Tories trying to win support from South Asians in Ontario have opened the door to remnants of a Tamil Tiger front group the federal Conservatives themselves banned in 2008.
The unlikely association, forged behind a curtain of tough government talk about Tamil refugee ships and a feared terrorist migration to Canada last year, has developed since the Tigers' separatist struggle was crushed by the Sri Lankan military in 2009.
Last month, Tim Hudak, Leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives, announced Shan Thayaparan as his party's candidate for Markham-Unionville. Mr. Thayaparan had helped run an election for a new Tamil separatist group, the National Council of Canadian Tamils (NCCT), whose key adviser, Nehru Gunaratnam, is a former spokesman for the outlawed World Tamil Movement.
Federally, Tamil broadcaster Ragavan Paranchothy, who was in direct contact with the top Tiger leadership in 2009, is seeking the Conservative nomination in Scarborough-Southwest.
Both ridings sit on Toronto's northeast fringe, amid the world's largest Sri Lankan Tamil community outside Asia, the de facto capital of the Tigers' international support base.
One Conservative MP, Paul Calandra, recently felt the heat of venturing too close to the hard-core separatist movement, of which moderate Tamils have grown increasingly weary since the war's end. After he cut the ribbon at the NCCT's offices, Mr. Calandra said he gave a speech urging Tamils to abandon separatism, then noticed Mr. Gunaratnam in the crowd and dashed for the exit.
"When he walked into the room, I got up and walked out in protest, and told the organizers I did not want to be in the same room as that gentleman," Mr. Calandra said.
The MP said he hadn't known that Mr. Gunaratnam - who spoke at a Toronto-area event honouring dead Tiger "heroes" in November - was a guiding force behind the NCCT, a group that claims to be the "the democratically elected representatives of Tamils in Canada."
Mr. Gunaratnam said the idea of the NCCT infiltrating the Conservatives is "laughable," but others find little amusing about the closeness between the new group's backers and party officials.
Three long-time Conservative volunteers, all Tamil Canadians from different positions within the federal and provincial parties, speaking on condition of anonymity, said associates of the old Tiger support apparatus have pushed their way into the party in a bid to shore up their sagging status in the community, but that party officials have ignored their concerns.
Spokespeople for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, to whom letters of concern were sent, refused to comment without being provided copies.
The Ontario PC Party was similarly unwilling to address specific questions about the nomination of Mr. Thayaparan, who attended the 2006 federal Liberal convention with Mr. Gunaratnam and sought a federal New Democratic Party nomination in 2009 before Mr. Hudak introduced him last month as a Conservative.
"Everyone who applies to be a candidate goes through a rigorous screening process," said party spokesman Alan Sakach, who refused to grant an interview with Mr. Hudak. "This guy is crystal clear. ..."
The Globe and Mail contacted Mr. Thayaparan several times this week, but he has not replied to a list of written questions or returned phone calls.
Photographs obtained by The Globe and Mail show Mr. Hudak and a Tamil delegation, including Mr. Thayaparan, at a private meeting on Oct. 27 in the leader's Queen's Park offices. Conservative strategy for connecting with the Tamil community was discussed. The pictures show strong NCCT representation among attendees, who included:
* Rajkumar Subramaniam, an elected NCCT member who posed with Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran several years before he was killed in the war's last days. Mr. Subramaniam's Facebook page features photos of the Tigers' flag flying at a Parliament Hill demonstration and a status update last month on Valentine's Day that read, "I love you, Tamil Eelam."
Absent from Facebook are his photos with the famously elusive Mr. Prabhakaran. In an e-mail interview, Mr. Subramaniam said the photos, obtained by the Globe from an anonymous source, were taken in 2002, during a ceasefire to allow for peace talks. He said the Tiger leader paid a surprise visit to an orphanage where Mr. Subramaniam was doing relief work.
While the NCCT shares Mr. Prabhakaran's dream for a Tamil homeland, Mr. Subramaniam wrote that the "NCCT distinguishes itself with the promotion of non-violence."
* Amaleethan Xavier, media co-ordinator for the NCCT elections, whom Patrick Brown, Conservative MP for Barrie, called "my friend Amaleethan" in a Twitter photo taken at a polling station. Mr. Xavier is a Conservative organizer in suburban Toronto.
* Ragavan Paranchothy, the broadcaster seeking the federal Scarborough-Southwest nomination. Mr. Prabhakaran's successor, Kumaran Pathmanathan (known as KP), told a Toronto-based Tamil journalist that he was on the phone with Mr. Paranchothy at the moment of KP's arrest in Malaysia three months after the war's end.
Asked to explain, Mr. Paranchothy said, "I returned a call from someone in Malaysia at that time … I don't know if I was speaking to KP or if I was speaking to one of his assistants. ..."
Mr. Paranchothy, who refers to himself as a journalist, said he "can't come right out and be very critical" in his reports, since "the media I work for obviously cater to the Tamil community." Asked if that meant he takes sides with the Tigers' brand of "freedom struggle" over the terrorist designation his own Conservative Party has applied to it, he said, "I guess I should say yes and no."
* Balan Rajaratnah, a member of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), an elected group of expatriate Tamils from around the world also pushing for a separate state.
The TGTE and NCCT issued a joint statement last April, before both groups held their first elections. The message appeared in a Tamil-language newspaper with the NCCT logo on its front page and a World Tamil Movement e-mail address as contact information. Co-signed by Nehru Gunaratnam, the message stressed the importance of unity "to win a free Tamil Eelam."
To further make the point, Mr. Rajaratnah and Mr. Gunaratnam appeared together on Tamil television to promote the NCCT elections.
In November, Mr. Rajaratnah told The Canadian Press his "Peel Tamil Community Centre," an entity with no building, staff or website, had endorsed the federal Conservatives' anti-human-smuggling Bill C-49 despite its objections to it, in hopes of being rewarded with federal funding.
"Our way of working is to work with the government to get something from the government," Mr. Rajaratnah said, adding that he had been assured some elements of the bill would be removed.
Other NCCT officials have displayed unambiguous support for the Tiger cause in campaign materials, at protests and on Facebook pages.
Siva Vimalachandran, a York University student who is an NCCT national director and treasurer, posed for Toronto Life magazine wearing the Tigers' emblem over his shoulder. Mr. Vimalachandran was a negotiator for Tamil demonstrators who occupied the city's busy Gardiner Expressway in the spring of 2009.
At the time, Bob Runciman, a veteran PC caucus member, told the legislature that Ontarians were "undoubtedly concerned over the loss of innocent life [in Sri Lanka]… But they are not supportive of in-your-face abuse of our laws and the public promotion of an internationally recognized terrorist organization."
The Tigers were infamous for using suicide bombings, child soldiers, political assassination and brutal repression of Tamils who did not share their singular dream of "Tamil Eelam," a separate state, on Sri Lankan soil. Mr. Harper's government cited these methods, and repeated Tiger violence during a ceasefire, when it listed them as a terrorist organization in 2006.
The government banned the Tigers' Canadian fundraising arm, the World Tamil Movement, two years later. It had been labelled a terrorist front by the RCMP and condemned by Human Rights Watch for aggressively collecting "war taxes" from reluctant Tamils.
"The World Tamil Movement has been involved in raising funds to support … the Tamil Tigers," Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said in announcing the ban, making a point to do so in Toronto. When the government banned the Tigers in 2006, Mr. Day hailed the decision as "long overdue and something the previous government did not take seriously enough to act upon."
With the war now over, and their old Liberal allies sidelined federally and under threat in Ontario, Tamil power brokers bent on breaking into government have few practical options beyond the Conservatives.
In turn, the party - whose hunger for South Asian votes was exposed in an accidental leak from Mr. Kenney's office this week - is returning the Tamils' longing gaze, even as it redrafts refugee laws due to shiploads of migrants arriving last year.
"The Conservatives have been trying to get in touch with various Tamil groups and formations," said Rudhramoorthy Cheran, a University of Windsor professor and poet with deep respect among Canadian Tamils. "Tamils have also realized that they can't put all their eggs in one basket" as they had with the Liberals.
A senior Conservative with experience in office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his party appears to have abandoned due caution. "What it smacks of is expedience, but it smacks as well of trying to find the quick way to win support from those communities," he said.
Mr. Gunaratnam, the NCCT architect, said Conservatives have nothing to fear from his group's engagement with the party, and Canadians need not worry that the Tigers - which he pronounced "done and gone" - might regroup on home soil.
"People like me, we're very practical people; there's no point in going back at what happened wrong in the past because it's not going to help you," he said. "[The Tigers]are not a factor any more, but the Tamil factor is still lingering large."
At the end of a long, rambling interview, Mr. Gunaratnam mentioned as an aside that he, too, took a phone call from KP, the Tiger leader, after the war ended. He said he rebuffed an invitation to work for the new leader.
"I said, 'No, sorry, I'm not going to work for anyone [with the Tigers]because I didn't do it before, either,'" he said. "I'm not going to be part of those politics at all; that's a very clear stand that I always have."
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