Tamils crowd downtown Toronto streets in latest protest

Thousands of Tamil-Canadian protesters were on the move in downtown Toronto Wednesday evening.
Thousands of Tamil demonstrators took over Toronto's Yonge Street late Wednesday after a day-long protest at the provincial legislature at Queen's Park. Here a line of demonstrators pass Dundas Square. ((Robin Rowland/CBC))

Thousands of Tamil-Canadian protesters were on the move in downtown Toronto Wednesday evening.

After amassing at Queen's Park all day, the group made its way across College Street, down Yonge Street, west along Queen Street and stopped in front of the U.S. Consulate. The demonstrators then wound back up University Avenue to the Ontario legislature just after 8 p.m.

Tamil demonstrators carried signs condemning the Sri Lankan government on Wednesday. ((Robin Rowland/CBC))

Many chanted "no more genocide" in reference to the civil war in their native Sri Lanka, where many civilians have been caught in the crossfire between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a guerrilla group fighting for an independent Tamil state in the north and eastern parts of the country. Police officers in riot gear followed the protest.

Wednesday's demonstration was peaceful except for a few tense moments when a small plane flew overhead with a banner attached that said: "Protect Canada. Stop the Tamil Tigers."

The sentiment expressed on the banner might have been related to an earlier protest on Sunday in which thousands of demonstrators, including many children, barricaded the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto, shutting it down for several hours.

Protesters gather on Yonge Street. ((Submitted by Iva Provias))

That protest followed reports that an all-night artillery barrage in Sri Lanka's war zone killed more than 370 people and forced thousands to flee to makeshift shelters along a beach on Sunday.

Many of those protesting are young, passionate and relentless in their support for the cause. A few spoke to CBC News.

"When I see pictures of children being bombed by illegal weapons, when I see pictures of elderly women being killed by chemical weapons, it makes me want to act. It makes me want to be vocal about the issue," said Gormy Theva.

Another protestor, Janani Sivathasan, said she feels a strong connection to Sri Lanka, though she has never been there.

"My parents are always telling me about it," she said. "I can't wait until we get our separate nation so I can go back home and live there."

The protestors said they are trying to raise global awareness of what is happening in Sri Lanka and garner support from politicians in Canada.

But tactics such as blocking the highway have made it tricky for politicians who want to acknowledge some of the protestors' issues.

Tamil protesters take to the streets in Toronto on Wednesday. ((Amil Niazi/CBC))

On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty called on the UN to get involved, but he chose his words carefully.

"What is happening over there [Sri Lanka] doesn't excuse illegal activities here on the part of Canadians of Tamil descent," he told reporters in Toronto. "Neither does it excuse our silence."

The Liberals tried to get all-party support for a resolution in the Ontario legislature urging the federal government to put international pressure behind calls for a ceasefire, but the opposition parties refused.

"I think it sends out the message that … this government once again will make concessions if you break the law in the province," said Opposition Leader Bob Runciman.

McGuinty encouraged the UN Security Council to find a way for Canada and other countries to help civilians affected by the fighting in Sri Lanka.

The premier said he understands why people in Toronto are unhappy about the protests, especially Sunday's, but added it's important to speak out in the face of a significant breach of human rights.

He said thousands of civilians are being killed in northern Sri Lanka, and Canadians need to recognize that the protests are rooted in real concerns.

McGuinty said this is not a time for the international community to be silent and that he is in favour of the UN Security Council bringing countries together to help.

He also commended the federal government for providing more aid to the region in recent days, saying the province will continue to push Ottawa to do more.

There was a heavy police presence along the route of the demonstration on Wednesday. ((Robin Rowland/CBC))

Toronto Mayor David Miller was one of the few politicians to come out to address the protestors. Most of his colleagues shied away from the protest because of the presence of flags in support of the Tamil Tigers, which  Ottawa has categorized as a terrorist group.

"Some people would be probably offended by the flag and afraid to show their support for these people, but I'm not here about politics," said Miller.

He limited his comments to calls for greater international access to Sri Lanka to help safeguard human rights concerns.

Late Wednesday afternoon, U.S. President Barack Obama had strong words for the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government.

"I urge the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and let civilians go," he said in Washington. "Their forced recruitment of civilians and use of civilian shields is deplorable. These tactics will only serve to alienate all those who carry them out.

"I'm also calling on the Sri Lankan government to take several steps to alleviate this humanitarian crisis. The government should stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives."

With files from The Canadian Press