Features

Six are running for election in Markham
Tamils finding their niche in Toronto politics

by Nicholas Keung
Immigration/Diversity Reporter
When Mohan Nadarajah first arrived in Canada from Sri Lanka 19 years ago, he never thought of becoming a mechanical engineer ó much less dreamed of running for public office one day.

The 18-year-old refugee claimant fleeing from the civil war back home was just struggling to survive.

In fact, Nadarajah spoke no English and was put in an ESL class at the Welcome House at University Ave. and Dundas St. W. before completing high school at Scarboroughís Midland Collegiate Institute.

After arriving in Toronto alone, he shared a rooming house near Dufferin and Bloor Sts. area with Tamil friends and to support himself worked full-time after school washing dishes at a downtown French restaurant, earning $4.50 an hour.

Today, the holder of a masterís degree from the University of Waterloo is part of a phenomenon in the upcoming municipal election in Markham, where six people from the Tamil community are running for council and the public school board.

"It feels great to see so many people from the community running in the election," said Nadarajah, now 37. Heís running against incumbent Khalid Usman for the Ward 7 seat on town council.

"We have a sizable community here. We have worked hard and achieved things. We simply look at politics as the next level of achievement."

The number of Tamil-speaking residents in Markham is thought to have tripled in the past three years, to more than 5,000 ó about 2.5 per cent of the townís population.

Greater Torontoís 100,000-strong Tamil community has come a long way since the first wave of migrants arrived in the early 1980s, first setting down roots in high-rise buildings in the Wellesley-Parliament St. area before fanning out to Scarborough apartment buildings and eventually to their own homes in Markham.

"Weíve gone through a lot of difficulties and obstacles. We overcame them and have done well," said Sri-Guggan Sri-Skanda-Rajah, a Tamil immigrant settlement counsellor who came to Canada in 1975.

"This is something that needed to be done a long time ago. Itís about time for our people to start trying and getting elected in the political arena."

The sheer number of Tamil candidates in Markham has created a buzz among community members, who can keep track of the race through six Tamil newspapers and three 24-hour digital television channels.

A recent editorial in the Muzhakkam, a Tamil-language newspaper, stated that "It is important to have Tamil representation in Canadian politics," while a headline in Eelamurasu read: "Possible Tamil candidates to be elected to the Markham Council."

Regional councillor

The Tamil candidates ó two running for regional councillor, two for local wards and two as trustees ó range from 24 to 60 years old, and are all highly educated, successful professionals.

Some are active young leaders groomed by the Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre, which was founded in 1998 to boost the communityís image after a series of high-profile Tamil-related gang shootings.

Abi Singham, running against incumbent Alex Chiu in Ward 8, said his experiences with the centre and the Canadian Tamil Congress have honed his organizational, leadership and communication skills.

"We have grown," said the 31-year-old researcher with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, who has two science degrees from Carleton and Ryerson universities.

"This is a significant step for us, not just for the Tamil community, but for the visible minority community as well ó that weíve begun to assert ourselves in this country, and we all can be what we want to be."

At 24, Neethan Shan, a University of Toronto science and education graduate, is the youngest of the six Tamil candidates.

Heís running for the York Region District School Board in Area 4 against another member of the Tamil minority, 41-year-old Kumar Nadarajah, a father of three young children.

The new and growing community both faces and creates challenges within the school system, he said, adding that he hopes to bridge that gap with his understanding of the system and the community.

"I have seen a lot of people going through the system who didnít make it. They lost hope and they lost their self-esteem. I think a community begins with a new generation in school," said Shan, who initiated the development centreís Community Mobilization Project in Markham as a support group for Tamil students in local high schools.

Kumar Nadarajah, who owns a Toronto-based Tamil radio station, said he has no negative feelings about running against a fellow Tamil.

"Itís a great race, and Iím proud to see so many Tamils running in this election," he noted.

"I donít look at my race against Neethan as a race against my own. We are all running against each other as Canadians."

Sri-Skanda-Rajah said the candidates are playing a key role in raising the Tamil communityís political awareness ó and setting a milestone for those to come.

In that respect, theyíre like their predecessors, Tamil activists Janaki Bala Krishnan and Chandran Mylvaganam, who ran unsuccessfully in previous provincial elections.

Tamil candidates still face stereotyping and bias because of media portrayals of Tamils as terrorists, Sri-Skanda-Rajah said.

A recent news article raising suspicions about regional council candidate Elagu V. Elaguppillai and links to terrorism simply doesnít help, he added.

Elaguppillai ó a high-profile candidate who received endorsement from Prime-Minister-to-be Paul Martin ó was once denied a security clearance for a sensitive job at Atomic Energy Canada, allegedly because of connections with the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization, considered by some intelligence agents as a front for the Tamil Tigers.

"The candidates are aware that itís something thatís going to make it that much more difficult for them to run or to get votes from non-Tamils," Sri-Skanda-Rajah said.

"But all these people are self-made achievers. They take it upon themselves to reach out and educate the public through their work and through their election campaign."

Siva Shan, who is also running for regional council, said those stereotypes are never going to go away, and he looks at his campaign as a means to reach out to people from all backgrounds and dismantle misconceptions.

The 28-year-old, who holds a masterís degree in engineering from the University of Waterloo and now runs his own telecom services company in Mississauga, said he set his eyes on the regional seat because he wanted to use his expertise in technology and scientific know-how to address York Regionís traffic gridlock and growth management issues.

"I think itís a natural progression for me to fulfil my civic duties, from voting in an election to running in an election," said Siva Shan, who came to Canada when he was in Grade 9.

At 60, Elaguppillai, the most senior and experienced candidate of the crop, is a pioneer of Canadaís Tamil community and probably the highest-profile contender.

The physicist and former university professor came to Canada in 1966.

"My life has had everything that I wanted: education, employment and security," said Elaguppillai, who started his own pharmaceutical company in Markham four years ago.

"I just want to serve the people and improve the quality of life of those in the community."

While Elaguppillai refused to comment on the media report about an allegation linking him to terrorism, he said he is prepared to deal with public scrutiny if elected.

"I have never lost a battle," he added.
(Toronto Star)


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