A 'watershed' moment: How the 2009 Gardiner shutdown inspired a generation of Tamil leaders

Ten years after members of Toronto's Tamil community took over the Gardiner Expressway to raise awareness of the civil war in Sri Lanka, those involved reflect on how the moment spurred the creation of young leaders.

May 10 marks a decade since more than 2,000 Tamil protesters took over the Gardiner

Tamil protesters block the Gardiner Expressway on May 10, 2009 to protest against the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

In early May of 2009, student activist Krisna Saravanamuttu, then 22, heard devastating news.

An all-night artillery barrage killed hundreds in his home country of Sri Lanka — the result of a continually worsening civil war between the minority Tamil Tigers and the majority Sinhalese.

It was a devastating blow to Toronto's Tamil diaspora, who'd spent several months holding demonstrations, hunger strikes and rallies in the city to raise awareness of the bloodshed in their homeland, while demanding that the Canadian government intervene.

Krisna Saravanamuttu is now studying international law at Osgoode Hall Law School, a career path spurred by his activism in 2009. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

Silence from political leaders, and the continuous news of casualties, Saravanamuttu said, is what led him and more than 2,000 other protesters to spontaneously divert from a march on May 10, 2009 and run up the Spadina Avenue Gardiner Expressway ramp.

"We rushed through the police line. We took over the highway. We held the line," he said.

"There was never a question that we were going to hold that line until we received some type of word from major decision makers within this country."

The protest lasted for hours, but it didn't end up spurring the ceasefire, or the government intervention, the protesters desired. The war continued and by the end of it, tens of thousands were killed in what the community says amounts to a genocide.

Some in the community still see that as a failure.

May 10, 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of the Tamil community protests, which saw the Gardiner Expressway closed for several hours. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

But according to Saravanamuttu, the lack of action resulting from the Gardiner protest marked a "watershed" moment for Toronto's Tamil community because it inspired a new generation of leaders.

He's now in his second year at Osgoode Hall Law School studying international human rights law as a result of his participation in 2009. He's aiming to eventually help people back in Sri Lanka.

"Many of us were very young at that time," he said. "We were deeply, deeply affected by what happened in our homeland, and we were also deeply affected by the silence of many countries across the world.

"Many of us have become motivated to pursue, as our life's work, the freedom of our people."

Toronto's Tamil leaders

Amarnath Amarasingam, the author of a book on activism by the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, said the Gardiner takeover may have failed to accomplish its goals for a number of reasons.

He said he doesn't believe taking over a major thoroughfare was the best tactic, and also noted the demonstration didn't have distinct leaders. The result was that the protesters didn't do the best job informing the general Canadian population about the issues, he said. 

"What was interesting about the protest is that it was a kind of flashpoint for many in the community who were just coming of age, who had arrived in Canada when they were five or six years old," he said.

"They went to the protest and often learned for the first time about civic engagement and what the conflict in Sri Lanka was about."

Former Toronto city councillor Neethan Shan, left, stands in the rain at a protest held by the Tamil community. (Submitted by Neethan Shan)

As a result, many young Tamils sought positions in journalism, politics, according to Neethan Shan, who was Toronto's first Tamil city councillor.

"We felt like a majority of [elected representatives] ignored us, and that led to people feeling like they need to be in positions of power as a community to be able to advance some of this dialogue."

'It didn't make a difference'

Kiruthika Thusyanthan lights a candle at a January 2009 protest, where the Tamil community joined together in a human chain. (Submitted by Kiruthika Thusyanthan)

As part of the 2009 protests, then 18-year-old Kiruthika Thusyanthan spent hours holding hands in a human chain running from Bloor Street down Yonge Street and University Avenue to Union Station.

"Every protest ... I heard about I went out immediately. I slept in rain and snow, but being that young you feel helpless," she said.

"At the end of it all, it didn't make a difference in the outcome. People died anyways."

Kiruthika Thusyanthan, right, links hands with other protesters on the Gardiner in 2009. (Submitted by Kiruthika Thusyanthan)

As her way of continuing their efforts, she founded the PK Arts Dance Academy in Scarborough.

Most of her students are Tamil, so she teaches them about the community's struggles and encourages them to express their feelings through movement.

"I didn't grow up knowing exactly what was happening back home. I knew there was war, but I didn't understand the extent of the struggle that my parents had faced and why they had to flee that country," she said.

A decade after the Gardiner protest, Kiruthika Thusyanthan works as an instructor at PK Arts Dance Academy, a position which allows her to teach her young students how to express themselves through movement. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

"It's a good opportunity for me to be able to help them grow and help them find out who they are in terms of being a Canadian and also a Tamil-Canadian."

Despite the frustration of Toronto's Tamil community with the outcome of the 2009 protest, Thusyanthan said she's seen a recent positive outcome from their efforts.

On May 5, the City of Toronto announced it would declare May 18, 2019, the 10th anniversary of the end of the war in Sri Lanka, as Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day.

"To have that acceptance now ... something came out of those protests. That's a big deal. That's a big step," she said.