Tuesday, 27 June 2017 12:59

Embers of Sikh Extremism

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Parliament Hill in Ottawa is one of those treasures found only in liberal democracies.  Anyone can show up and lobby, protest, shout his lungs out or carry a placard peacefully and silently, no matter what the cause.  It is also a great place to watch the fireworks on Canada Day as long as enjoying the sights and sounds with 50,000 strangers does not bother you.

Sometimes, the ‘Hill’ is the site of demonstrations by groups that are not entirely acceptable.  At times, even listed terrorist entities have marched back and forth: a good example was the 2009 mass turnout by Tamil Canadians over the civil war in Sri Lanka at which Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) flags were seen. The LTTE is a banned terrorist organisation in this country.

On June 11, approximately 200 Sikhs gathered on Parliament Hill to commemorate the anniversary of the 1984 attack by Indian forces on the Sikhs’ holiest site, the Golden Temple or Darbar Sahib.  Demonstrators chanted ‘Long live Khalistan’ and demanded that India allow a referendum on the creation of an independent Sikh state in the Punjab.

Khalistan is of course their word for this homeland and the 1984 siege led to the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182 which killed 329 people off the coast of Ireland: the bomb was placed on the aircraft by Canadian Sikh extremists and was the single largest terrorist attack in history prior to 9/11.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.[/quote]

We don’t hear a lot about Sikh extremism these days, which could lead some to believe that it is no longer an issue.  It is fairly certain that Sikh extremist activity is at a nadir, the recent protest in Ottawa notwithstanding.  As I have written before, however, it would be a mistake to assume that the movement is dead.

India for one does not think it is. During an April visit to his native Punjab province, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was accused by a high-ranking Indian official of being a ‘Khalistani’.  That official, Amarinder Singh, said there were other ‘Khalistanis’  in the Trudeau cabinet and that he would refuse to meet with any of them.

This gets complicated as Minister Sajjan’s father was a senior official in the World Sikh Organisation the purpose of which was the pursuit of an independent Sikh state. It is not as if the Minister has not had enough problems of late, ranging from his exaggerated claim to have been the mastermind of a 2006 Canadian military operation in Afghanistan (codenamed "Medusa") to what he knew or didn’t know about the transfer of Afghan detainees to local authorities.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.  I know of no link between the Minister and banned terrorist organisations and, as a Sikh, he has every right to favour independence for his people through peaceful means.

There may very well be vestiges of Sikh extremism in Canada: the long-awaited "Khalistan" never materialised and no doubt some are not willing to allow the political process to unfold gradually. Yet, we also have to take into consideration the nature of the current Indian government.  Whatever you think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you cannot deny he has ushered in a wave of xenophobic and hateful Hindu nationalism that has been responsible for some very violent acts in India. 

It would not surprise me if some of these extremists were a little oversensitive to any whiff of Sikh independence. 

We must be vigilant in Canada to the possibility that we harbour individuals willing to create a "Khalistan" at all costs.  But we must be equally vigilant in subjecting accusations in this direction to careful scrutiny.

Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world. 

Published in Commentary
Saturday, 20 August 2016 17:36

Medical Student Re-discovers Jaffna

by Gayathri Naganathan in Scarborough

I was born at the Vavuniya General Hospital in the winter of 1988, in a town that is often referred to as the gateway to the northern Vanni region. As so many other families before us, we fled Sri Lanka during the civil war, amid death, destruction and uncertainty.

We arrived in Scarborough, Canada, in the early 90’s, in what would become the single largest Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora community outside of South Asia. I grew up speaking Tanglish (a blend of Tamil and English), eating string hoppers and spaghetti, and listening to A.R. Rahman and the Backstreet Boys.

In short, I am a ‘third culture’ kid, a blend of the home we left behind in Jaffna and the home we worked hard to create in Canada. So as a Canadian medical student when I was presented with the opportunity to spend several weeks training in any field and in any country around the world, the natural choice for me was to go “back home”.

Having spent over two decades away, I didn’t quite know what “back home” would mean on this first visit back. After months of phone calls, emails and planning, at the end of June, I arrived at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital, ready to start my five weeks of electives in internal medicine and general surgery. Unsurprisingly, I spent the first few days overwhelmed by the experience.

I have been volunteering, working, and learning in hospitals for most of my life. For most, hospitals are places that cause anxiety and stress, but for me, they are often a place of familiarity and comfort, somewhere where I feel engaged and useful. Despite years in this environment, the Jaffna Teaching Hospital felt foreign to me. The wards, the equipment, the staff uniforms, the very rhythm of the place was completely alien.

Patient autonomy

The most obvious difference was that everything was done by hand. There was not a single computer in sight. Having worked in a health system that is increasingly digital, this was a big change for me. I also soon discovered that patient records are not kept locked away in a filing cabinet at the clinic or hospital.

Rather, the patients themselves carry their clinic books, lab reports and even MRI scans to each appointment with them. While cumbersome and running the risk of losing documents, this system gives full autonomy to patients over their personal health records and also allows for the mobility of those records from one site to the next.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this system, the consultants (in Canada, we call them “attendings”) are able to see a massive case load in a very short period of time. This was most obvious on clinic days where upwards of 40 patients were assessed, treated, and dismissed and/or given a date for follow up, all within the span of two to three hours. It’s a whirlwind of papers shuffling, names being called, patients shifting in and out of the examination rooms, and notes hurriedly scrawled into clinic books.

I was equally stunned the first time I stepped into the casualty theatre – a carryover, it seemed, from Sri Lanka’s civil war, when trauma patients would flood into the hospital every day. Two tables, with one anesthetist each, for procedures that require general anesthesia.

All other procedures were conducted under local anesthesia on stretchers flying in and out of the large operating theatre. And, at the centre of it all, a group of dedicated and talented registrars and surgeons operate on everything from in-grown toenails causing infection to inguinal hernias, all using proper aseptic and clean protocols.

As a student, it was incredible to move from one table to the next and see so many different techniques and procedures happening simultaneously.

Controlled chaos

To me, this was controlled chaos. And this phrase echoed through my mind again and again as I proceeded through my weeks of training in Jaffna.

But beyond the differences, the language of medicine remained a constant thread to which I could hold. Human anatomy is the same the world over. And I marvelled as I watched my general surgery preceptor carefully reveal the facial nerves of a patient with a suspected tumour over his jaw bone. Like the branches of a tree, the branches of cranial nerve seven spread out across one half of the patient’s face, beginning to divide and separate just in front of the ear. It was like I was looking at a diagram in a textbook, the dissection down to the tumour was so precise and clean.

Acetaminophen too is the same all over the world. Whether we call it Panadol, Paracetamol or Tylenol, all three can be used to bring down a fever, all three can be used to relieve pain.

Moving mountains

Though the medicine was fascinating, the most enriching aspects of this journey to Jaffna were the people that I had the privilege of meeting. From the patients, nursing staff, and fellow medical students to the registrars and consultants who served as my teachers and mentors, the people I met throughout my five weeks at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital made the experience unforgettable. They worked to bridge the cultural and linguistic gaps between us, provided thoughtful and insightful answers to my questions, and facilitated opportunities to practice clinical skills and learn new techniques.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]I was truly in awe to see the mountains that these health providers move on a daily basis with less than a hundredth of the resources we have available to us in Canada, and with significantly more challenges.[/quote]

What do you do, for example, with a patient with diabetic foot ulcers who can’t afford to buy shoes? Or having to label an otherwise medically fit patient as a “poor candidate” for kidney transplant because all such surgeries are done in the private sector and require hundreds of thousands of rupees to carry out?

I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to be a learner in Jaffna, and to speak to patients and practise medicine in my mother tongue, Tamil. I feel especially privileged to have met the dedicated, passionate, and talented physicians and medical students who propel medicine forward in Jaffna. Despite systemic barriers, low resources and a significantly complex patient population, they persevere, they innovate and they thrive.

As a teacher and friend from my general surgery elective in Jaffna so poignantly stated, “We have the resilience gene”. And I could not agree with him more.

Gayathri Naganathan is a second year medical student at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. She is a daughter of the Tamil diaspora and a proud “third culture” kid.

Published in Health
Saturday, 16 January 2016 20:42

Solheim Calls on Diaspora to Work on Peace

by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto
The Sri Lankan civil war holds many a lesson for the island-nation's diaspora community in Canada and the world in general, according to Erik Solheim, former Norwegian Minister for International Development and for the Environment. Solheim's name is synonymous with peacemaking in Sri Lanka. 
“My biggest sorrow was that thousands of Tamils died unnecessarily due to lack of vision from both the Sinhala and Tamil leadership,” he said in Toronto this week, lamenting the futility of the civil war.
The country having gained a measure of calm in recent years, Solheim called on the diaspora community to participate in the South Asian nation's economy and thereby help heal the ethnic fault line. It has long been suspected that the country's Tamil diaspora worldwide, including its largest presence here in Canada, helped fuel the civil war through remittances and arms shipments. 
From 2000 to 2005, Solheim was the main negotiator of the process that led to a ceasefire agreement between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in early 2002 and the Oslo Declaration.
“Around that time, I was the most well-known foreigner in Sri Lanka next only to [then U.S. President] George Bush,” he recalled. “Also, I am the sole non-Tamil who has had the most face time with [LTTE chief] Velupillai Prabhakaran.”
Role of diaspora
Solheim was in Canada this week for the launch of To End a Civil War, a book by Mark Salter on Norway’s peace efforts to end the island nation’s bitter fight.
He referred to the formation of an air force by the LTTE, the first by a non-state player that was made possible by diaspora contributions. “While it was an impressive achievement, it made absolutely no impact on the final outcome of the war.”
Currently the Chairperson of the Development Assistance Committee for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Solheim said apart from political initiatives, a lasting solution to the ethnic fault line can be achieved through rapid economic growth. 

Describing the Tamil diaspora as among the most successful in the world, he said it could play a big role in Sri Lanka’s growth.
“You now need to go back to invest and put your expertise to use,” he told a  largely Tamil audience at the Toronto book launch. “More so because diasporas are generally made up of the most industrious of a populace.”
Bipartisan consensus
The peacemaker suggested that a bipartisan consensus between Sri Lanka's major political parties would further help the healing. The lack of such a consensus between the historically-opposed Sinhala political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had played a role in prolonging the civil war. He hoped the current bipartisan administration of President Maithripala Sirisena (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) can see through the process of rewriting the country’s constitution and move ahead on transitional justice.
Author Mark Salter said the importance of achieving bipartisan consensus is evident elsewhere. “Peace in Northern Ireland is a prime example of buy-in by all factions involved in a conflict.” 
Salter said the inability of the then Wickremesinghe government to explain the peace dividend in simple terms to the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population was a key factor in the failure of the Sri Lankan peace process. Buddhists account for over 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's 21 million people.
Looking back
Solheim said he wished he had a bigger and broader team to engage more broadly with key groups on the island, including Buddhist leaders. “We should have also insisted on better access to Prabhakaran and spoken to him more often.”
In his opinion, Prabhakaran was a brilliant military leader, but a failed politician. “He thought every issue had a military solution and went on to make many wrong decisions.”
It was exacerbated by the death of LTTE political ideologue Anton Balasingham. “Prabhakaran became very isolated and was pushed to the wall. There was not one meaningful initiative from him in an international context.”
Solheim said straight-talking Balasingham was able to give his Norwegian team a unique insight into the LTTE’s leadership. “He never lied to us.”
He said Prabhakaran’s biggest mistake was his decision to assassinate former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. “It was an astronomical blunder that finally led to the LTTE’s destruction [in May 2009].” Solheim said Sri Lanka’s destiny is tied to India on many counts, with close proximity to its giant South Asian neighbour being one. “If one wanted, you could take a boat to Chennai from Jaffna, watch a movie and return.”
Canada's "We're back"
His Norwegian team had been in constant touch with India and the U.S., the two big international players, throughout the peace process.
“No one nation can lead on all fronts in international affairs today,” Solheim told New Canadian Media when asked for his reaction to the new Canadian government’s global aspirations. “You must define a few areas of interest. But most importantly the desire to help must come from the heart.” 
Expressing delight over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s "We're back" pronouncements, he was planning to meet Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion in Ottawa during his trip to the capital for the launch of Salter’s book.
The Toronto launch was organized by Sri Lankans Without Borders and was moderated by Amaranth Amarasingam of Dalhousie University.
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Published in South Asia

by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto

May 2009, the civil war in Sri Lanka was grinding its way to an excruciating end.

Government forces were in a decisive push against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after more than 25 years of bitter fighting.

Caught in the crossfire were thousands of Tamil civilians, but governments around the world were stoic about human suffering despite blatant rights violations by both sides in the conflict.

The LTTE’s terror tactics had increasingly alienated them from the Tamil cause for an independent homeland.

This forced the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, by now scattered across the globe due to the war, to take to the streets to bring attention to the suffering.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][G]overnments around the world were stoic about human suffering despite blatant rights violations by both sides in the conflict.[/quote]

With Canada being home to the largest Sri Lankan Tamil population outside of the island nation, diaspora activism was at its peak here. They had been demonstrating since December 2008 and their protests in various cities had almost become routine by May.

But Canadians were ambivalent about a minority community protesting about a conflict happening far away from them. The display of the flag of the LTTE, by now a proscribed terrorist organization, also did not help in the battle for the hearts and minds.

So, even as the LTTE fighters were making their last ditch stand in Sri Lanka, the public relations battle in Canada was lost by the evening of May 10.

As dusk fell that Sunday night, several thousand Tamil protesters swarmed the elevated Gardiner Expressway. A crucial artery for downtown Toronto, it was effectively shut down till about midnight.

Anecdotes abound about how those caught in the traffic chaos suffered on that day. That it also happened to be Mother’s Day, and many were prevented from visiting their families, dealt the final blow in the court of public opinion.

It took the Tamil community several years to repair the damage done.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]It took the Tamil community several years to repair the damage done.[/quote]

But how did a community, that began gaining critical mass in the early 1980s, start organizing themselves on such a large scale?

Scholarly scrutiny

The answer to this question can be found in Pain, Pride, and Politics, a recently released book by Amarnath Amarasingam.

The genesis of diaspora activism specific to Sri Lankan Tamils forms the core of this book as it delves into an issue that needed scholarly scrutiny.

Until now we only had a crude understanding of this diaspora, its struggles and successes, and more importantly its links to the civil war.

A post-doctoral fellow in the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, Amarasingam weaves together a narrative that give us an insider’s view with the studied detachment of an academic.

However, the author’s lived experience as a young Tamil growing up in Toronto informs what would have otherwise become too academic. This is evident right from the introduction when he describes an encounter with the LTTE’s infamous money collectors in front of his home in the early 1990s.

‘Big egos, short fuses’

Amarasingam acknowledges that many Tamils did indeed give willingly and generously to these collectors every month. However, for others, they were an ever-present nuisance: “young men with big egos equipped with dangerously short fuses,” the author writes.

And it was not just the diaspora Tamils who grew weary and concerned by the LTTE’s presence and activity.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Governmental and policy circles started seeing Tamils as ... fundamentally corrosive to the prospects of peace in Sri Lanka.[/quote]

Soon the whole community got tainted in the eyes of mainstream Canada. Governmental and policy circles started seeing Tamils as overly radical and fundamentally corrosive to the prospects of peace in Sri Lanka.

Although some of these concerns were perhaps justified, much of the anxiety was exaggerated by misunderstandings.

This book now provides an in-depth examination of the ways in which a separatist socio-political movement has been carried forward, altered and adapted by the diaspora.

To make sense of this process, its first chapter examines the rise and fall of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka. It gives a detailed account of how ethnic grievances, political mobilisation, and events on the island led to armed conflict.

The focus then shifts to diaspora activism in Canada. The book comes into its own here as it attempts to fill two broad gaps in literature on diaspora politics.

Peace or trouble makers?

First, much of the writings examine diaspora communities as either peacemakers or troublemakers in relation to conflicts in their old countries. This black and white approach fails to acknowledge the greys of diaspora activism in its own right.

Second, in setting out to address this issue, Amarasingam cross-fertilizes his diaspora study with extensive literature on social movement theory.

It helps us better understand the street protests, the organizational dynamics and the process of identity formation in the post-civil war Tamil diaspora.

The futility of dividing the community between a “moderate majority” and a “pro LTTE bloc” is also brought forth.

Understanding future diaspora groups

Even though Pain, Pride, and Politics is the first such book-length treatment of Tamil diaspora politics in Canada, it does have self-set boundaries.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]With 25,000 refugees from Syria to soon settle across Canada, this treatise on a group that came here under very similar circumstances is very opportune.[/quote]

Issues like inter-generational religious identity, the proliferation of temples and ethnic Tamil churches, debates about caste identity, refugee experiences, mental health issues affecting the community and gang violence are not touched upon.

By skimming on these diaspora issues and a fuller account of post-colonial political developments in Sri Lanka, maybe Amarasingam is setting himself up for another book in the future.

But what he gives us in the present is a periscopic view of the singular dynamics that propel diasporic communities into uncharted spaces.

With 25,000 refugees from Syria to soon settle across Canada, this treatise on a group that came here under very similar circumstances is very opportune.

The insights offered make it an essential read for understanding the struggles future diaspora groups are likely to face and maybe even for helping us mitigate or prevent some altogether.


Ranjit Bhaskar is a Toronto-based journalist and writer with a keen interest in Canadian politics and immigration and South Asia.  

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Published in Books
Sunday, 06 September 2015 13:22

When the Tamil Boat People Came Ashore

by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto, Ontario

“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” goes a verse penned by Somali poet Warsan Shire. She should know. Shire goes on: no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark; you only run for the border when you see the whole city run.

Over the years, Canada has had its share of people seeking refuge. And, attitudes have changed over time. While some of our actions, like in the case of Vietnamese boat people, make us proud, there are numerous others when our response has been cringe-worthy.

Our current collective outpouring over the Syrian refugees flooding Europe stands in stark contrast to a time when two boatloads of Tamil refugees actually arrived on our shores. That was just five years ago.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Our current collective outpouring over the Syrian refugees flooding Europe stands in stark contrast to a time when two boatloads of Tamil refugees actually arrived on our shores.[/quote]

It was August 2010 and a rickety MV Sun Sea was sighted off Vancouver Island. The response was almost immediate: a federal government keen on pressing home its tough-on-crime image made it clear that the 492 Tamils fleeing a civil war in Sri Lanka would be presumed to be suspected criminals or terrorists allied with the Tamil Tigers.

Ten months earlier, another vessel had arrived on the west coast carrying 76 Tamil asylum seekers. The tone was set early, driving home the message to Canadians that there were hordes out there waiting to milk our generosity.

Then Public Safety Minister Vic Toews issued a statement declaring, “Human smuggling is a despicable crime and any attempted abuses of our nation’s generosity for financial gain are utterly unacceptable.”

As some in the media echoed the government rhetoric, public opinion seemed to go along with the view that these boat loads were just “queue-jumpers” wanting to get in in a hurry.   

In October that year (2010), the government sent two ministers to Vancouver to announce the tabling of Bill C-49 at the site of the moored, barely seaworthy Sun Sea. Minister Toews explained that the bill was “cracking down on those criminals who would … endanger the safety and security of Canadian communities.”

Over the following years, the Sun Sea continued to be exploited for public relation purposes with repeated press conferences held with the ship as a backdrop. It culminated with the Conservatives producing a TV ad for the 2011 elections that drove home the message that unlike its ‘soft’ opponents, the ruling party would keep uninvited refugees on boats out of Canada.

For the record, five years on, many of the seafarers have been found to be refugees in need of Canada’s protection. Only 11 have been determined to be members of the Tamil Tigers terrorist group.

[youtube height="315" width="560"]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p50wrd2JiX4[/youtube]

History repeating itself

As Canadians come to grips with the refugee crisis in Europe, it is worth remembering that like the Tamils accused of paying human smugglers to jump the queue, Alan Kurdi’s father too paid far more than travel costs to facilitate his family’s perilous escape.

Tamil organizations, though, don’t want to see the same "queue jumping" charge used against the fleeing Syrians. The Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) reminded Canadians that their people faced a similar dire situation in 2009 during the last phase of a brutal civil war in Sri Lanka in which more than 70,000 people are believed to have lost their lives.

“At that time, our desperate cries and appeals to the United Nations and the international community went unheard,” David Poopalapillai, the CTC spokesperson said. "We simply cannot sit by and watch history repeat itself.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"We simply cannot sit by and watch history repeat itself.” -- Tamil community spokesperson[/quote]

The race element

There were, of course, those for whom our approach to the Tamils was reminiscent of the harsh words used to turn back Sikhs and Hindus on board the Komagata Maru in 1914 and Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis fleeing persecution in 1939. The National Council of Canadian Tamils wanted the 2011 election ad pulled off the air.

"[It is] is xenophobic and borders on racism," Krisna Saravanamuttu, a council spokesman was quoted as saying, adding it appealed to the "worst instincts of Canadians to score political points and votes."

In an opinion piece in The Tyee, Bill Tieleman wrote: Let's also make a wild guess. The Conservatives have noticed that these refugee claimants were not, shall we say, Scandinavian-looking.”

There is a clear race element in the way we treat refugees, said Sujith Xavier, a law professor at the University of Windsor. “We saw it in the treatment of people who came on the Sun Sea and continued deportations of African asylum seekers from countries like Burundi.”

In the wake of the Sun Sea episode, the Canadian Council for Refugees, too, had expressed its concern about the undermining of public support for refugees. “Unfortunately we are seeing in Canada a pattern of anti-refugee rhetoric, familiar to many other countries [that tap into] into racist and xenophobic popular sentiments… to win votes.” 

Distant wars in the developing world and the human hordes they create are always a far worse experience for its victims than the world will ever get to know.

As Warsan Shire says in her poem, the harsh words and the dirty looks we direct at them roll off their backs “maybe because the blow is softer than a limb torn off.”

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Published in Top Stories

by Priya Ramanujam (@SincerelyPriya) in Scarborough, Ontario

“Did I tell you the time I was called 'a little girl'?” asks MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan incredulously.

Sitting in her election campaign headquarters in Scarborough’s Malvern neighbourhood, the first-term MP is recounting her experiences in politics after being elected in 2011 from Scarborough – Rouge River on the New Democratic Party (NDP) ticket. She was 29.

“It was a Citizenship and Immigration committee and I had the floor and I was speaking. And the chair had the audacity to say to me, ‘settle down little girl.’” Now four years older, she is seeking re-election from the new riding of Scarborough North to a Parliament which, she asserts, is still “very much an old white man’s club.”

The Sri Lanka-born MP sees herself very much part of a changing Canada, pointing out that for the first time ever, in 2011, the average age of MPs was below 50 years. The House of Commons also had the highest number of women. 

She has many firsts – first woman and first woman of colour MP to represent her riding – she was also the first MP of Tamil ancestry in the House. She and her family emigrated from Sri Lanka when she was five.

Often assumed to be “working for someone” or “somebody’s assistant” when she shows up for fancy galas and social gatherings, Sitsabaiesan told New Canadian Media in an exclusive interview that she has to work three times as hard as other MPs.

“Breaking down those pre-conceived notions is one part of the job of a young woman of colour who grew up in poverty, and is not a doctor or a lawyer, but it’s also just about holding my own.” [Picture shows Sitsabaiesan at her 2015 campaign launch on Aug. 22. Credit: Campaign supplied photo]

In love with Scarborough

Sitsabaiesan first fell in love with Scarborough, in the east end of Toronto, at the beginning of high school. As her family lived in Mississauga on its western edge, she would commute – sometimes three hours one way – to attend dance classes and Tamil school and later to volunteer.

Over time she became more engaged in civic activities, volunteering with community groups like the now defunct Malvern Community Coalition and the Action for Neighbourhood Change organization. Six years ago, she decided to make Scarborough her home.

Though pockets of the community, particularly Malvern, have at times been viewed negatively in the media, Sitsabaiesan says the riding’s overall welcoming nature is what she loves the most.

“That sense of community is really obvious in all the pockets and neighbourhoods within Scarborough Rouge River and that’s, I think, the best thing for me.”

She talks of the high level of diversity in the riding allowing her to be the “social chameleon” that she is and building meaningful inroads with all community members – whether by participating in the annual Caribbean Carnival or visiting the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatic Care.

She says she strongly believes that her intimate connection with the community is what voters gravitated to in the last election – an election that saw a significant rise in voter turnout for a riding that ranked second-lowest in Ontario during the previous federal elections in 2008.  

“I really do think that made a difference,” she says. “That if you’re seeking to be a representative of the community, that you’re actually a member of the community, that you can actually understand what life is for people in that community and what their lived experiences would be.”

Tight three-way race

While the name and face of Sitsabaiesan may have been the change people voted for in the last election, it may not be the same this time around, as the boundaries have changed.

While Sitsabaiesan easily won her former riding, the new one, which combines Scarborough – Rouge River and Scarborough – Agincourt, could be a different story. Portions of neighbourhoods like Malvern and Morningside Heights are now out of her riding boundaries and she can expect a tight three-way race. 

Sitsabaiesan’s Liberal challenger is Shaun Chen, who resigned as chair of Toronto District School Board to fight the election. Her Conservative opponent is businesswoman and community activist Ravinder Malhi.

Elections Canada has applied the 2011 results to the new riding boundaries and it shows a very tight race. Even a small swing might result in a very different outcome. The NDP would have won Scarborough North with 35.3 per cent of the vote, compared to 33.3 per cent for the Conservatives and 28.9 per cent for the Liberals. The sitting MP is aware that while Scarborough – Rouge River had the highest Tamil population among all the ridings, fewer voters in Scarborough North share the same heritage. [Picture shows MP Sitsabaiesan hugging long-time supporter Mark Atikian, member of the Armenian National Committee of Toronto. Credit: Campaign supplied photo]

Criticism and controversy

Outside her riding, Sitsabaiesan has received negative attention, the most recent being a personal trip to Sri Lanka and India at the end of 2013 that generated some criticism and controversy.

The critics come with the territory, she says, adding that some people argue she does too much for the Tamil community, while others argue that she doesn’t do enough.

What she stands behind, though, is the work she has done for all of her constituents. She mentions that her office has helped more than 1,000 individuals and families, the majority of which have been immigration-related issues.

She may also have had a role in inspiring other candidates of Tamil heritage in running this time: Senthi Chelliah, NDP Candidate for the riding of Markham-Thornhill; Rev. K.M. Shanthikumar, NDP Candidate for the riding of Scarborough–Rouge Park; and Gary Anandasangaree, Liberal Candidate for riding of Scarborough–Rouge Park. 

While her global human rights work has seen her take up causes in Guatemala, Honduras, the Philippines and India, she says the high level of child poverty and legislation like Bill C-24 (the new citizenship Act) and Bill C-51 (anti-terrorism) are examples of the long way Canada still has to go.

“While we’re helping people all over the world have a sense of fairness, we need to make sure that we’re doing that here at home.” 

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Published in Politics
Sunday, 08 February 2015 13:32

Sri Lanka’s Newfound Cautious Optimism

by Amra Ghouse, Kumaran Nadesan, Suthamie Poologasingham, Nima Ranawana and Viranjith Tilakaratne

When Sri Lanka celebrated its 67th Independence Day on February 4, it did so filled with hope that it can finally realize its true social, political and economic potential. Many Sri Lankan Canadians too are now cautiously optimistic about that country’s future.

This renewed hope for Sri Lanka is especially pronounced because of the stillborn reboot from six years ago. Then, in May 2009, the Sri Lankan state ended nearly 30 years of its own ‘war on terrorism’ defeating the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In the process, however, a brutal price was extracted from ethnic minority Tamils caged in the crossfire whose dead and disappeared are still being counted – now the subject of an international UN investigation. The populism of the wartime presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa started eroding away soon after the war as nepotism, corruption, and cosmetic reconciliation efforts angered many in Sri Lanka and around the world. Additionally, authoritarianism, religiously motivated violence against Muslims and Christians, and a belligerent foreign policy pivot towards China alarmed powerful allies abroad.

Rainbow coalition

It was in this context that Maithripala Sirisena, a sitting Cabinet Minister, stepped up as the common candidate to front a surprising coalition of communists, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, Tamil and Muslim minorities, and others to lead a ‘rainbow revolution’ against Rajapaksa. On January 8, 2015, in a largely peaceful transfer of power, Sirisena won the election with a record voter turnout of almost 82 per cent. Nearly half of the majority Sinhala Buddhists voted in his favour, with Muslims and Tamils playing kingmaker, the latter wisely rejecting the call from some quarters to boycott the election.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Nearly half of the majority Sinhala Buddhists voted in his favour, with Muslims and Tamils playing kingmaker, the latter wisely rejecting the call from some quarters to boycott the election.[/quote]

Since then, President Sirisena has initiated a wide-ranging set of reforms as part of his First 100 Days Program, aimed at building good governance while also addressing the long-standing grievances of the Tamil people, perhaps recognizing the inter-connectedness between both issues.

There are already encouraging signs.

Sirisena has not backed away from his main election promise of abolishing the unfettered Executive Presidency. He has appointed a leaner Cabinet and has also started cutting back on presidential expenses. A sweeping corruption probe has begun to investigate the excesses of the Rajapaksa coterie. A populist, interim Budget has been tabled ahead of parliamentary elections in April 2015. The government has also rolled back much of the media censorship imposed by the previous regime. The unlawfully impeached former Chief Justice was reinstated, and just last week, a new Chief Justice has been appointed on the basis of merit who also happens to be a Tamil – a first in over two decades.

Tamil diaspora

With respect to Tamil grievances, Sirisena has scrapped the economic embargo on Tamil regions and reversed a recent ban on foreign nationals, many of them diaspora Tamils, visiting the former war zones. The military governor of the Northern Province, where Tamils have traditionally lived, has been replaced with a former UN diplomat. Even more significantly, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has negotiated consensus within the coalition to implement constitutional amendments that will see more powers devolving to provinces albeit within a unitary state.

Some analysts have correctly observed that these amendments should be treated only as the first step in a longer devolution journey towards creating a truly inclusive national identity. To create more goodwill, the government has also announced that it will release 275 political prisoners, representing only a small percentage of the total number of Tamils being held in secret camps; publicly committed to returning Tamil lands that were illegally seized by the military; and is interested in repatriating the two generations of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in neighboring India.

It is important to note, however, that it is still early days for the new government. Rather troublingly, Sirisena has stuck to his predecessor’s line about not demilitarizing the Northern Province, and has also promised immunity for the political and military leadership of the previous regime from any international inquiry – likely to make more inroads into the Sinhala Buddhist base and to hold his rambunctious coalition together. Neither of these positions, however, will endear him to Tamil voters in the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections or the Tamil diaspora that wields great political influence in their host countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom that have general elections of their own coming up later this year.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Neither of these positions will endear him to Tamil voters in the ... Tamil diaspora that wields great political influence in their host countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom that have general elections of their own coming up later this year.[/quote]

Delivering justice

Both of these countries are also key allies in the mainly U.S.-backed UN investigation on Sri Lanka which is expected to report back to the UN Human Rights Council next month. It remains the case that only such an international investigation can be fair and independent enough to deliver the kind of justice and accountability needed to allow for the meaningful reconciliation of Tamils to Sri Lanka.

This context, then, forms the litmus test for Sirisena’s political will to go beyond symbolic gestures and dive deeper to address the structural barriers to a democratic, inclusive, and peaceful Sri Lanka. By addressing systemic discrimination faced by minorities, especially Tamils, Sirisena can not only cement his own place in history but also gain the support of old and new allies in completing the country’s transition to middle-income status and awaken to its own ‘tryst with destiny’. Just as importantly, he can also earn the trust of the powerful diaspora, like that in Canada, and tap into their investment potential and knowledge base to help build a new Sri Lanka since they, including many Tamils in spite of the burden of memory and loss, still recognize the island as the place where their roots remain.

The authors are interim advisors to Sri Lankans Without Borders (SLWB), an independent, Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that promotes cross-community engagement between various ethnic communities in the Sri Lankan Canadian diaspora. SLWB is also firmly committed to a democratic, inclusive and peaceful Sri Lanka on the basis of truth, accountability and justice for all people. This opinion was originally published on Groundviews and has been re-published with minor edits. 

Published in Commentary

by Ranjit Bhaskar 

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect to project the commonalities between Canada and India.

“Two great democracies, India and Canada, both champions of human rights and human dignity,” said Jason Kenney, Canada's Minister of Employment and Social Development and Minister for Multiculturalism, heralding the yet-to-be-made-official decision by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the only other leader boycotting the summit over human rights violations by the Sri Lankan state. India has not made the move public as diplomatic etiquette dictates that the host country be informed of the decision first.

Both Mr. Harper and Mr. Kenny were at the 13th national celebration of Diwali on Saturday, held for the first time outside of capital Ottawa. They said the Indian festival is now a “Canadian celebration for all Canadians.” Chris Alexander, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, resplendent in an Indian outfit, introduced his colleagues to the large audience.

The change in venue was for a good reason as the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has become a key testing ground for the federal Conservatives. Most members of the party’s caucus from the area were on hand at the well-attended celebration.

‘Putting India at the centre’

Mr Harper, who was attending the celebration for the seventh time as prime minister, said it was the biggest and the best one yet. Affirming that his “government is putting India at the centre of Canada’s Asia policy,” Mr Harper said his second trip to India exactly a year ago, which lasted 12 days, was his longest to any country as prime minister. Diwali is by far the most popular festival in India.

“Canada has a larger and more important presence in India now than in virtually any other developed country. And that is because we believe in India as the world’s largest democracy, we believe in India as a reference point for our pluralism,” said Mr. Kenney. “We Canadians did not invent diversity. India was remarkably diverse even before we thought of the idea in this country.”

Mr. Kenney said Canada has developed its closest-ever relationship with India under Mr. Harper’s leadership. It took “courage and tenacity” to bolster the relationship after being in the “deep-freeze for 35 years for lot of different reasons.”  

That closeness was in evidence recently when Salman Khurshid, India’s foreign minister, was in Canada recently for the first-ever strategic dialogue with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. While Mr. Khurshid is likely to represent India at the CHOGM, Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary to Mr. Baird and one of the main the organizers of the Diwali event, will be going to Colombo on Canada’s behalf.

‘Cusp of deepening ties’

Akhilesh Mishra, India’s Consul General in Toronto, said recently at a Indo-Canadian forum that relations between the two countries were on the “cusp of a significant upgrading and deepening.” He said the “candour and warmth” during the meeting between M. Khurshid and Mr. Baird was exceptional.

“In a challenging neighbourhood with an abundance of opportunity, the importance of the Canada-India relationship is underscored in this first official visit of my counterpart in 15 years,”  Mr. Baird had said after his talks with Mr. Khurshid. “The frequent and diverse range of economic, security and global issues that Canada and India are now interacting on represents only the beginnings of the great potential of our bilateral relations.”

Trade-wise, that potential is yet to be exploited as the current level is a modest $5.2 billion. Investment wise, India has a much larger stake in Canada at $14.3 billion as against Canada’s $4.3 billion in India. India already imports 40 per cent of its pulses and 25 per cent of its potash from Canada.

Canada and India have been haggling over the details of a foreign investment protection agreement since 2004: the main purpose being to get New Delhi grant Canadian investments in India the same protection Indian investments enjoy in Canada. Ottawa recently signed a similar deal with Beijing that had been 18 years in the making.

The bigger prize in the Indo-Canadian sphere is a bilateral free-trade agreement, which the two have been discussing since 2010, that would see annual trade triple to $15 billion by 2015.

Nuclear ‘freeze’ over

The earlier freezing of Indo-Canadian relationship that Kenny talked of at the Diwali event was triggered after India tested nuclear devices - first in 1974 and then again in 1998.

Having overcome those differences, Canada and India have now taken the next step towards full implementation of a nuclear co-operation agreement. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and India’s Department of Atomic Energy finalized an arrangement this April that would allow Canadian companies to export nuclear items to India for peaceful uses.

India has announced plans to build 12 new reactors by 2021, so the country’s demand for uranium is expected to triple to about $650 million in annual purchases. Canada is the world’s second-leading producer of uranium, behind Kazakhstan.

“Yes prime minister, I am counting and would continue counting,” quipped Mr Obhrai about the future Diwali events he foresaw Mr. Harper attending.  – New Canadian Media

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Published in Top Stories
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 00:56

Embers of civil war still aglow in Sri Lanka

by Ranjit Bhaskar

That a public event held in the memory of a slain Sri Lankan journalist was not immune to tensions caused by the civil strife there is a reminder of its intensity four years after the defeat of Tamil Tiger forces.

The presence of private security at the Lasantha Wickrematunge Memorial Lecture in Toronto last weekend meant that the organizers were not taking chances with emotions that are still raw. This was reinforced when moderator Naheed Mustafa warned participants that they would be whisked away if deocrum was not maintained at the event, hosted jointly by Sri Lankans Without Borders and the South Asian Journalists Association.

Rather unusually it began with apologies on two counts – for the last-minute dropping out by two featured speakers for “personal reasons” and for the panel being not representative of the fractured South Asian island’s ethnic mix. But to the credit of the panelists present, they brought fair and rare perspective to the lack of media freedom and the resultant ills afflicting a country that should be cashing in on the peace dividend.

“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces - and, in Sri Lanka, journalism.”  This was the opening sentence of the article Wickrematunge wrote days before he was killed in 2009. This message about the messenger being targeted could not been starker.

“It is tragic that media censorship and political oppression against which Lasantha [Wickrematunge] struggled valiantly then, and for which he died, persist four years after his death,” said J.S. Tissainayagam, one of the panelists and an acclaimed journalist who is in exile after being arrested and sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment in Sri Lanka for criticizing the government’s treatment of Tamil civilians affected by the war.

Pernicious effect

“Following the military campaign, there are fundamentally two ways whereby the present government has imposed censorship. One is through legislation; the other by physically targeting journalists.  But more importantly, there were new regulations that came into effect after armed combat ended in May 2009. They mostly pertain to restricting the dissemination of news on the internet and via telecommunication networks,” said Mr. Tissainayagam.

Pointing to the empty chair on the dais with the portrait of  Prageeth Ekneliayagoda, he said  the journalist  disappeared from  Colombo eight months after the military campaign had ended. Today the government’s only answer to his disappearance is to orchestrate a smear campaign against his wife and refusal to conduct a credible investigation into the incident.

“The effect of these methods of terrorizing the media has been twofold. Its impact on the media itself is forcing journalists to censor themselves. But its reach is much wider. It also closes the mind and our ability to critique and question the status quo,” Mr. Tissainayagam said.

He said there is more than one reason for the government’s persistence on imposing tight restrictions on the media. The most important is that the government does not want reports of its conduct during the war in the Tamil north to undermine post-war consolidation.

“The government is deeply concerned these stories will infiltrate southern Sri Lanka and the moral ugliness of such savagery will be repugnant to many Sinhalese.  The fear is that an open discourse will persuade the vast majority of Sinhala people within the country to demand an impartial investigation into war crimes of the political leadership. Thereby the government will lose its support base,” Mr. Tissainayagam said.

‘Handbrakes on’

The media in the Sinhala south too is subject to privations because if war crimes-related issues are to be effectively concealed, censorship has to be blanket. ”Secondly, repression of the people in one part of the country, inevitably begets repression in other areas too. And therefore the [Mahinda] Rajapakse government is careful to contain incriminating stories from the South as well.”

 Mr. Tissainayagam said it was unfortunate that the self-preservation policy of the current government runs contrary to its rhetoric of reconciliation. “If you want the Sinhalese and Tamils to reconcile, there has to be first and foremost a frank dialogue between the two groups. But if, official strategy is to prevent that, by ghettoizing the North and censoring media throughout the country, reconciliation will only remain in words, not deeds.”

Sanjana Hattotuwa,  the founder and curator of Groundviews,  a  Sri Lankan website that offers alternative perspectives on human rights and governance, said that despite censorship being not  official, journalists are extremely worried about crossing the unknown redlines of the government. This has lead to unprofessionalism among journalists and the new trend of censorship by buying out media houses as against the cruder form of physical elimination, Mr Hattotuwa said. ”Self-censorship is so perverse that even senior journalists who have been physically attacked do not want these incidents reported for fear of persecution by the government. Expecting the mainstream media to push against the boundaries penning them in is like trying to push a car with the handbrakes on.”

Diaspora role

On what role the diaspora can play to set right the situation, Mr Hattotuwa pointed out the plurality of the Tamil and Sinhala solitudes and their entrenched politics. However, he said they can help by writing on a sustained basis about the democracy deficit facing the country. “They must critically engage with the country and expose the ugliness that tourist brochures will not tell.”

 Mr. Tissainayagam said as media in Sri Lanka is an integral part of a highly prejudiced society, it is for the diaspora to engage the international community to push for reforms in the home country.

Malinda Seneviratne, a Sri Lankan journalist who was expected to participate in the event via Skype, said in remarks read out by the moderator that technology has provided instruments that can best the most pernicious of censorship mechanisms.  He said these means can be used and abused and that it can both minimize realities as well as inflate falsehoods.  “That kind of truth-cooking is not the preserve of governments.  Indeed spin and twist can be off-shored and this happens frequently too,” Mr. Seneviratne said.

Proliferation of spaces does not mean that the general public is better informed, said Mr Hattotuwa. “As media literacy is lacking in Sri Lanka, diaspora conversations has not influenced the domestic discourse right now. It might happen in the future.”

Tim Uppal, the federal minister of state for multiculturalism, who put in an appearance during the event, expressed Canada’s concern about human rights and democracy deficit in Sri Lanka. He hoped that the country will live up to the British Commonwealth’s values. That the two immigrant groups in Toronto - Tamil and Sinhala - lived up to the values of informed debate without  incident is small consolation for now. – New Canadian Media

Published in Top Stories
by Our Staff Correspondent
A Canadian man has pleaded guilty to a terrorism charge in the United States for supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ellam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.
Suresh Sriskandarajah, 32, faces a maximum of 15 years in prison after admitting Tuesday in a federal court in New York of plotting to provide material support to the LTTE, a group banned in Canada and the U.S.
An accomplished student in Waterloo, Ontario, Sriskandarajah came to Canada from northern Sri Lanka as a boy. Also known as Waterloo Suresh, he had been working on a Ph.D. after earning degrees from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. In May, 2008, he received Laurier's CIBC Leaders in Entrepreneurship Award.
"The guilty plea was probably something he was planning for some time to try to get a reduced sentence," said Amarnath Amarasingam, a Post-Doctoral Fellow at York University. "He was facing 15 years in jail and a long drawn-out trial. Not really the ideal situation to be in. The letter provided by the Sri Lankan government is also interesting - and seems to have been effective. It's clear that the family did all they could to help."
In the letter cited by Amarasingam, Sri Lanka is purported to have urged the U.S. to abandon his prosecution because of “his publicly recognized efforts to secure a lasting, peaceful reconciliation for the Tamil people.”

The letter was revealed by the U.S. federal judge hearing his bail plea in February, the National Post had reported.
The Canadian newspaper said Judge Raymond Dearie refused him bail “with some reluctance” and had noted that “given the history of Sri Lanka’s prolonged and bitter conflict,” the request was “an extraordinary initiative that evidences Suresh’s legitimate and admirable work.”
Even Judge Dearie’s reference to him by his first name only suggests an atypical reaction of the U.S. court system towards a terrorist, the Post said.
Sriskandarajah was first arrested in August 2006 after a joint investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation into the activities of the LTTE, better known as Tamil Tigers.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release that between September 2004 and April 2006, Sriskandarajah and several co-conspirators helped research and acquire aviation equipment, submarine and warship design software, night vision equipment and communications technology.
The prosecutors said Sriskandarajah used students as couriers to smuggle prohibited items into LTTE-held territory in Sri Lanka at that time and he helped the group launder its money in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Founded in 1976, the LTTE began its armed conflict against the Sri Lankan government in 1983 to establish an independent Tamil state in northern part of the country. Its guerrilla strategy often included acts of terrorism and numerous political assassinations, including the May 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the 1993 assassination of the President of Sri Lanka Ranasinghe Premadasa.
India declared the LTTE a terrorist group in 1992, followed by the U.S. in 1997. Canada and the European Union did so in 2006. In May 2009, Sri Lankan government forces defeated the LTTE. – New Canadian Media
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New Canadian Media provides nonpartisan news and views representing all Canadian immigrant communities. As part of this endeavour, we re-publish aggregated content from various ethnic media publishers in Canada in an effort to raise the profile of news and commentary from an immigrant perspective. New Canadian Media, however, does not guarantee the accuracy of or endorse the views and opinions contained in content from such other sites. The views expressed on this site are those of the individual writers and commentators, and not necessarily those of New Canadian Media. Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved