Still They Stand
Toronto’s Tamil community comes together for an evening vigil along University Avenue.
Their large rallies have come and gone, but Toronto’s Tamils have yet to vacate the downtown core. Permanently located on the corner across from the U.S. Consulate, they continue to protest for all but fifteen minutes each day. During their only break at 9:30 every evening, they stand with candles along the east side of University Avenue to reflect on the lives lost during the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war.
This group is primarily comprised of middle-aged men and young adults of both sexes who rotate through shifts as if the task were a second job. They have come out every day for over two months even though the Tamil Tigers have now officially admitted defeat in their war with Sri Lankan forces, and they continue to peacefully protest even though it no longer makes the news.
The recent media reticence has been particularly frustrating for the Tamils. According to one man who attended Monday night’s vigil and wishes to remain unidentified, “the media cares about us only when we do something big,” adding, “people don’t even know that we’ve been standing here for sixty-one days.” As he sees it, the Tamils can disrupt traffic to earn coverage, or they can respect the public’s wishes and remain civil, but be left out of the news.
It is difficult to speak with many of the elder protesters because of a language barrier, but their sons and daughters—and in some cases, their grandsons and granddaughters—are more than willing to talk. This younger generation analyzes all angles of the issue and tries to remain open-minded, but they are defiant on one issue: they will protest until they elicit a response from the government. “We’re trying to get the government to help us because there’s only so much that we can do on our own,” explained Neroobha Sivaraman of Mississauga.
Yet asking for government assistance can be a tired, vague request. What type of help is required? Which level of government is targeted? Many of these questions were left unanswered at the large rallies because generic slogans are better suited for posters and chants, but the young Tamils are able to elaborate in personal conversations.
Priyanth Nallaratnam explains that Toronto’s young Tamils don’t expect Canada to provide armed forces to peace keep in Sri Lanka—they simply want the federal Conservatives to do more than just condemn the Sri Lankan government’s actions. They are realistic and admit that the Harper government has acknowledged the conflict, especially after Bob Rae was denied entry into their country, but they believe that their plight is not a prominent concern of the federal government.
Were the Conservatives to ask for their opinion, the Tamils would recommend imposing economic sanctions on Sri Lanka. The country is a large exporter of garments and teas and a restriction on these imports would weaken the ruling government that they claim hoards money for the benefit of the Sinhalese majority.
Unlike many of their elders, the younger Tamils are also Internet-savvy and have seen the vitriolic comments that accompany news stories of the crisis. Instead of standing defiantly against these users, they are sympathetic to a number of the concerns, such as the presence of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) flags at the rallies. Some of the younger Tamils admit that they have no personal qualms with the flags, but they can appreciate that the LTTE’s symbol inhibits some people from connecting to the protesters’ messages. In their community’s defense, they state that the flags were held by a small minority of protesters, and that just like the millions of Americans who opposed George Bush’s policies, there are many Tamils who do not stand behind the organization.
Living in Canada has also forced Tamil children to grow up in the same classrooms as Sinhalese youth. This interaction has taught them to accept their fellow Sri Lankans and has made them realize that there are many Sinhalese who do not agree with their government actions. In turn, the Tamil youths’ anger is directed toward a party and an army, rather than toward an entire nation.
It is impossible to predict what the Canadian government will ultimately do: Canada is home to the largest Tamil community outside of Sri Lanka but there are other emerging issues such as the disputed Iranian election that require the West’s attention. There are Tamils who vow to protest until they get sufficient government attention, but this group may be forced to rally for years to come. There is no telling if they will follow through on their commitment, but at the very least, they deserve respect for trying.
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.