“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
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.”