|Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, put the LTTE on a list of banned organisations [EPA]|
The young man standing on the corner of Albert and Metcalfe streets in downtown Ottawa cast a forlorn presence on the sidewalk.
He seemed over-dressed for a rather warm spring morning, but few people seemed to notice. Even fewer were willing to accept his handout: an appeal printed on thick, bond paper, titled “We are Tamil Canadians”.
The tepid response from morning commuters was emblematic of Ottawa’s general reaction to a week-old demonstration by Tamil Canadians on Parliament Hill.
Most people in this capital city wonder why the federal, provincial and municipal governments have failed to muster the courage to evict the revolving door of protesters from the heart of their city. Hundreds of Tamil flags emblazoned with the infamous tiger and two crossed guns fly from every pole in the parliamentary precinct.
As the Sri Lankan military makes what it says is its final push to destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who have fought a vicious war for a separate homeland against Colombo, many politicians find the issue of Tamil protesters in Ottawa a touchy subject.
They do not want to wield a baton against hapless immigrants whose only crime may be squatting on a busy promenade and occasionally disrupting traffic to draw attention to themselves.
However, their cause has international ramifications, being part of a campaign mounted by the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, many of whom reside in Canada, against the ongoing “genocide” in their native country.
Futile mediation efforts
Canada itself has invested heavily in terms of both aid and diplomacy to help end the quarter-century old fighting between the Tamil guerrillas and a Sinhala-dominated government in Colombo. But, like the efforts of another middle power, Norway, its attempts have been largely futile.
However, over the course of the 25 years, Tamil Canadians have built up a formidable political base in their adoptive nation, enough to ensure that no government dares question their right to protest or to hold aloft flags of the banned LTTE.
Shortly after the protest began, it looked as if Canada was indeed bowing to pressure.
Lawrence Cannon, the foreign minister, joined other world leaders calling on the Sri Lankan government to order a ceasefire to allow the reported 300,000 civilians, who the protesters say are trapped in the island’s north-east, to flee what is widely believed to be the last gasps of a protracted insurgency.
Colombo did order a short-lived ceasefire, causing the Tamil protesters to up the ante: they are now demanding the temporary recall of Canada’s ambassador as a mark of protest against the Colombo government’s unceasing military offensive.
Largest overseas Tamil presence
With an unofficial count of up to 400,000 Sri Lankan Tamils in the country, mostly concentrated in Toronto, the Canadian diaspora represents the largest overseas presence of a people whose identity has become inextricably linked with the macabre group that invented suicide bombings, the Tigers.
The hundreds who mill around Parliament Hill in Ottawa and keep a constant vigil outside a tent housing five hunger strikers (one was hospitalised last week) are rather unabashed in their fealty to the guerrilla organisation, even while arguing that the flags are a mark of Tamil nationalism, rather than the Tiger insignia.
But for this taint, Canadians might have been overwhelmingly sympathetic. David Harris, a former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), voiced the opinion of many when he publicly suggested that the protest was setting a dangerous precedent that is likely to be emulated by other banned organisations, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, in Canada.
“The enforcement of our laws is doubly important at a time when near-boundless immigration, related demographic shifts and radicalising communities mean that officials could increasingly be tempted to profit politically from appeasing dangerous, but influential, groups,” Harris said.
|Tamils have been protesting in Ottawa, London and Oslo [EPA]|
The reference was clearly to a time earlier this decade when the Sri Lankan government invited Canada to mediate, but Jean Chrétien, the then prime minister, balked fearing a backlash from the influential Tamil community in Toronto.
When the government changed hands in 2006, the Conservatives under Stephen Harper, the prime minister, were quick to place the LTTE on a list of banned organisations, but this resolute approach appears to have been stopped in its tracks by the sudden gush of Tamils squatting in the epicentre of Canadian politics.
Electoral calculations aside, politicians have been wary to show up. Speaking on behalf of the demonstrators, Senthan Nada of Toronto said that despite extensive coverage in the media and a visible presence in the capital, no politician of any stripe has cared to visit the hunger strikers or the flag-carrying protesters.
Paramedics and policemen, though, are there in force to maintain order and ensure that the hunger strikers get medical attention at regular intervals.
Tamils in other world capitals such as London and Oslo have also flexed their organisational muscles, with the protest in the Norwegian capital resulting in a formal end to that country’s mediation between Colombo and the Tiger rebels.
In Ottawa, though, other than the cacophony of loudspeakers within hearing distance of parliamentarians in the House of Commons and the chanting of prayers in Tamil for the hunger strikers, one of whom is 74 years old, the protesters have been peaceful and respectful of civil order.
The feeling of kindred spirit is hardly surprising. With the bulk of the Tamil immigrants having landed in Canada as refugees fleeing the violence in their homeland, they feel wedded to the cause of their kin in Sri Lanka.
But the question Canadians are asking themselves is whether their government must bow to public opinion in the realm of foreign policy. Even if the answer is positive, it is doubtful that the Tamils have swayed many minds as the end to Sri Lanka’s civil war appears to be near.
George Abraham is contributing editor of Diplomat and International Canada, published from Ottawa.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.