In her orange blouse and mesh cowboy hat, Rathika Sitsabaiesan cuts a striking swath through the stalls at the 10th annual Scarborough Rotary Ribfest in northeastern Toronto. It's a sweltering Saturday, and the MP for Scarborough-Rouge River is, like any good pol in the summer, where her constituents are – although for the two-thirds of them who are immigrants, the greasy, tangy Southern rib experience might be a relatively new one.
After a bit of glad-handing on the lawn where a Patsy Cline tribute band is playing, Ms. Sitsabaiesan (pronounced SITS-a-bye-EE-sin) spots a familiar face. Kneeling in, she buttonholes the spiky-haired nine-year-old sitting under an umbrella with his family. At a recent town hall on education, Ms. Sitsabaiesan had heard the story about the lack of teachers at the boy's school. “Are you going to write a letter to your trustee like I told you?” she asks him.
They don't, as it turns out, live in her riding, and it's not a federal issue – and at moments like this, Ms. Sitsabaiesan comes across as a classic, you might almost say conventional, New Democratic Party activist: Talk of empowerment and social justice falls easily from her lips, and the urge to sign up another recruit, send another letter, is never far from her mind. She puts a new face on some enduring NDP values, while reaching deeper into first- and second-generation immigrant communities – a growing demographic that Conservatives successfully courted in the May 2 election, but which the NDP has, for decades, been slow to connect with.
To some, Ms. Sitsabaiesan was a surprise winner in that election, in which she beat Conservative Marlene Gallyot by 5,000 votes, with the incumbent Liberals (represented by new candidate Rana Sarkar) relegated to third place. But her victory isn't just a story of the federal Liberals' receding political fortunes. It's a story of a coming of age for an ambitious politician, her community and possibly her party.
For Ms. Sitsabaiesan might be the most compelling of the new crop of young NDP MPs. She's the first Tamil-Canadian MP, and so has become the de facto standard-bearer for thousands of Canadians who have felt defeated – militarily, in their country of birth, and politically, in their new home. As a 29-year-old woman from political cultures – both Canadian and Sri Lankan – in which older men make most of the decisions, she exudes the poise, organizing skills and confidence of an old-school political veteran.
Ms. Sitsabaiesan, the youngest of four sisters, was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and tensions between that country's Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority soon erupted into civil war. “My mom basically had to smuggle us around the country to stay safe,” she says, and so the family would often miss letters from their father, who had moved to Quebec City, and then Mississauga, just west of Toronto, shortly after Ms. Sitsabaiesan was born.
When she was 5, the family joined Mr. Sitsabaiesan in Canada. He was unemployed, on worker's compensation after an accident at a door-making factory (“He's still in permanent pain,” Ms. Sitsabaiesan says).
That, however, didn't suppress the family's energies. “My father taught me how to be an MP,” Ms. Sitsabaiesan recently told a conference in South Carolina. Together, they canvassed the community to sign up members for a new Tamil-language school. “That was my first act of being an agent of change,” she says.
Ms. Sitsabaiesan may be an overscheduled MP today, but there has rarely been a time when she wasn't over-committed – as a child and teenager, it was dance classes, sports teams and work at a hospital.
“My mom wanted me to be a doctor, and my dad wanted me to be a lawyer,” but Ms. Sitsabaiesan eventually chose commerce, leaving Toronto for Ottawa's Carleton University in 2003. There, her attention broadened beyond the Tamil community; she quickly moved into student politics, while working full-time so that she could wean herself off Ontario student loans. Along the way, she picked up an eclectic trio of political inspirations – Mohandas Gandhi, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Old Man River African-American crooner Paul Robeson.
“Rathika was always desperately moving ahead,” says Carleton business professor Rob Riordan, who remembers her standing out – and speaking out – during her very first class with him. She was “trying to sweep up behind her to finish all the commitments she had, and lurching forward, into some destiny that I think only she could see.”