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Janet McLellan and Marybeth White
Department of Religion and Culture, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada

Abstract: Asian Buddhist identities in Toronto are based upon a proliferation of interconnected
criterion ranging from shared language, culture, ethnicity and notions of homeland to distinct
doctrinal interpretations and practices. Each identity referent is given a wide variety of meanings
and interpretation, according to the social context, structures of power and inequality, and
relevance of or ability to articulate collective self-definition and action. This paper contends that
the degree to which Asian Buddhists in Toronto can effectively utilize politics of presentation
and representation depends upon the extent of social capital within their community and/or with
individuals associated with, or acting on behalf of, an identifiable group. A specific example of
identity politics is examined in the case of the Lao refugees as they confronted opposition to their
establishing a temple. Local land-use disputes or neighbourhood tensions over places of worship
reveal the importance of social capital for effective identity representation to counter negative
stereotypes towards religious and racial minorities. The Lao example illustrates how ideal
notions of pluralism and multiculturalism advocated by Canadian social policy are not
necessarily equated in practice with diversity and acceptance of the other.


The Lao experience in establishing a Buddhist temple expresses how ethno-linguistic

isolation, combined with low social capital, can prevent an effective politics of representation

and resistance to local community opposition. In 1997, after a twenty year struggle to raise

almost $400,000, the Toronto Lao Buddhist community purchased a 73-acre farm in Caledon (a

relatively affluent semi-rural region north of Toronto). A development permit was obtained from

the Niagara Escarpment Commission in January 2000 to build Wat Lao Veluwanaram of

Ontario, a five thousand square-foot, ten metre-tall temple and community centre (Toronto Star,

May 7, 2001). As soon as this became public knowledge, a group of over 50 area residents

formed the Albion Caledon Citizens Trust, and began a series of legal challenges to prevent the

construction of a temple, claiming incompatibility with rural land use, traffic and safety

violations, visual impact, noise pollution and environmental impact issues (ibid). The Lao

community was forced to undertake an expensive environmental assessment study, and after

many thousands of dollars spent in legal fees and revised site plans, approval was given by the

joint panel of the Ontario Municipal Board and the Environment Assessment and Appeal Board

to initiate temple development, but now subject to restrictive provisos. As the Lao moved

through four years of bureaucracy, jurisprudence, and community opposition to build their

temple, they were forced to seek social recognition as a legitimate Buddhist voice and as an

authentic expression of Buddhism in Canada.

Lao refugees are a small part of the larger migrations from East and Southeast Asia,

Africa, the West Indies, the Middle East, India, Pakistan and Eastern Europe that have made

Toronto one of the most diverse cities in North America. In less than thirty years, the Greater

Toronto Area has expanded to more than four million people, and recent immigrants and refugees

comprise almost half the total population, with more than 200 ethnic origins contributing to a

vast array of religious, racial, cultural, linguistic and nationalist plurality (Statistics Canada, 2001

Census). Since the late 1960s, Asian Buddhists have an integral part of this remarkable diversity

and express a multiplicity of religious identities, beliefs, practices, and organizations (Mclellan

1999). For Asian Buddhists, re-creating religious identities and practices in Canada involves a

complex process of negotiation between continuities and transformations of cultural and doctrinal

traditions. This negotiation necessitates innovations, redefinitions, and involvement in the

politics of recognition and representation. The retention of ethnic, linguistic, and

homeland/nationalistic or diasporic identities adds to the complexity of establishing presence as

racial and religious minorities.

The dynamic interplay of culture contact, hybridization, cosmopolitanism,

transnationalism, diaspora, or hyphenated identities provides a myriad of mechanisms for

political and social representation (such as articulating demands for greater access to jobs and

services or countering negative stereotypes), and supports the development of a sense of

belonging in new social contexts, especially in the way mainstream acceptance is cultivated

(Chan 2002; Chen 2003; Hiebert 2002). This paper suggests that the ability of racial, cultural, or

religious minority groups to participate in cultural and representational politics, depends on their

organization, leadership and community cohesion, which in turn depends upon the degrees and

types of social capital within the group or associated with it.

Makio (1997:219), for example, argues that affluent and well-educated Chinese in

Markham (a small region near Metro Toronto) exhibit such effective power relations that they

have the capacity to transform ethnic relationships whereby white locals, willingly or

reluctantly, have to change to meet the emerging situation, a situation similar to other new

Chinese communities in Vancouver, New York and Los Angeles (Smith 1995; Zhou 1992;

Waldinger and Tseng 1992). In contrast, low degrees of social and economic capital can inhibit

successful social/political representation, restrict effective advocacy and activism, circumscribe

the provision of necessary social services, and limit strong responses to negative social

constructions and stereotypes, especially evident in land-use disputes arising from local

opposition to religious minorities building or establishing places of worship (White 2004; Dunn

2001; Tweed & Prothero 1999:389; McLellan 1995).

Social Capital:

Coleman (1988) broadly identified social capital as those social structures which make it

possible to achieve particular goals and replicate familiar structural relations between people that

generate networks of obligations, expectations and trustworthiness. Communities with high

social capital can offer a variety of supports and constraints that enhance and assist a range of

advantageous aspiration and action (Coleman 1990; Zhou and Bankston 1994; Sanders et al.

2002; Friedman & Krackhard 1997; Leyden 2003:1550). Putnam (2000) distinguishes two types

of social capital, that which bonds people together and helps them act cohesively, and that which

provides bridges between individuals or groups, enabling them to move beyond their particular

setting. Voyer (2003:31) refers to linking as another type of social capital which enables

relations between different social strata in a hierarchy where different groups access power,

social status and wealth. Among immigrants and ethnic minorities, linking capital enables

them to be included in the decision-making process, to participate in politics and to gain a voice

for greater social, economic or representational opportunities.

Although the three kinds of social capital (bonding, bridging and linking) are not concrete

typologies and different levels of each often arise simultaneously in particular situations, the

common features of leadership and extended social networks (both within and external to a

particular group or community) are especially crucial for minorities to negotiate effective politics

of identity and representation. Successful politics of recognition and representation can be seen

in public displays of presence through festival parades or processions; local and transnationally

based ethnic media (magazines, newspapers, television, radio); the myriad forms of ethnic

consumersim through music, films, videos, DVDs; and the vast range of household and personal

items which help people to maintain boundaries and expressions of identity.

Religious faith has long been recognized as a prime agent for local community solidarity

and considerable attention has been given to the important role of religious rituals and

organizations in helping newcomers adapt and integrate into North American life. As a form of

social capital, religious leadership and institutions contribute to settlement services,

psychological health, social affiliations (local, national and global), community authority patterns

and traditional family roles, and overall social cohesion (McLellan 1999; Warner & Wittner

1998; Ebaugh & Chafetz 2000). Religious communities can become the key locations for

mobilizing the social capital necessary for survival as Guest (2003:121) notes among Chinese

Fuzhounese immigrants in New York, or the basis of social capital through which Vietnamese

refugees maintain and support ethnic identity and traditional family values (Zhou and Bankston

1994:840). Among Toronto Asian Buddhists, the presence of a Buddhist temple embodies and

reflects the development of a communitys social capital, responding to the spiritual needs of the

community, while providing a culturally appropriate venue for a variety of secular programs and

services (McLellan 1999). These include identifying and meeting resettlement needs, providing

family counselling, job networks, senior citizen or womens programs, skills training, language

and cultural programs, vegetarian restaurants, medical clinics, and a variety of leadership

opportunities. In smaller Buddhist communities the temple becomes the focal point of social

interaction and the centre for cultural and spiritual life.

A vital step in the process of gaining recognition vis-a-vis mainstream society was for the

different Buddhist groups to establish co-religious links with one another. In 1979, Toronto

Buddhist groups formed of the Toronto Buddhist Federation representing groups from different

cultural, ethnic, linguistic and doctrinal traditions. The strong bridging capital of the Federation

facilitated a variety of co-religious activities which included the annual multi-ethnic celebration

of Wesak (Buddhas birth, death and parinirvana) beginning in May 1980 (the first in North

America), and several Buddhist seminar series held at different local temples. The co-religious

leadership and networks further supported the development of linking capital, enabling Buddhists

to participate in mainstream organizations such as the Canadian Inter-faith Network and the

Ontario Provincial Inter-faith Committee on Chaplaincy, and to be represented in television and

radio programs (Rogers Cable, Vision TV, and CBC).

Particular Buddhist communities developed their own levels of bonding, bridging and

linking social capital, enabling them to implement individualized politics or processes of

presentation and representation. Large Chinese temples in Toronto, for example, advertise their

identities and programs in ethnic magazines, radio, TV, and develop English internet web sites

and other forms of literature to explain and present their particular Buddhist traditions. They also

maintain strong linking capital by supporting annual charity walks (sponsored by the United

Way), participating in local food drives, blood banks, and inter-faith projects concerned with the

homeless. Similar activities are associated with Sinhalese temples and the Toronto Buddhist

Church. In turn, mainstream institutions recognize these particular temples and use them as

contacts when information is requested on Buddhism, when on-site visits by high school or

university groups are required, or to host multi-faith forums. The most effective forms of

recognition and representation arise through individual Buddhist temples whose members are

bilingual (English and homeland/ethnic language), and at ease in mediating between their temple

and the requests from outside.

Reasons for the different degrees of social capital among Asian Buddhists:

Distinct historical waves of arrival and migration identity status differentiate Asian

Buddhists in Toronto. The economic wealth and social capital of Asian Buddhist immigrants can

be correlated with their identity as independent immigrants (primary economic applicants), who

in turn sponsor others (spouses, older parents, dependents) as part of family reunification.

Immigrants often undergo several years preparation, extensive financial planning, long-term

decision-making stages (including learning English), have strong expectations to resume pre-

migration educational and class status, and still maintain close ties and connections with the

homeland (social, economic, religious). Asian Buddhists who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, as

well as the more recent Hong Kong and Taiwanese immigrants, represent well-planned


In contrast, refugees are forced to flee their homes, frequently in haste, with little time to

plan or secure their belongings or savings. Families are often separated due to situations of social

chaos, violence or random killings. The process of becoming a refugee involves an existential

loss of trust, what Giddens (1990:140) refers to as a loss of ontological security. Refugees

may find asylum in another country, only to languish for years in unsanitary, overcrowded camps,

until they are repatriated or resettled. For those small numbers who achieve resettlement

opportunities in countries like Canada, there is little money, and shattered social networks are

difficult to mend and re-establish. Sponsorship of family members as well as monastics may be

restricted by financial constraints and/or Canadian bureaucratic complexity. There is enormous

pressure on resettled refugees to provide financial support to family members left behind in the

camps or in the homeland, and to contribute to religious or cultural reconstruction there. Ontario

resettlement programs are geared to quicky place refugees in employment (poorly paid and/or

labour intensive jobs) often at the expense of adequate English language training. Refugees do,

however, generate considerable social capital in families, community networks, and local

religious leadership and institutions (as well as in transnational religious connections) despite

economic scarceness and difficult migration experiences (Zhou and Bankston 1994; McLellan


When social capital lies in the strength and effectiveness of religious and lay leaders,

numerous intermediary and conciliatory roles are evident. Leaders are required to deal with a

variety of needs and contingencies, ranging from establishing and maintaining connections with

other Buddhist leaders and groups, to providing effectively representation and/or advocacy on

behalf of their community. In North America, lay Buddhist leaders are often financially

responsible for the purchase and upkeep of the temple, as well as the ordained monastics who

reside there. Sponsoring a monastic can include complex application forms, immigration fees,

airfare, and extensive support which, depending on the particular Buddhist tradition, can include

special provision of meals, visits to other cities, a car, salary, or paid holidays. In most Asian

Buddhist communities, lay leaders involved in temple administration and organization tend to be

college and university graduates, and their education, levels of employment, and knowledge of

Canadian society enhances their ability to intervene in or address challenges to the temple.

Challenges can include dealing with zoning restrictions, neighbourhood hostility, and developing

innovative programs for the youth born in Canada. The social capital of leaders and their

networks has especially enabled immigrant Asian Buddhist communities in Toronto to establish

temples within a few years after their arrival. In comparison, after twenty years of resettlement,

Lao refugees still struggle to establish an appropriate community-based temple.

Woolcock and Narayan (2000) suggest the lack of social capital and the limited social

networks not only impact on a communitys economic and institutional development, but also

result in low levels of defense when their collective interest is threatened. The correlation of

limited social capital, delayed social and political integration, and low defense mechanisms is

evident within the Lao community. The Lao social situation has been reinforced by their pre-

migration refugee experiences and their insulated ethnic and linguistic identity which created a

relatively closed community (McLellan 1999). Their ethno-linguistic isolation resulted in

minimal recognition and support from other Buddhist communities, inter-faith religious

organizations, or anti-racism groups when they faced extensive neighbourhood hostility towards

the establishment of their temple.

Wat Lao Veluwanaram: A Case Study

Over 10,000 Lao came to Canada in 1979 and 1980 as refugees (Gordon:1990,16).

Among the approximately 7,000 who resettled in Toronto, the majority worked in the

manufacturing and service industries (Van Esterik: 1992). Many households saw both parents

working various jobs, with childcare being divided among others in the community. Most Lao

are Buddhist and tend to live in the same area of northwestern Toronto, a location known for its

extremely high rate of recent immigrants and refugees and density of low income and subsidized

apartments. In one of these apartments the Lao had established a make-shift temple called Wat

Lao. By the early 1990s, the Lao community was actively saving towards the purchase of land

and the construction of a temple, while concurrently sponsoring Lao monks from Thai refugee

camps (Van Esterik:1992). The seventy-three acres of land purchased in Caledon in November

1997 featured an existing farmhouse for the monks to reside in until a temple was built. The

establishment of Wat Lao Veluwanaram not only reflects the struggles of a refugee community to

re-create a minority religious tradition, but also the concerns of the residents who opposed the

temple, and the ineffectiveness of newspapers, town staff and government policy to enhance the

dialogue between the two communities. In this particular situation, multiculturalism was not a

portal to relational engagement; rather, environmental concerns masked underlying agendas.

The rear of the property straddles the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment;

consequently, the land purchased by the Lao is designated as an Escarpment Protection Area.

This designation indicates its environmental sensitivity and the multiple bureaucratic levels

involved. The Toronto and Regional Conservation Authorities as well as the Niagara Escarpment

Commission (NEC) provide stringent guidelines for any construction or changes in the geography

of the land. In April of 1998 both the Toronto and Regional Conservation Authorities, together

with the Niagara Escarpment Commission, approved minor building proposals. The Town of

Caledon, however, expressed concerns about the long term plans of the Lao Buddhist community

and recommended that Wat Lao Weluwanarum submit a comprehensive site plan to reflect their

future plans for the property. In response, the Lao organized an informal gathering to meet their

new neighbours and represent themselves. Flyers where delivered to rural mailboxes and the

mayor and town councillors were invited. Many neighbours attended, as well as the mayor and

several councillors. Mr. Bounmy Sihaphom, president of Wat Lao Veluwanaram, felt the

gathering was successful in establishing connections with their new neighbours and answering

questions about the Lao Buddhist tradition and their ceremonies (White: 2004).

Relationships between the Lao and some of their neighbours became strained in July 1998

when the town office received several letters from Caledon residents who objected to what they

felt was excessive noise arising from a Lao religious celebration. Due to the large number of

people attending, the event had been staged outdoors and amplifiers set up to facilitate

announcements and the playing of different games. Although similar to a large church family

picnic, complete with sack races, the concerns extended beyond mere noise to those about the

water tables ability to deal with hundreds of people congregating on the property for two days.

Questions were raised over traffic concerns, and zoning of residential vs. cultural/religious and

community usage.

Caledon town council called a meeting to address the area residents concerns over

zoning, and inform them of allowable activities on land that is designated as rural. The parcel

of land located on Airport Road was appropriately zoned for places of religious worship, enabling

Wat Lao Veluwanaram to provide a comprehensive site plan for the future temple to establish its

impact on the environmental sensitivity of the property. To submit this comprehensive site plan,

Wat Lao Veluwanaram hired various engineering and consulting companies to complete the

numerous necessary studies. The Region of Peel and Town of Caledon completed infrastructure

reports, and assessed traffic conditions and road tolerances for their particular jurisdictions.

While the various consulting and governing bodies were conducting their studies, a

stream of letters from disgruntled and frustrated neighbours continued to arrive at town hall

throughout the year. Although noise was no longer an item, the letters focused on environmental

issues as well as questions surrounding church constituency. They expressed concern that this

place of worship was not like a regular church, with a weekly service, thus questioning the

validity and authenticity of this Buddhist group. To address these concerns, the Town Council

called a meeting with area residents in November 1999. Unfortunately, the meeting was

scheduled ten days before the results of the environmental and traffic surveys would be available.

As a result, the Town was not able to provide the residents with concrete answers. Consequently

the minutes from the meeting show the exasperation of the residents who attended with

statements such as, Who are these people? Why cant they go to an industrial area? We

cant deal with these people!

The results of the studies submitted to the Town of Caledon (ten days after the meeting

with area residents) approved the site plan with the proviso that numerous conditions be met,

including prohibiting any sales at Buddhist community events, no camping, no storing of buses

on the seventy-three acre property, and planting a wall of cedars so as to minimize the site of the

temple from the roadway. The application was passed to the Niagara Escarpment Commission

who had the final say. At this juncture, several area residents retained a lawyer seeking to have

the site plan rejected. With the threat of legal action, and the presence of fifty residents who

opposed the building of the temple present at the next town council meeting in January of 2000,

the Town of Caledon deferred any decision to the Niagara Escarpment Commission. This

required all available information to be re-evaluated and an independent Environmental Impact

Study completed at the opposing groups expense. As reported in the February 12th 2000 edition

of the local paper, The Enterprise, the Town of Caledon council had determined that the original

studies were conducted properly but requested the Niagara Escarpment Commission provide final

approval. The area residents, however, were determined to fight this day and night (The

Enterprise: 1/12/2000, 1). The newly formed Albion Caledon Citizens Trust made an offer to

Wat Lao Veluwanaram to purchase the property at a greater price than originally paid (The

Toronto Star: 30/11/2000, B7). They also claimed that the professional studies were faulty and

wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper to garner support for their group. This group

petitioned to appeal the favourable decision made by the Niagara Escarpment Commission and

forced the application to the Ontario Municipal Board. The Laotian community in turn hired a

lawyer to defend their application. According to Mr. Sihaphom, the community felt frustrated

and some questioned the wisdom in proceeding, thus creating more suffering among both

communities (White 2004). Finances were another concern. Many of the Lao refugees came

from a modest background, coming to Canada as boat people, working as general labour,

making minimum wages (October 30th, 2000 Toronto Star, B7). All of the money saved for the

construction of the temple was spent on legal fees.

The final hearings, held at the Office of Consolidated Hearings between September and

December 2000, gave a resolution released on April 30th of 2001. Wat Lao Veluwanaram was

given permission to proceed with the construction of the temple, provided they met thirty-one

conditions outlined by the Office of Consolidated Hearings. In addition to the existing provisos

mentioned above, the extra conditions included having no more than three vehicles in the visitor

parking lot, and should traffic increase significantly on the abutting side road, improvements to

the road will be completed at Veluwanarams cost (Government of Ontario Document).

The story of Wat Lao Veluwanaram thus arises in conjunction with the expectations and

hostilities of the Caledon residents towards the building of this particular Lao Buddhist temple.

Although environmental and traffic issues became the focus of debate, the underlying concern

expressed in many of the letters written to the Town of Caledon questioned the authenticity of

the Lao Buddhist group; the erosion of the existing rural culture; and the distinction between a

cultural and religious gathering. The de-legitimatizing of religion (i.e., not recognizing the

others religion as having any value) is a form of religious prejudice that is among the most

destructive according to Eck (2001, 301). Several of the letters addressed to the Town of

Caledons office attempted to de-legitimize the Lao-Buddhist tradition by indicating that it did

not appear to match popular notions of Buddhist practice and thus was a suspect form of

Buddhism. The attempt to undermine the legitimation of the tradition can result in far reaching

implications, such as the loss of tax relief for religious institutions, the loss of recognition within

the political and multicultural arena, the inability to participate in inter-faith dialogues, and lack

of support to establish a place of worship.

Several local residents clearly perceived the Lao temple as a threat to their current way of

life. Although not directly addressed, this bias is reflected in the provisos for obtaining building

permits. For example, planting a row of cedars to obscure the temple from the main artery

protects local residents from the sight of this edifice. Another example is the way the Lao

community was prevented from reducing the number of cars visiting the property. The

community purchased a bus in order to prevent numerous individual cars arriving at the temple.

They thought this was both an environmental and neighbour-friendly move which addressed

traffic and pollution concerns. However, the restrictions imposed by the Town of Caledon

regarding the storage of a bus on their seventy-three acres halted this plan. While Christian

churches can be overtly seen from the road, the temple must blend into the rural setting to

maintain the outward appearance of a country residential property.

Rural churches within the Caledon East community, such as St James Albion Roman

Catholic church on a hill at the Gore Rd and Old Church, and North Peel Community Church at

King Rd and Airport Road are highly visible buildings, usually found near rural intersections.

Two prominent churches are within the town of Caledon East itself, one Anglican and the other

United. Two kilometers south of the Wat Lao property are two large country vegetable markets

and an old inn which has been transformed into a restaurant, each with ample parking and large

signboards on either side of Airport Road.

While the provisos for the Lao community have effected how can establish their temple,

the preamble of the final report the Office of Consolidated Hearings does acknowledge the Lao

communitys right to practice the devotional and cultural holidays associated with the Buddhist

religion and their Laotian culture (Government of Ontario document, 2 - emphasis added). This

wording offers an example of government recognition of Canadas commitment to the ideal of

multiculturalism by promoting various cultures living within our society. Yet, in practice, the

struggle to obtain recognition and be seen as a valid religious group occurs at great financial

and emotional cost.

The Office of Consolidated Hearings also acknowledges the broader function of religion

when it states in the report, and like many denominations there will also be some associated

social and institutional uses of the building (Government of Ontario document, 10). The

extensive correlation of Lao culture and Buddhism that manifests in religious celebrations differs

from other forms of Theravada Buddhism found in Southeast Asia. It is this distinctively Lao

form of Buddhism that concerns those opposed to Wat Lao Veluwanaram. The authenticity of

Lao Buddhism is questioned by some area residents because the ethnic manifestation of the

religion is not understood. In other words, the religion which outsiders encounter does not match

the basic stereotypes of the religion. Many letters questioned the validity of this group because

they did not act like real Buddhists, conforming to peoples expectations of an imagined

Buddhism. The Lao religiosity was not quiet and meditative (the image of the practitioner sitting

mindfully by a stream), but rather conducted in large social gatherings with amplifiers, childrens

games and communal feasting.

The concerns expressed by some of the Caledon residents who were opposed to the

establishment of a Lao temple were exacerbated by inefficiencies, and oversights, by the local

newspaper, town officials, and government policy. Heading into the final hearings, the Lao

community had a letter of support with the names of seventy neighbouring families who saw the

establishment of the Lao temple as an asset to their community (White: 2004). No mention of

this alternative view was reported in the local paper. Perhaps it was a perceived lack of support

which warded off letters to the editor welcoming the project, or perhaps it was just complacency

on behalf of neighbours who supported the Lao community, but the end result was that not a

single letter supporting the temple project was published in the newspaper. Conversely, there

was no effort to educate the readers by featuring articles on the Canadian Lao community, their

history, or visions for Wat Lao Veluwanaram.

In addition, the towns actions did not enhance understanding between the Lao and the

local community. Area residents letters of complaint were not responded to by town staff in a

timely manner, with some of the replies being sent months later, inhibiting a sense of being

heard. The poorly timed meeting called by the town, without the necessary information on the

results of the studies, exacerbated the anger and frustration of area residents. If the opponents

had been kept apprised of study results, and assured that proper site plan protocol was being met,

it may not have been such a lengthy and costly battle for the Laotian community.

The notion of multiculturalism can foster response and relation between differing

cultures. To be of practical use this social policy requires effective programs accessible to various

cultural groups. There is potential for the Multiculturalism Act to provide such programs. For

example, as Peter Li (1999) notes, point four of the Multiculturalism Act is one of the key

components in fostering cultural communication. This section may have been utilized to bring

about negotiations between the two sides in this case study. The fourth article states that

government policy both recognize[s] the existence of communities whose members share a

common origin...and enhance[s] their development (Multiculturalism Act: 1988, 3d). Through

the establishment of programs to foster intra-cultural bonds and group cohesion, forms of

bonding and linking social capital would be cultivated.

There are six aspects of the Lao communitys social capital and cohesion which helped

foster their ability to enter into negotiations with those who opposed the building of their temple.

Of these six, half are bonding social capital, which speaks to the notion of intra-group cohesion

(Putnam: 2000). The first area of bonding social capital among the Lao was their global

networks. The transnational Lao diaspora was instrumental in supporting the efforts of the

Greater Toronto Area community, both financially and emotionally. Through the internet, as

well as some personal contact with members of other Lao communities in Australia, Europe and

North America, notably the Washington D.C. area, money and words of encouragement were sent

as the protracted legal proceedings continued. Another example of this networking between

diaspora groups is seen in their concern with homeland reconstruction and efforts to send money

and religious articles to the makeshift temples in Lao refugee camps. The Lao did not experience

the level of atrocities and mistrust of fellow citizens that arose among Cambodians during the

Khmer Rouge killing fields, (McLellan: 1995); consequently, levels of bonding social capital,

both local and transnational, are relatively high.

Second, the temple itself served as a rallying point. As noted by Van Esterik (1992:58)

and in the Toronto Star interview with Mr. Sihaphom, the Lao of the Greater Toronto Area

commenced saving towards a temple very shortly after arriving in Canada. The importance of

establishing a temple is to provide a sanctified space to assemble for ritual, cultural, networking,

and social purposes. Concomitantly, a large accumulation of merit, i.e., consciously performing

good actions to produce karma to benefit oneself or others, is generated by the establishment of

the temple and support of the monks (Amore and Ching 2002: 232). Merit making is beneficial

for the local Lao community and for friends and family members who remain in the homeland,

who have been displaced in Thai refugee camps, or who have died. (Van Esterik: 1999: 63; Zhou

et. al.: 2002, 53).

Bonding social capital is also evident in the Lao Association of Canada. This association

was established by immigrant Lao who settled in Canada prior to 1975 and before the influx of

Lao refugees beginning in 1979. As an established organization it was able to assist newly

arriving refugees through an effective network of housing and employment assistance, as well as

helping them through the bureaucratic paperwork necessary for sponsorship of those left in the

refugee camps. The association provided extensive orientation for Lao newcomers to Canadian

life (medical, education, shopping), and connected the Lao with available language and education

programs. This support provided the Lao refugees with the skills necessary to sponsor Lao

monks, incorporate Wat Lao and orchestrate decisions leading to the purchase of land in Caledon.

The Lao Association of Canada provided the Buddhist laity with the abilities to re-create their

religious practice. The leadership skills of key people such as Mr Sihaphom, who dedicate vast

amounts of time acting as spokespersons and cultural brokers on behalf of the Wat Lao

Veluwanaram and Canadian Lao Buddhists, provide the foundations for bonding capital.

In addition to supporting intra-community dialogue, Li (1999) makes reference to the

seventh article of the Multiculturalism Act providing a commitment on behalf of the government

to cultivate inter-cultural dialogues, which speaks to the notion of bridging and linking social

capital. The crux of a practical multicultural society is valuing a relational and responsive

approach to inter-cultural conversation. This value must be backed with practical acts and

education. Without these components our current framework of multiculturalism poses as an

egalitarian notion, but effectively maintains the status quo of, at best, tolerating cultural

difference. The caveat is that the ethnic culture will be tolerated as long as the group remains, in

Gap Mins words, a model minority (1995, 52), and plays the expected stereotypical role of

that particular ethnicity. This is not getting to understand and know the other in a mutually

responsive way as Eck (1999) suggests, but rather being asked to conform to social expectations.

There are three areas of bridging social capital which contributed to the ability of the Lao

community to navigate the legal negotiations leading to the final hearing at the Office of

Consolidated Hearings. First, the community reached out to the neighbours in the vicinity of Wat

Lao Veluwanaram. By hosting a gathering and inviting the mayor, members of council and area

residents, the Lao initiated the bridge between the Lao Buddhist culture and that of the

surrounding area. Through their attempts at inter-religious dialogue the Lao community wanted

to foster relationships with those of differing religious and ethnic backgrounds. They also have

plans to conduct public meditation classes once the temple is completed. Through these efforts

the Lao aspire to build relationships outside their own community.

A second area of bridging social capital is represented by the seventy families living in

the Caledon area who responded to the Lao community by expressing support. Those who signed

the petition in favour of the Lao welcomed them and their temple to the Caledon community,

viewing both as an asset to the area. Third, there were some town councillors who were

supportive of the Lao community. For example, in response to the many concerns over what was

deemed authentic Buddhist behaviour, one town councillor commented during a crowded

council meeting that the purpose of the temple for the Lao community will be eating and youth

teaching the same as what goes on in other church basements, adding at a later time that the Lao

have been reasonable, prudent people throughout the controversy (Caledon Enterprise: 2/9/00).

This councillor was upbraided in letters to the editor of the local paper for his support of the Lao

community and upholding the environmental assessments which the Lao had completed (see

Caledon Enterprise 2/16/00 and Caledon Enterprise 3/1/00).

Re-creating religious identity and establishing acceptance or recognition within a new

cultural context is an arduous task for both immigrants and refugees. The concept of social

capital is an indicator of how successful, or not, a community may be at becoming involved in,

and initiating judicial, political and inter-religious dialogue. The Lao communitys social capital

was limited by their particular refugee experience, their lack of monetary resources in

resettlement, overall employment marketability beyond labour and manufacturing jobs, and their

lack of familiarity with Canadian norms and self-serving agendas, such as reaching out to the

media to politicize their particular situation. The language barrier which exists between the Lao,

especially the monks and non-Laotians, detracts from their bridging social capital. Although

monks are essential in negotiating all facets of the temple, including dealings with outsiders, they

must rely on the laity for translation which is taxing to the laity who themselves still struggle with

English as a second language. The laity are also responsible for financially supporting both their

families (here and in the homeland) and the local temple. The overall level of social capital

within the Lao community challenged their ability to effectively maneuver within the socio-

political realm of political representation and recognition in the established Caledon area, and

successfully counter the resistence they met.

Although the Multiculturalism Act offers the possibility of promoting relational

interactions between communities, the lack of government mandate for multicultural programs

has resulted in multiculturalism being relegated to the private sphere. (see Donaldson: 2004;

Li:1999) This does not favour relational inclusivity with others. Wat Lao Veluwanaram is one

of many temples and mosques throughout North America which have had to engage in the

politics of recognition through courts of law (Eck: 1999). Repeatedly, religious minorities must

make concessions to appease the cultural hegemonic milieu in which they find themselves and it

is often the local zoning boards which serve as the immigrants first encounters with bureaucracy

(Seager: 1999, 142). The Caledon temple project is an example of how religious minorities

operating within the politics of recognition can fall through the cracks of the multicultural veneer.


Within ethno/religious communities, social capital is not only crucial to the politics of

recognition and representation, but is also necessary to facilitate plans, regulate and improve on

programs and activities, resolve particular issues of accommodation and adaptation (for example,

mediating social hostility), enhance intra-faith and inter-faith activities, and maintain

connections with other networks and institutions. Certain refugee communities such as the Lao

struggle to sustain enough social capital to successfully participate in Canadian society.

Although the presence of social capital created by trust, solidarity and social cohesion

embedded in the individuals of a community, is considered a necessary asset for newcomer

integration, it is often absent among those who experienced mistrust, fear, and broken

relationships (Mehmet et al 2002:2336) . Similar to the Lao, Cambodian refugees also faced

hostile reactions from the neighbourhood in which they attempted to establish their Buddhist

temple (McLellan 1999). Active local opposition significantly reduced the ability of Cambodian

Buddhists to establish a functioning temple and to re-create traditional religious practices,

especially celebrations, festivals, and merit-making activities.

Along the continuum of social capital held by Asian groups in the Greater Toronto Area,

the Lao have faired better than the Cambodian community, yet do not have anywhere near the

ability to manoeuver and negotiate as does the Chinese community. Communicative resources

among the Lao and Cambodians are weak and they lack expertise to effectively engage in public

discourse that would serve their ideological positions and interests, especially against local

opposition to establishing a religious institution. The difficulties which Lao and Cambodians

face are similar to what Dunn (200l) notes in his analysis on the politics of mosque development

in Sydney, particularly where discourses of oppositions draw heavily upon culturally and

religiously-based constructions of what constitutes a local citizen and the local community, as

well as a religious institution (Dunn 2001:291). The 31 conditions outlined by the Office of

Consolidated Hearings restrict Lao Buddhists from engaging in activities common to local

Christian churches (e.g., fund-raising through Strawberry festivals, bazaars or bake sales, or the

right to be visible to others).

That the Lao acquiesced to such demeaning and discomforting demands reflects low

levels of bridging and linking social capital. Although the level of social capital was not adequate

enough to successfully address social and political inequities in Caledon, the bonding social

capital within the Lao community remained strong through local and transnational support.

Building a temple has provided Lao refugees with numerous skills and enhanced existing

leadership opportunities, and initiated opportunities to connect with those outside the Lao

community, thereby demonstrating the beginning of linking capital. Mr. Bounmy Sihaphom,

vice-President of Wat Lao, exemplifies the ideals of Canadian multiculturalism with the

aspirations of Lao Buddhism when he comments, We have no hard feelings with them (those

appealing the plan). All we have wanted is peace and harmony. We want to be a good

neighbour (Toronto Star, May 7, 2001). The temple has extended invitations to non-Lao to

attend Buddhist celebrations or ritual festivities, and now some local residents participate.

As the Lao case study has shown, the overall level of social capital indicates how

successful, or not, a community may be at resolving judicial disputes, attaining social and

political recognition, and initiating inter-communal dialogue. As Kuntz (2003:34) notes,

however, although bridging and linking capital expand networks beyond the ethnic community

and are necessary to acculturate into the receiving society, ultimately, the warmth of welcome

by the receiving society is critical to immigrant inclusion in the long run. Bourhis and

Montreuil (2003:39) emphasize that an intolerant climate of negative actions and attitudes of

exclusion towards newcomers benefits no one. Faced with rejection from locals and

discriminatory municipal policies, visible minority immigrants may eventually shift from an

integrationist to a separatist orientation as a way of limiting aversive contacts with segregationist

or exclusionist members of the host majority while seeking protection and solace within their

own immigrant community (ibid:41).

Although the position of refugee communities such as the Lao is slowly improved over

time as internal strategies to strengthen negotiation and local representation are developed, the

lack of support given to them by other Buddhist communities (with high levels of social capital)

or advocates of minority rights remains striking. Equally questionable is the way in which

opponents of minority religious presence utilize litigation and the invocation of municipal by-

laws to effect a hegemonic play of dominance and discrimination. The ideals and practices of

Canadian multiculturalism concerning interreligious/intercultural dialogue are significantly

weakened when groups opposing diversity can reify and act on the idea of a local communitys

right to sustain narrow conceptions of a religions authenticity. Municipal regulation of the type

and degree to which cultural/religious practices can be manifested within private institutional

spheres entails a form of exclusivity and control which needs to be carefully balanced with the

rights of religious minorities. The causal relationship between markers of identity (religious

and/or ethnic) and how they are manifested or rejected/excluded in society concerns issues of

social trust, the particular kinds of relations being developed or reified through existing social

networks, and ultimately the levels of social cohesion between diverse members of a society, all

of which are deemed fundamental to sustaining a strong democracy (Jeweb 2004:19).

As Schugurensky notes (2003:10), an effective enactment of citizenship, especially the

extent and quality of ones participation in particular communities, requires both distributive

policies and enabling structures that promote peoples engagement, not actions and policies

which encourage religious and racial discrimination, and marginalization. If social inclusion is

fundamentally about citizenship rights and enhancing equality of opportunities, what recourse is

available for racial and religious minorities who encounter discrimination and exclusion through

structural and systemic barriers but whose low levels of social capital restrict their ability to

advocate against and challenge situations of overt inequality? When others with greater social

competencies and strong social networks ignore the injustice, and public institutions fail to

acknowledge or address unequal conflicts over recognition and rights, expressions of and actions

towards inclusive social cohesion are significantly lessened. The necessity to develop external

support and resources among groups lacking in social capital is evident, especially if society

values the contributions and presence of minority communities.


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