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Usha Sri-Skanda-Rajah, 53, is slim and elegant, with a manicure and a discreet jade ring. Sitting in her Toronto living room, she urges her courtly husband to tell a visitor a story. "Tell her why you left Sri Lanka in 1958."

Sri Sri-Skanda-Rajah sighs. He was just 19. A crowd in Colombo, the capital, was trying to burn down his family home, where 90 Tamil neighbours had taken refuge.

"I had a gun. I shot in the air. They threw bombs and ran away," he said.

With his silk bow tie, gold Rotarian pin in the lapel of his double-breasted blazer and plummy accent acquired while earning a PhD in engineering from Cambridge University, Dr. Sri-Skanda-Rajah hardly looks the gun-toting type. Indeed, he and his wife had just attended a strategy meeting for the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization of Canada. Later that day, they had an appointment with an aide to Revenue Minister John McCallum to seek charitable status for their group.

The tsunami disaster in Asia has given Tamil-Canadians the ear of the federal government. But this isn't simply an expatriate community lobbying for humanitarian aid back home.

It's more complex, as Prime Minister Paul Martin learned to his chagrin when he was criticized for attending a 2000 dinner organized by the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils, a group with alleged ties to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The U.S. State Department has branded the Tigers a terrorist group. They are believed responsible for assassinating two heads of state, including Rajiv Gandhi, have deployed suicide bombers against civilians, and may still be abducting child soldiers into their army.

Ottawa characteristically takes the middle ground. It has banned Tiger members from entering Canada and keeps them on a list of proscribed terrorist groups whose assets must be frozen if found here. But it permits our high commissioner in Colombo to meet with their senior leaders.

As for Sri Lanka itself, it considers the Tigers "just another normal, perfectly accepted group," Geetha De Silva, the Sri Lankan high commissioner in Ottawa, said in a phone interview Friday. Her government is in peace talks, currently broken off, with the Tigers.

Meanwhile, law-abiding, urbane Canadians like the Sris fervently endorse the Tamil Tigers. They send remittances home, some directed toward the liberation movement. And now, with the push to raise funds for the tsunami-affected areas, some are again raising questions about terrorism. That's because the Tigers control a large swath of tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka - not to mention the charitable activities of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization.

The TRO is the parent of the Canadian organization and allegations that TRO Canada has funnelled money to the Tigers have prevented it winning charitable status here.To understand Ottawa's response to the tsunamis, you have to understand not only what's happening halfway around the world, but also what's happening in Toronto.

Toronto is home to more than 200,000 Tamil-Canadians, the largest expatriate group of Tamils in the world. They vote, campaign, join the Liberal Party - and influence at least 10 Toronto ridings. So far, they have flexed their muscles in leadership battles in 2003 and nomination races in 2004. In the Scarborough Centre riding, a Tamil slate took 11 of 12 delegate spots for the 2003 leadership convention that crowned Paul Martin.

On Dec. 27, one day after the tsunamis hit, Defence Minister Bill Graham was on the phone with other MPs who, like him and Mr. McCallum, have significant Tamil populations in their Toronto ridings. Mr. Graham concluded that this was not only a major crisis for the world, but big for the Canadian government, and that the government's message had to be focused on Sri Lanka, according to a Liberal insider.

"It was Bill who hammered that in," the insider said. "You didn't need to get out your crayons and draw directions. Bill intuitively understood that while there were larger geopolitical issues, and certainly other communities were going to be affected, the way it would play here would be as it relates to the Sri Lankan/Tamil issue."

This week, DART, the Disaster Assistance Response Team, was deployed not to Banda Aceh in Indonesia or Phuket in Thailand. Instead, the military picked Sri Lanka, a no less needy country.

It's expected to arrive on Monday in Amparai, a Tamil town that's under government control but one that has seen Tiger activity in the past.

Mrs. Sri-Skanda-Rajah resents the allegations linking the TRO with the Tigers. In 1999, the organization applied for charitable status so it could issue tax receipts for donations, but was turned down. "The Tamil Rehabilitation Organization has been tainted wrongfully by saying money people contribute goes to the Tigers."

On Wednesday, the group formally requested a review of that decision. On Thursday, she and her husband lobbied Mr. McCallum's office. And in the meantime, it is asking for a special one-time permit for tsunami-related donations.

Mrs. Sri-Skanda-Rajah was once president of the International School in Manila, where her husband was a senior investment officer at the Asian Development Bank. He is the son of a Supreme Court judge. She is the British-educated daughter of a Sri Lankan official. In any other country, they'd be part of the establishment.

Instead, the couple support the rebels. They revere the Tiger leader, a man currently hiding in the jungle because there is a warrant out for his arrest in connection with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

"We understand what they are doing, and we believe they have a legitimate right to do it," said Dr. Sri-Skanda-Rajah, who says he has no connection to the Tigers.

"To us, they are heroes," said Mrs. Sri-Skanda-Rajah, who says she considers the Tamil Tiger leader to be on a par with Nelson Mandela.

* * * *

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Serendip and then Ceylon, is a teardrop-shaped island off the southern tip of India. Twice the size of Vancouver Island, it originally encompassed three kingdoms. In two, people spoke Sinhalese and practised Buddhism. In the third, they spoke Tamil and were Hindus.

For 450 years, the Portuguese, Dutch and British successively colonized the island. The British enlisted the minority Tamils to work as civil servants, tax collectors and jailers over the majority Sinhalese. When the British left and Ceylon declared independence in 1948, the newly formed government, dominated by Sinhalese, retaliated. It stripped some Tamils of voting rights and citizenship. It affirmed Buddhism as the official religion. And it declared Sinhalese as the official language.

Sinhalese mobs periodically attacked Tamils, burning shops and homes, stabbing them in the streets. In 1983, 4,000 Tamils were massacred in Colombo. That was the year Gary Anandasangaree, then 10, arrived in Toronto with his mother by way of Ireland.

He was the son of the president of the Tamil United Liberation Front, who was also a member of the Sri Lankan parliament. At Carleton University, Gary studied political science and was a vice-president of the student association. Today, he is finishing a law degree at Osgoode Hall. He has the potential to become the first Tamil-Canadian elected to Parliament.

A former realtor, he is also the media savvy BlackBerry-wielding spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress. After the tsunamis, the group had met with seven Liberal MPs. This week, when Mr. Martin stopped by for a photo op in Toronto, Mr. Anandasangaree was part of an invitation-only meeting with the Prime Minister.

"We do have an ability to mobilize on an issue," said Mr. Anandasangaree, an affable, articulate 32-year-old, who arrived clutching copies of recent newspaper stories, with parts he objects to - rumours about the Tigers intercepting tsunami aid - highlighted in yellow.

The Tamil Tigers administer their own territory in the north and east, with their own border controls, customs inspection, jails, passports, judicial and banking systems - and their own time zone (a half-hour difference from the rest of Sri Lanka.)

The day after the tsunamis hit, Mr. Anandasangaree issued a press release saying his group wanted Ottawa to send aid to Tiger-controlled regions. "When my tax dollars and your tax dollars go there, it should go in a responsible, equitable way," he said, adding that Mr. Martin assured him it would.

Mr. Anandasangaree, who is estranged from his father, acknowledges the "many allegations" linking the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization to the Tamil Tigers. "We're living in an ultra-ultra-sensitive era when we're linking a humanitarian organization to a terrorist organization," he said, adding, "There hasn't been a single case reported that links the TRO to any events that would be construed as terrorist."

David Cameron, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has attended four of the last peace negotiations between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. He calls the decision to send DART to Sri Lanka a "no brainer."

"There's no community representing Banda Aceh," he noted. "The Tamils have leverage. Given that the need is everywhere, there's nothing wrong with that."

* * * *

That hot May day in Colombo in 1958, Sri-Guggan Sri-Skanda-Rajah was prepared to pick up the shotgun, even though he was just 15 with a useless right arm. "I knew I could shoot, but there was only one shotgun."

Raised in a privileged household, he remembers that after his arm was paralyzed in a bicycle accident, his family flew renowned Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield to Colombo for a consultation.

After his older brother dispersed the mob, he helped his sister, a doctor, take an injured Tamil neighbour to the same hospital where he had been going for physiotherapy.

"She and I were chased in the hospital by the Sinhalese staff," said Mr. Sri-Skanda-Rajah, a founder and past president of the Tamil Eelam Society of Canada. A Sinhalese surgeon hid them in the operating theatre, then smuggled them out to safety in his car.

He left in 1962 to study law in Britain, and immigrated to Canada in 1975 after marrying a Jamaican-Canadian. In Toronto, Mr. Sri-Skanda-Rajah worked as a paralegal, helping black young people fight deportation to Jamaica. For 10 years, he presided over a civilian police-reform committee.

He paid scant attention to events back home. But when the first wave of Tamil refugees began arriving in the late 1970s, he found himself drawn into representing his compatriots at refugee-claim hearings. He would spend hours debriefing them, then go and cry in his car. Partly, he was frustrated at how much fluency he had lost in Tamil. He was also shocked by their stories.

"I realized my people were getting seriously oppressed," Mr. Sri-Skanda-Rajah, now a settlement counsellor for immigrants, said.

In a sense, Mr. Sri-Skanda-Rajah, 62, is the father of the Tamil community in Toronto. In the 1980s, he was appointed a member of the Immigration Review Board. He helped ensure that a 5-per-cent acceptance rate of Tamil refugees eventually grew to more than 75 per cent by 1984, the year after the Colombo massacre. "Word spread very quickly. Canada was the haven."

Now, after the tsunamis, he's troubled by the allegations resurfacing about fundraising and the Tamil Tigers. "It's fair to say there's been no evidence. There have been no charges or prosecutions."

He estimates about 70 per cent of Tamil-Canadians strongly support the Tamil Tigers, including himself. But, he carefully added, "I don't have any direct connection with anyone who has a direct connection with the Tigers."

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