CITY: Mayor calls Tamils ‘wrong’ for overtaking Gardiner Tamil protests continue

Monday 11th May 2009.

CITY: Mayor calls Tamils ‘wrong’ for overtaking Gardiner Tamil protests continue

Scarborough-Mirror David Nickle May 11, 2009

Pro-Tamil protesters who illegally occupied the Gardiner Expressway for six hours Sunday night were “wrong” to do so said Mayor David Miller.

But he defended the community’s right to take to the streets in lawful protest over conditions in war-torn Sri Lanka.

“What’s happening in Sri Lanka is extremely worrying,” said Miller, talking to reporters the morning after the May 10 incident that saw the Gardiner and downtown routes shut down by several thousand protesters for approximately six hours. “The Tamil community needs to hear two things from us: The first is occupying a road like the Gardiner isn’t acceptable and the police will prevent you from doing it, and will remove you when you do. The second is Torontonians understand there needs to be an end to the hostilities in Sri Lanka.”

The incident on the Gardiner began Sunday evening, as a protest by members of the Tamil community moved rapidly up the on-ramps of the Gardiner at Spadina Avenue.

The move caught police by surprise - and throughout the evening, additional officers were called in to attempt to persuade the protesters, which included small children, to leave the highway.

The protesters were attempting to galvanize Canadian intervention in the 26-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam and the government of Sri Lanka, controlled by the country’s Sinhalese majority.

The protest escalated in the wake of news of a new barrage of shelling reported to have killed 378 Tamil civilians.

They were finally dispersed after midnight when their demands to speak with a representative of the federal government were met. Three people were arrested in the demonstration.

Miller would not comment as to whether the police ought to have taken a sterner hand. And he said that because the leadership in the Tamil community is so diffuse, it’s impossible to negotiate limits on future protests.

“I’m happy to speak to people, but the nature is that it’s been very diffuse organizing. It’s one of the challenges the police have had - there haven’t been leaders per se.”

So Miller said he’s trying to communicate through the media.

“People being on the Gardiner is incredibly dangerous,” he said. “Aside from the traffic, it’s an elevated road. There were young people, young children present - and it’s very easy for serious incidents to happen. But I think we should just step back for one second and think how lucky we are in this city to have a police service that understands how to police protests.”

A spokesperson for the protestors later said the rush past police onto the Gardiner was a “very spontaneous action” and not a deliberate decision made by the scores of Tamil students, cultural and village associations taking part.

“Those who started going first, they decided to block the highway,” said Senthan Nada, adding once this happened, others joined in. “They are all frustrated emotional Canadians who have lost their relatives. They don’t know how else to get the attention of their government,” he said Monday on behalf of the Coalition to Stop the War in Sri Lanka, suggesting Canada should impose sanctions on Sri Lanka to show the government is taking the crisis there seriously.

Asked whether seizing the Gardiner resulted in lost Canadian support, Nada said academics and members of organized labour are joining the protests.

“Most of the people who care to know about the cause are still with us,” he added. The protesters continue to demonstrate support for the Tigers, a group outlawed in Canada. The Canadian Tamil Congress, which calls itself a united voice for Canada’s Tamils, maintains it has no association with the Coalition or its leaders.

David Poopalapillai, CTC national spokesperson, said the move onto the Gardiner took him off guard.

The Congress doesn’t condone what happened and was worried for the safety of all involved, he said. But Poopalapillai added the protesters’ highway occupation is “making people talk” about the human catastrophe in Sri Lanka.

“It was inconvenient, we understand that, but we are glad it has come to a peaceful end.”

Scarborough-Agincourt MP Jim Karygiannis, a Liberal who has spoken about the Sri Lankan conflict many times, said stopping the Gardiner on Mother’s Day was “not going over well” with Torontonians.

“I understand the frustrations but closing down a major highway they lost the support of a lot of people,” he said. “I understand there’s a cause, but that cause is not on the Gardiner." Karygiannis said he met Friday with Vijay Nambiar, chief of staff to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and concluded Canada must appeal for a UN vote that will stop the killing of civilians in Sri Lanka, as well as the reported mistreatment of Tamils in government camps there.

“Everything else is a discussion for another day,” he said.

Protests are continuing May 11 at Queen’s Park, as well as across from the U.S. consulate on University Avenue and the Sri Lankan consulate on St. Clair Avenue.

Police have once again shut down University Avenue between Dundas and Queen Streets.

The road was closed for several days last month as Tamils protested outside the U.S. consulate.