The last stand of Sri Lanka's Tamils – in Canada?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri May 15 17:00:34 UTC 2009

The last stand of Sri Lanka's Tamils – in Canada?

Amid reports of a mounting civilian tragedy on the tropical island,
Canada's massive Tamil diaspora takes to the streets.

By Susan Bourette | Correspondent
from the May 14, 2009 edition

Toronto - The front pages of Canadian newspapers have been dedicated
this week to images of Tamil protesters staking positions on Toronto
thoroughfares and bringing city traffic to a halt. But Uthaya Vaithiya
wishes the Canadian public could see different images: the photographs
in her album. It's a family album only in the sense that it documents
what her family was but can be never again. "That's my aunt. And
that's my cousin and her daughter beside her,'' she says, her voice
barely audible above the chants of an estimated 12,000 demonstrators
behind her who swarmed Ontario's provincial legislature Wednesday
calling on Canadian officials to pressure the Sri Lankan government
into ending a violent conflict where civilians are increasingly caught
in the crossfire.

"They're all dead,'' the Toronto mother suddenly gasps, leaning into
her teenage daughter, Gharini, who has taken the day off school to
join her family in the protest. "Seventeen family members slaughtered
in the past few months. Why has the world closed its eyes to this
genocide?"  Feeling thwarted in conventional attempts to raise
awareness of the growing civilian atrocities in Sri Lanka,
Tamil-Canadians have taken the protests to the street. Traffic was
snarled around Queen's Park in central Toronto as thousands of
protesters brandished signs that showed pictures of the dead and
wounded and chanting "Tamil Tigers, freedom fighters."

Yesterday's protest was the second demonstration in the city in less
than a week, following days of protests in Ottawa earlier this year.
The Canadian rallies have coincided with similar protests in France,
Sweden, and Britain. In London on Monday, pro-Tamil demonstrators
clashed with police outside Parliament.

>>From the tropics to the 'Great White North'

Toronto is home to the largest expatriate Tamil community outside Sri
Lanka, estimated to be 300,000. Tamils first began flocking to Canada
as refugees in the 1980s. The city has not only become a focal point
for protests, but it's also a bastion of political and financial
support for the Tamil Tigers, the militant group that has led the
fight for an independent Tamil nation in Sri Lanka's northern region.

The Canadian government added the Tamil Tigers to its official list of
terrorist organizations in 2006 for the group's use of child soldiers
and suicide bombers. Thirty-two nations, including the US, also
consider the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorists. Yet
many attending yesterday's rally say that Canada should be taking a
lead in calling for a cease-fire in a violent conflict the United
Nations describes as a "bloodbath."  Protest organizer Ghormy Theva
says the Canadian government needs to take stronger measures,
including implementing both economic and political sanctions, as well
as allowing journalists and aid workers back into the war zone. Canada
should also be withdrawing its ambassador to Sri Lanka, Ms. Theva

Time for Canada to take a stand?

Queen's University law professor Sharry Aiken is among a group of
Canadian academics lobbying the their government to take stronger
measures. Its broad expressions of "grave concern" and what the group
believes are tepid calls for a cease-fire are too little, too late,
Professor Aiken says. "Since Canada is home to such a large Tamil
diaspora, the country should be playing an active role in ending the
conflict. The first thing we need to do is to recognize that
Tamil-Canadians are us and the Canadian government should be working
to a longer term solution.... At a time when concerted engagement and
pressure on the Sri Lankan government by Canada and other like-minded
countries may very well have prevented the current crisis, Canada
stood by and did nothing."

As protesters rallied on the grounds of the provincial legislature,
inside the Ontario government tabled a resolution expressing "deep
concern about the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka." The resolution
encouraged the federal government to get involved. Ontario Premier
Dalton McGuinty said he understands why people in Toronto are unhappy
about the protests, which have inconvenienced commuters, but added
that it's important to recognize the legitimacy of the protestors'

"We have the responsibility to allow people to express themselves and
to dissent in a lawful way, and I think we also share a higher
responsibility to find a way to speak out as responsible global
citizens in the face of a significant breach of human rights," he

Obama concerned about 'indiscriminate shelling'

Meanwhile, there's been a wave of artillery bombardments across the
war zone, killing as many as 1,000 people in the last five days alone,
according to Tamil reports. The Sri Lankan government calls such
reports "propaganda."

A Red Cross worker was killed Wednesday in the conflict zone in Sri
Lanka, the third aid worker killed in six weeks, according to the
International Committee of the Red Cross.

The government has cornered the Tamil Tigers on the strip of land and
vowed to end the 25-year-old civil war.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday called for an end to the violence
and for steps to alleviate civilian suffering.

The president urged the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and stop
using civilians as human shields. He also called on Sri Lanka's
government to "stop the indiscriminate shelling" and allow UN
humanitarian teams access to the wounded.

Back on the Queen's Park lawns in Toronto, Ms. Vaithiya and her
daughter were struggling to have their voices heard above a
thousand-strong brass section of car horns.

There was no sorting out whether the fanfare is in support of the
Tamil cause or in frustration with traffic gridlock. Either way, the
street protests are having their intended effect.

"The government is talking, the media is here and people on the
streets are talking. That's what we wanted," Ms. Vaithiya says.
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