Toronto Tamil Protest Timeline
Wednesday May 13, 2009
It's a 25-year-long war that has roots that stretch much longer. And it's taken countless innocent lives. That terrible toll is what set Toronto's Tamil community off on its quest to draw attention to the carnage in their homeland.
The city is home to the largest population of Tamils outside of Sri Lanka and while they find strength in numbers, they've also found controversy, with a series of demonstrations that have veered from remarkably well organized to law breaking.
Here's a look back at how this latest trend has evolved this year. Click the dates and the links to see each story.
It started out as a demonstration along University Ave. Thousands of Tamils from across the GTA gathered carrying signs and waving flags. Their message: family members, friends and relatives are all dying back home in a brutal conflict. They want someone to notice and take action to stop it.
It was the first time many in the city had seen anything like it - a massive human chain that stretched along Bloor to Yonge, down to Front and up University. Tens of thousands of Tamils gathered to garner attention about the troubles overseas. While it was a visual distraction for drivers heading home along some of the city's busiest downtown streets, the protestors stayed off the road and made their point in what officials would call a remarkably peaceful demonstration. Later descriptions would not be quite so charitable.
The daylong demo dispersed by the rush hour, but many of those taking part didn't go home. They wound up heading towards Union Station instead. Up to 10,000 eventually swelled Front St. and police were forced to close the road during the rush hour, as those exiting from the busy hub tried to get by on the sidewalk.
It was so bad, even reporters couldn't reach the scene. CityNews' Francis D'Souza was forced to walk to the area from one of our camera trucks, because the mass of humanity wouldn't allow any vehicles to get through.
Less than a week after the first remarkable protest comes another one, this time outside the Sri Lankan Consulate near St. Clair and Yonge St. The area was thrown into chaos as thousands showed up, staying for a candlelight vigil they hoped would drive their message home. That was about the only driving that was going on that day. The always busy intersection was paralyzed during the afternoon rush with too many people and not enough space for cars.
After a few weeks of relative calm, another huge protest is launched in Toronto, this time outside the U.S. Consulate at University and Dundas. Demonstrators are demanding President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper intervene in the ongoing carnage in Sri Lanka, shouting their message that the world can no longer wait. The gathering started on a Sunday afternoon. No one dreamed it would go on for almost an entire week.
Monday dawns but the protestors are still there, forcing police to close off the busy stretch of University between Queen and College. It's the first hint it could be a long siege. "We're not moving until something is done and proper action is taken," vowed protester Arani Sivakumar.
The first signs emerge that the protestors may be losing the goodwill of the public, as drivers complain about the ongoing blockade of University Ave., now in its third full day. Police have so far refused to move them off, and despite a small scuffle, it remains peaceful. But many wonder about the wisdom of shutting down an area so close to many hospitals.
After days of tension and a standoff involving thousands of people, push finally comes to shove between police and the protestors. When some of them move onto Dundas St. and start blocking traffic there, cops wade in. During the mini-melee that follows, several people are arrested and a few hurt. Fifteen are taken into custody, as cops succeed in pushing the crowd back onto the sidewalk. But the road remains closed, further angering drivers. It finally reopens to full traffic the next day.
Tensions rise again in the city after news that another Tamil protest is planned for the downtown core. But when the protestors receive some attention from the government in form of aid to Sri Lanka, it's called off.
Feeling their voices still aren't being heard, Tamils descend again on the U.S. Consulate on University Ave. in a pouring rainstorm. A march eventually winds up at Queen's Park, with wary police keeping an eye on what's happening. One man goes on a hunger strike on the grounds, vowing not to eat again until something is done about the carnage in his homeland.
In what organizers claim was a spontaneous and unplanned effort, thousands of Tamils march onto the Gardiner Expressway onramp at Spadina. They're met by a few bike cops who try to form a barrier to keep them out, but the surging crowds eventually break through, with surprised drivers narrowly missing them on the road. By the dinner hour, there are thousands of them standing on the highway, leaving fuming motorists trapped for more than six hours.
The presence of women and small children in strollers forces police to be extra cautious and they refuse to move in on the demonstrators, fearing a riot might follow and someone might fall off the raised ledges of the Expressway.
Cops are forced to close part of the DVP as well, as traffic congestion and chaos grips the downtown core. Many accuse the police of giving into blackmail and angry GTA residents begin to vocally turn against the Tamils and their cause. Despite that, Major David Miller insists authorities acted properly to keep the peace.
The demonstrators insist they had to take drastic measures to keep their plight in front of the public. They refuse to leave until a government representative meets with them, a tough request on a Mother's Day Sunday night.
Finally, a member of Liberal leader Michael Igantieff's staff comes down and assures them the Grits will bring up their concerns in Ottawa. After more than half a day, the group finally disperses, assuring the highway will open in time for Monday's rush hour.
But some say they're not finished, vowing to take future demonstrations onto one of the 400 series of highways.
When the crowd leaves after the very long day, not all of them go home. Many head to Queen's Park to continue their campaign there.
But whatever the Tamils gained by their tactics, they may also have lost. A sea of angry email floods into the CityNews inbox, roundly condemning the group for holding the city hostage. And Chief Bill Blair decries the standoff as an irresponsible act that not only endangered the protestors and motorists, but led to a crunch on police resources, pulling officers away from other neighbourhoods where they were needed.
With the echoes of the Gardiner protest still ringing in many ears, the Tamils promise yet another rally on the streets of Toronto. Organizers promise they won't block traffic or cause disruptions. But wary cops remain on standby just in case.