Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 8, No. 3, 2009
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Robert J. Lewis
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Mark Goldfarb
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Bernard Dubé
Sylvain Richard
David Solway
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Charles Lewis
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Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

getting pommelled




© Bernard Dubé

There are good reasons why Tamil-Canadians are demonstrating so fervently in Canada. Tamil culture stretches far back in time and the Tamils have always been a vigorous and thriving people. Evidence of Tamil history dates as far back as 1500 B.C. from which era there survives a Neolithic polished stone bearing Indus Valley script. The Tamils were a seafaring people who traded with the Romans and whose cultural influence reached China. The earliest record of their arrival in what is now Sri Lanka is 500B.C. It should be no surprise that a people with such a long history have a strong identity and are proud of who they are.

It requires serious and protracted injustice against a people to drive them to armed struggle. Modern Tamil history includes a long list of accusations of atrocities and genocide at the hands of the Sri Lankan government, some documented by Amnesty International. Complicating the issue is the fact that the majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhists and the Tamils are predominantly Hindu. They are two distinctly different cultures.

© Bernard DubéToday the Tamil rebels are trapped in a desperate last stand along a thin strip of land on the Sri Lankan coastline. The Sri Lankan military has the rebels surrounded and is relentlessly pounding them despite calls for a cease-fire from Canada and the international community. To make matters worse, there are an estimated 100,000 civilians caught in the line of fire between Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan military forces. It is this reality which brought Tamil-Canadians to demonstrate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and demand that Canada intervene on their behalf, and force Sri Lanka to declare a cease- fire.

I was not prepared for what I found the first day I went to Parliament Hill. There were perhaps a thousand people lined up along the sidewalks on both sides of the street shouting, vigorously waving the brilliant red flags of Canada and the unofficial Tamil nation flag, and wielding placards with large blue and red slogans written on them. © Bernard DubéThere was a tent housing several people who had launched a hunger strike.

Maybe 50 to 100 demonstrators were sitting directly on the street. The sitters, supported by a relentless tide of chanting, were protected by barricades and watched by a large contingent of patient, yellow-vested police. The police were there mostly to ensure that commuters driving to their homes and families, tired and impatient after a day's work, didn’t fall into conflict with the demonstrators. Along the whole length of the opposing sidewalks, barricades held the fervent crowd from drifting, despite themselves, into the way of traffic.

* * * * * * * * * *

© Bernard DubéIt is April 21st, the last day of demonstrations. The demonstrators have been coming to the Hill every day now for the past 14 days, peacefully occupying the sidewalks, gesturing with their bright placards and chanting loudly. They no longer sit on the street for fear of alienating public opinion. Every day the demonstrators have been taking up their place behind the sidewalk barricades, and from the moment they arrive to the end of the day, these men, women and children almost never cease chanting, halting only occasionally to hear a speaker deliver some short speech or a series of instructions through a bullhorn, after which the tide of shouting rises again, joined by other bullhorns and a mantra of voices, many of which are hoarse.

Street monitors were helping the police manage the crosswalks. There was no hostility toward photographers; indeed, they were treated with the greatest respect and cooperation. Men walked among the crowd distributing food from large boxes while others, holding large garbage bags, toured the streets to pick up any litter of which, by the way, there was very little.

© Bernard Dubé

I was among the 33,000 Canadian-Tamils on Parliament Hill, but this time they crowded onto the lawn in front of the Peace Tower. Despite the coolness and the rain, they had come by car, bus, train, and airline from as far away as Montreal and Toronto and perhaps from locations more distant. The demonstrators gathered in front of the Peace Tower left an unrestricted path down their centre. It was a simple matter to walk down its length to take close-up photographs of the speakers.

Red placards swayed back-and-forth above the thick, sprawling crowd like the necks of nervous flamingos. Large banners with their letter-large slogans were held high, distended against the wind. The air throbbed with the frenetic beating of drums and surges and swells of loud chanting.

© Bernard DubéBut there were no Tamil flags because the Canadian government has classified the Tamil rebels as terrorists. No politician could be seen addressing a crowd flying a flag that so closely resembles the rebel flag. The thousands of demonstrators who had arrived on the Hill, instead, brought black flags to protest the killing that was still on-going in Sri Lanka -- even as they stood there before the Peace Tower shouting for the government of Canada to insist on a cease-fire.

These demonstrations are the war in Sri Lanka brought to the streets of Ottawa. Walking among these people was like walking among troops on a battlefield. Their intensity and ferocity was the intensity and ferocity of a desperate last stand at the front lines. The horror of Sri Lankan slaughter is being played out on our streets by these demonstrators for whom every report of death in Sri Lanka is like a wound torn open on their own bodies.

Yet, here in Ottawa, the demonstrators have responded with remarkable restraint and civility. The self-discipline they exhibited, despite overwhelming personal anguish, was a compelling expression of their passion in unity and deep respect for Canadian law.

Very sadly, that discipline recently broke down in Toronto in the late hours of May 10th as a large group of demonstrators decided to occupy and shut down the Gardiner Expressway. It was a dangerous and reckless act that put their own children in the way of harm. Someone could easily have been killed by a speeding car; an ambulance carrying an emergency passenger could have been fatally caught up in the unlawful blockade. In one inexplicably thoughtless act, all the good will patiently won by the Tamil-Canadians was squandered. Why, it may be asked, are the Tamils taking out their anger on us?

The discipline and civility displayed by the Tamil demonstrators on Parliament Hill was consistent with Canadian values. Indeed, Canada is the type of civil society that people in conflict around the world wish for themselves. But what happened on the Gardiner Expressway mirrors the kind of anarchy we see in Sri Lanka today. If the Tamil demonstrators desire a civil society in Sri Lanka, they must show respect for it here or lose trust and support among their fellow citizens.

It remains for the Tamil organizers to offer an explanation, and beyond that, a sincere, deeply felt apology to the city of Toronto, with the promise not to repeat such an act again. They might consider issuing a declaration to the effect that they regard Canada as an example of the sort of civil society they would like to see in their homeland.

Canadians are appalled at the violence and loss of life taking place in Sri Lanka today, and are sympathetic to Tamil demands for a cease-fire. But Canadians also know that when civil society and the rule of law break down, tragedy ensues.

The discipline the Tamil-Canadians displayed on Parliament Hill won many supporters. It was a profound expression of sincere emotion and earned them deserved respect. May it become their common practice. It will show the sort of society they want to help grow in their homeland. Unlawful protest will only demonstrate that the demonstrators want to bring the sort of disorder reigning in their homeland to this country and it will lose them all respect in the eyes of their fellow citizens.

Photos © Bernard Dubé

Also by Bernard Dubé:
Interview of Arlo Guthrie
Critique of John S. Gordon = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
Montreal World Film Festival
Montreal Jazz Festival
CINEMANIA(Montreal) - festival de films francophone 1-11 novembre, Cinema Imperial info@514-878-0082: featuring Bernard Tavernier
Couleur JAZZ 91.9
Armand Vaillancourt: sculptor
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