Peaceful, passionate Tamil protest takes to streets
Published Wednesday, May 13, 2009 8:26PM EDT
Thousands of Tamil protesters took their plea for action on the violence in Sri Lanka to the grounds of Queen's Park and on a loop through the streets of downtown Toronto.
Police had blocked traffic to make way for the protesters on Wednesday evening.
The protesters went south on University Avenue, east on College Street to Yonge Street, south to Queen Street, then west on Queen to University. The protesters then went north on University past the U.S. consulate before returning to Queen's Park.
They were described as peaceful. They took turns on microphones chanting, "Tamil Tigers, freedom fighters" and "no more genocide!"
Some plan to spend the night at the Queen's Park grounds.
The protest began earlier on Wednesday as thousands made their way to the Ontario legislature to rally against a violent civil war in Sri Lanka where government troops are bearing down on the last ground held on the northern part of the island nation by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The protesters say innocent Tamil civilians are being mowed down by indiscriminate Sri Lankan army shelling.
The Sri Lankan High Commission in Ottawa said Wednesday in a news release that the "the conflict in Sri Lanka is between the terrorists, known as the LTTE, and the Government of Sri Lanka and not with the Tamil people."
CTV's Austin Delaney said the demonstrators had three demands:
- an end to the fighting
- allow the world's media into the conflict zone
- have the Canadian government flex some diplomatic muscle
Protester Sheron Gnnaseguram told CTV Toronto: "We're trying to raise our voices and say we do exist and stop killing them -- people like my son. My son is six years old, and I look at the news every day, and I can't stand it, I can't stand it at all! They're killing them! ... Please, all I'm asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper is to just speak out for us."
The international community has raised concerns about the ban on journalists and humanitarian workers in the affected area.
The UN recently referred to the situation in Sri Lanka as a "bloodbath."
There was a heavy police presence, with many officers in riot gear. The OPP, Peel and York police assisted the Toronto contingent in keeping the roadways clear. A number of vehicles from Court Services had also been on scene, ready to transport anyone who was arrested.
The police presence comes after Tamil protesters overwhelmed a small group of Toronto officers on bicycles Sunday and made their way on to the Gardiner Expressway, closing it for hours.
That appears to have caused a backlash as a small group hung a banner reading "Protect Canada - Stop the Tamil Tigers" over a pedestrian bridge along the Don Valley Parkway.
Those same words infuriated the crowd at the Queen's Park protest, when they were pulled behind a plane that encircled over the demonstration.
But many protesters admitted that taking over the Gardiner wasn't a good idea, CTV's Scott Laurie told Newsnet.
"Many of the protesters I was speaking to acknowledged what happened on the weekend . . . blocking a highway on Mother's Day, maybe wasn't a great idea," he said. "A lot admit they angered a lot of people and perhaps hurt their cause."
Hundreds of people waved red flags of Tamil Eelam alongside Canadian flags at Queen's Park. The Canadian government expressed concern earlier this week that the flag was a symbol of the LTTE -- a group banned in Canada as a terrorist organization. The protesters say it is not a symbol of the group but rather a symbol of the secessionist movement.
Protest organizers said earlier have said they didn't plan to take over the roadways but police said they were prepared in case the crowds spill onto the streets. There was talk Tuesday of protesters forming a human chain around the downtown core.
At 3 p.m., police shut down the southbound lanes of University Avenue from Dundas Street to Queen Street and announced that they will remain closed until further notice.
In a gesture of goodwill towards Torontonians, participants in Wednesday's protest were asked to bring non-perishable food items to assist a local food drive. Organizers said if they can't get food and help to their friends and families in Sri Lanka, then they will help people who are hungry in Toronto.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he understands why Torontonians have become frustrated by the rolling protests but he urged people to recognize the gravity of the situation in Sri Lanka.
He said he wants the UN Security Council to find a way for world powers to help provide assistance to a conflict zone in Sri Lanka. Aside from calling on the UN Security Council to find a solution, he commended Canada's federal government for recently providing more aid to the conflict zone.
However, he also reminded protesters to demonstrate lawfully.
One protester told The Canadian Press that he's happy people are finally talking about the situation overseas.
"People are finally asking why," said Sahab Jesuthasan. "MPs are talking, the media is talking, people on the streets are talking. That's what we wanted."
With reports from CTV Toronto's Reshmi Nair, Austin Delaney, Galit Solomon and John Musselman and files from The Canadian Press