In the long strip mall that runs along Eglinton Avenue East between Midland and Brimley in Scarborough, dozens of cars pull up just after the sun has set. Residents are here to perform their after-work errands: picking up a repaired watch from a Tamil jewellery store, grabbing mutton rolls to go from a Tamil takeout joint, buying imported vegetables to prepare for dinner from a Tamil grocer. Canada is home to the largest Tamil diaspora in the world (an estimated 200,000 to 300,000) and most of the population resides here, in Scarborough.
At this strip mall, many say they don’t follow politics closely – they prefer to keep tabs on news “back home” rather than on domestic affairs – but there seemed to be a unanimous awareness of one recent act by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, since it tied many Tamil-Canadians’ backgrounds with their current home.
Mr. Harper is boycotting this week’s Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka on the grounds that the host country is guilty of severe human rights violations, largely committed against the Tamil minority. The move is bold: Mr. Harper was the first of the leaders of the 53 Commonwealth member states to pull out of the three-day meeting – India and Mauritius followed suit this week. (It is still not a full boycott, as the government has sent Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, to the summit.)
The Harper government’s move was long awaited by many Tamils here, who have written letters and signed petitions calling for a boycott for more than two years.
While the Tories say (and opposition parties agree) that the decision was not made for political reasons, it presents an opportunity for an inroad into an area that has traditionally swung Liberal or NDP. As the riding of Scarborough-Rouge River (home to the highest density of Tamils in the country) will split to create the new riding of Scarborough North next election, the NDP and Liberals are already lining up Tamil candidates and constituents here are considering changing their vote.
Peri Casinathan, a 68-year-old Tamil who was among those leading the charge calling for boycott of the summit, wrote to Mr. Harper to tell him as much.
He said he’s been a long-time supporter of the Liberal party and in the last election served as treasurer for NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan’s campaign in Scarborough Rouge-River, but could be swayed to support the Tories in 2015 – if the Prime Minister refused to go to the summit.
“To be very frank, I said in my e-mail that I have never voted for the Conservatives but this time I might consider it,” he said.
Just outside the modest Hindu prayer room on the second floor of the Eglinton strip mall, where burning incense heavily perfumes the air, Naren Vivek, 48, says he indulges in an almost exclusive diet of Sri Lankan news media, which covered Mr. Harper’s decision.
“I’m proud, right? The Prime Minister has taken a right decision. He’s respecting that innocent people are killed there,” Mr. Vivek said. He is Tamil and immigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka in 2000 because he was worried about the safety of his children.
In 1983, the country became the site of a brutal civil war between government forces and the separatist organization the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were fighting on behalf of the Tamil minority. Human rights organizations reported brutalities, including the murder, torture and imprisonment of civilians, that were inflicted on both sides. More than a dozen Tamil Canadians approached for interviews said they preferred not to speak on the record, some explaining that they feared that speaking publicly against the government would give them trouble on their next trips to their home country.
Ms. Sitsabaiesan grew up amidst Sri Lanka’s violence too – she was born in Jaffna, in the country’s north, and fled the country with her mother. At five, she immigrated to Canada and a quarter-century later became the first Tamil elected to Parliament. A year ago, she stood up in the House of Commons and called for a boycott of the summit if conditions did not improve in Sri Lanka.
Her short speech won her praise in her riding of Scarborough-Rouge River. With the creation of the new riding of Scarborough North, Ms. Sitsabaiesan announced last month she intends to run there and Markham city councillor Logan Kanapathi, who is also Tamil, says he will seek the Liberal nomination.
Former prime minister Joe Clark, who served as external affairs minister in Brian Mulroney’s administration, opposes the boycott. In an interview, he said the government “makes strong declarations of principle but then withdraw from the kind of negotiation that multilateral meetings allow,” a case he makes at length in his recently released book How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change.
He said British Prime Minister David Cameron has taken a much more constructive approach than Mr. Harper by openly chastising the Sri Lankan government but still attending the summit – despite calls for a boycott from many British residents.
Foreign Minister John Baird rejected the notion that Mr. Harper should be raising the issue of Sri Lankan human rights at the Commonwealth table, rather than boycott the meeting.
“We have been working for the last four years within the Commonwealth to try to effect change, to try to convince the Commonwealth to put Sri Lanka on the agenda,” but without success, Mr. Baird said in an interview from Kazakhstan.
Both opposition parties have said they support Mr. Harper’s decision not to attend the summit.
“The government did follow our direction on the boycott,” observed NDP foreign-affairs critic Paul Dewar in an interview. “The problem is they didn’t do enough preparatory work to make it as effective as possible.”
The Conservatives, Mr. Dewar believes, need to take a more active role in mobilizing international pressure on the Sri Lankan government to improve its treatment of the Tamil minority.
The Liberals believe that Canada, under the Conservative government, has failed to engage in multilateral forums such as United Nations. “But in respect to the Commonwealth, which is a smaller organization, we did feel that [a boycott] was justified,” said Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau. He said the government had clearly warned that Sri Lanka must move to protect and respect minority populations, and those warnings had been ignored.
Mr. Casinathan believes the move to boycott the summit comes from a genuine commitment to promoting human rights by the government, but added that the move could also have political payoff for the Conservatives in the future.
“Is [politics] the primary reason for boycotting? I don’t think so. Will they use it when the next election comes? Yes, certainly. They will go to any extent to get the vote of the Tamils because they know they are a sizable chunk in certain ridings,” he said.