If an immigrant community’s coming-of-age needs to be gauged in Canada, the way it is courted by politicians is a good indicator. Leaders of all hues, from the federal to the municipal level, put on an unabashed display last month at the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) gala held in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) city of Markham to celebrate Pongal, the Tamil equivalent of Thanksgiving Day.
Those present to woo the 300,000-strong community concentrated mostly in the GTA included Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, Ontario PC and Official Opposition Leader Tim Hudak, and Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti. The pride of place at the event, however, went to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. Heralded as the “future prime minister,” the gathering gave him a standing ovation. Seemingly carried away by the adulation, Mr Trudeau briefly showed off his Bollywood dance moves and regretted not coming dressed in a traditional South Asian outfit.
“Thirty years ago, there were a handful of Tamils in Canada, but today this country is home to tens of thousands of them who have established themselves with their values of hard work and determination,” he said. “These are not Tamil values; these are Canadian values,’’ he said amid rounds of applause.
Seeking international investigations into human rights violations by Sri Lanka in the last phases of the ethnic war in 2009, the Liberal leader said Canada would stand by the Tamil community in seeking justice on global platforms, including the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva next month. This sentiment was echoed by Mr Alexander, who said “Canada will be at the forefront to ensure that accountability comes.”
Both the federal politicians were on cue as the session in Geneva is of huge importance to the community. The Canadian Tamil Congress, as part of its advocacy work, will be sending a delegation to Geneva and wants the UN to take decisive action against the Sri Lankan government for violating human rights.
While Ms. Wynne said the strides made by the Tamils are “a great Canadian story,” Mr. Alexander said the community has been “a huge success for the Canada’s immigration program.” That’s a big shift in stance by the Conservative Party, which has been trying hard to undo the harm done by its anti-Tamil rhetoric during the 2011 federal election after two ship loads of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka came ashore on the B.C. coast. Canada’s recent boycott of the Commonwealth summit hosted by Colombo was seen by many as an attempt by the ruling party to curry favour with the Tamils.
Its need to garner support of the community along with that of other immigrant groups in the GTA has grown in importance as the 2015 election nears. The area, dubbed as the “905” after the telephone code that sets it apart from Toronto city, is expected to be a major battleground for votes. The 905 is believed to have helped the Conservatives form a majority government despite the party doing badly in Québec. Significantly, both the Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP) have also stepped up their efforts in the area.
A recent opinion poll has suggested that the going will not be easy for the eight Conservative MPs from the area if an election were held right now. The poll, conducted by Mainstreet Technologies and released exclusively to iPolitics, said three could lose their seats and the five others could find themselves in tough battles.
“It’s not surprising that given the national popularity of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party currently that these numbers are showing this, that there is a Liberal resurgence for sure,” Quito Maggi, president of Mainstreet Technologies, was quoted as saying. “On the other side, it doesn’t show a complete Conservative collapse as well. The Conservative base is alive and well in Peel region [consisting of Brampton and Mississauga].”
Tamil Heritage Month
At the CTC gala, almost all the leaders competed to promote Tamil culture. Mr. Hudak said he would be reintroducing a bill in the Ontario legislature to declare January as Tamil Heritage Month. Rathika Sitsabaiesan, the NDP MP for Scarborough—Rouge River riding, said she would be pressing ahead with her private bill, C-471, to designate the month as such across Canada. She said this month is celebrated throughout the country by Canadians of Tamil heritage, “as we recognize the cultural, political and economic contributions of Tamil Canadians in our communities.”
Ms Sitsabaiesan made no mention of her alleged intimidation by Sri Lankan authorities during her recent visit to the island. Her fellow NDP MP from the Toronto area, Prof. Craig Scott, was honoured with the “Leaders for Change” award at the event for his role as the founding member of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.
Apart from this gesture, the Tamil community has been trying hard to reach out to the mainstream. As in the past four years, the CTC once again raised money through its annual walk-a-thon for a Canadian charity. With the cheque for $65,000 presented to the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation, the organization has raised over a quarter-million dollars for five charities in the past five years. Only time will tell whether this is yet another sign of an immigrant group emerging from the shadows to gain the “good immigrants” moniker as suggested by Premier Wynne and Minister Alexander or a cynical attempt to gain political clout.