports activities or field trips, and in creating opportunities for training in
classical dance, community drop-in centres, or after-school homework clubs. The majority of
Cambodian youth, however, tend to downplay any religious identity (Christian or Buddhist), and
in their attraction towards materialism, popular images of power, and Canadian rather than
Cambodian identity, often lack a clear perception of the value of religious belief and practice.
Since Buddhist temples have been created in Hamilton, London, and Windsor, many Christian
Khmer have also returned to participate in the ceremonies and festivities. This partially reflects
the trend Douglas (2003, 174) observes among Cambodians in Seattle who search though
religious institutions to “find what is good in both.” As a result, being a Buddhist Christian or a
Christian Buddhist, or neither, all becomes part of their unique identity of being a Cambodian in
North America. Among Cambodians in Ontario, sentiments downplaying religious
particularism are becoming common, especially among Buddhists in general and those
Christians who no longer attend church.

Transnational connections and linkages:

The most prevalent transnational connections and linkages with Cambodia and with other
overseas Cambodians in France, Australia, or the United States are through family and
friendship relationships. Affiliations with formal transnational organizations are rare, as people
remain suspicious of structured associations, political parties and their representatives,
organized activities and their organizers, and those who aspire to leadership. The legacy of the
Khmer Rouge dismantlement of village-based social cohesion, experiences in the refugee
camps, the years under Vietnamese occupation, and the extensive loss of close family relatives
and loved ones heighten the importance of family and friends as the only reliable social unit to
be trusted. Family and friendship ties remain as significant for the second generation born and
raised in Canada, especially those who cultivate Khmer ethnic identity or those who participate
in endogamous marriages. Unlike the Vietnamese or Tibetan refugees, Cambodians in Ontario
have not affiliated with charismatic religious leaders or mobilized around issues and ideals of
engaged activities (McLellan 2000). Individuals or family members may adhere to the teachings
of particular monks and be willing to support their efforts of temple reconstruction in
Cambodia, but will quickly back away if contention or division arises, especially if the monks
become associated with political activities. Christian Cambodians who return to Cambodia to
participate in conversion activities there will also change allegiance to their sponsoring groups
(usually evangelical organizations based in the United States) if demands become too excessive
on their time with family, or funding opportunities too scarce to justify their involvement.

Beyond the family and religious affiliations, other forms of transnational linkages are slowly
being built. In the summer of 2002, the author interviewed several individuals in Cambodia to
identify and assess the ability of Canadian Cambodians to maintain social, economic, and
political ties with the homeland. Twelve of those interviewed were Cambodians who came to
Canada as refugees, but later returned; two more were non-Khmer Canadians; four were
Kampuchea Krom; and three were Cambodian nationals. Cambodians from Canada were
involved in a variety of projects and activities; some were living in Cambodia full time, while
others stayed as long as their participation in projects was necessary. Two of the Cambodians
from Canada were members of the Cambodian parliament; four owned a business in Cambodia
(engineering firm, investment consultant, hotel director, bank vice-president); one represented
the Canadian government (Cambodia-Canada Legislative Support Project); and several worked
with or had founded non-governmental organizations (Legal Support for Children and Women,
Association Québec-Cambodge, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, non-affiliated
Christian work). Six Cambodians from Canada returned to Cambodia for business or
investment (which often included political participation); two returned as part of a Canadian or
International effort (e.g., UNTAC); and four returned to develop or work within a non-
governmental organization to help re-build the country and its people, or for religious
commitment. The initial reasons for return were often different from the reasons why some of
them chose to stay for longer periods of time.

All of the Cambodians from Canada interviewed in Cambodia, except for one Khmer woman
from Ontario, were from Montréal. This points to the extent to which Cambodians from
Québec have successfully developed transnational linkages beyond family connections. The
reasons for the limited number of transnational linkages in Ontario communities can be found in
the pre-migration status of Cambodians to Ontario. The social, political, educational, and
economic status of individuals (or their families) before the Khmer Rouge regime determined
the opportunities for resettlement in Québec and the rest of Canada. Montréal was the only city
in Canada that had a Cambodian community prior to 1979; they were French-speaking
university students, businessmen, professionals and diplomats. Their profiles are indicative of a
wealthy class background that enabled them to attend French-speaking schools in Cambodia and
beyond. Those who resettled in Québec after the Khmer Rouge regime tended to have family,
business, and social contacts within the Montréal community who privately sponsored them; or
they spoke French well enough for Québec government sponsorship. Significantly, when these
Cambodians from Canada returned to Cambodia, their language skills (Khmer, French and
English) enabled them to mediate between the different multinational government and NGO
groups there (from Britain, France, United States and Australia). Also, the Cambodian-
Canadian identity is seen as a valued neutral status. It is their pre-1975 socio-economic status
and connections, however, that facilitate current personal networking in well-placed social,
governmental, and economic spheres. Cambodians from Ontario do not have access to this
networking since most are from rural-based agricultural backgrounds with little education or
social status. This class distinction is recognized by both successful Cambodian Canadians in
Cambodia and by Cambodians interviewed in Ontario who lament the difficulties they faced
when returning to Cambodia and unsuccessfully trying to establish business links or political

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

 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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