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.

Darren Calabrese/AP
Thousands of Tamils demonstrate in Toronto on Wednesday, protesting the civil war in their native Sri Lanka.

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 says.

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' concerns.

"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 noted.

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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