Carrying the hopes of Tamil-Canadians
Rathika Sitsabaiesan, may be newly elected to the House of Commons, but she’s no stranger to politics. In fact, the 29-year-old, who is this country’s first Tamil-Canadian MP, has been campaigning since she was a girl. “My father tells me my first act of community development was when I was seven,” she laughs.
On election night 2011, Rathika won a seat for the NDP in the Toronto suburb Scarborough-Rouge River; a riding that had elected Liberals since 1988.
Born in Sri Lanka, Rathika was five when her family emigrated to Canada. “We weren’t wealthy when we came here. We left a war-torn country,” she recalls.
Rathika learned English at school, but her parents also wanted her and her sisters to learn Tamil. The girls took three buses on Saturday mornings to get to language classes. When Rathika and her father decided they needed lessons closer to home, they contacted a school board trustee, created and cut out flyers, canvassed the community, and got 30 people to sign up so the board would start a Tamil class; 17 years later, the school is part of a thriving international language program.
“I didn’t realize until I was older the lasting impact we’d have on the community. Now when I speak with youth, I let them know that anybody can be an agent of change. If I could be part of that kind of change as a seven-year-old, anybody can. There’s always a ripple effect.”
Some people may not distinguish between the Tamil community and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil (Eelam), a group that fought for an independent Sri Lanka and is on Canada’s terrorist list. Rathika says her election is a key step forward for the 200,000 members of Canada’s Tamil community. “We have the opportunity now to break through the stereotypes,” she says.
A member of the Malvern Community Coalition, a residents’ group, Rathika is known fondly in her community as “The Transit Advocate” and as a proponent for affordable housing. She understands the need for improvements to the riding’s transit system very well; she had a two-hour commute to work downtown every day during her 18-month election campaign.
"People told me that I was the only candidate they could relate to, because I looked like them, and I sounded like them, and I understood the issues that were important to them."
Rathika’s riding has the most community housing units in the GTA, and, she adds “it needs more, because the ones that exist are poorly maintained.” When she campaigned, she went door-to-door. “A lot of people I met told me they came out to vote because I was the only politician who did that. People told me that I was the only candidate they could relate to, because I looked like them, and I sounded like them, and I understood the issues that were important to them. They knew I’d go to bat for them because I was already doing it.”
The energy was electric when NDP leader Jack Layton stopped by Rathika’s riding in the closing days of the May 2 election campaign. “I’ve met people now who tell me they met their neighbours at that rally. They met neighbours they’d never met before, and they’d been living here 15 years. We’re bringing the community together. That’s what I think the local representative should be doing.”
On the May 2 election night, voter turnout in the riding rose by 18 per cent and by the time the 10th poll results came in, Rathika was in first place. “After that, the room just erupted, and I said, ‘It’s so early, I can’t win!”
But she did – and the energy in the banquet room never did abate. She stayed in first place the entire night.
Rathika hopes to keep her community engaged. “I have a lot of high expectations for myself and I know the community does, too.”
High expectations? You bet. On June 23, she introduced a private member’s bill as the NDP critic for post-secondary education. And while she hadn’t even moved into her new office in Ottawa, she was already talking about the next election.
“I know that there’s so much I can do, and to attain that kind of sustainable change that the community needs, I need to last longer than a short stint.”