Tamil protests and ethnic street food: the multicultural mosaic that is Toronto

Post by Eric Mang in ,

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Bloor Street Toronto, Flickr Photo by Erin Butler
Bloor Street Toronto, Flickr Photo by Erin Butler

The City of Toronto likes to occasionally note in its news releases that it is the most multicultural city in the world. Any hyperbolic statement requires some fact-checking.

Indeed, according to the 2006 census, half of Torontonians are foreign born. Our fair city has now passed Miami as the city with the greatest proportion of foreign-born population. Toronto is also more ethnically diverse than New York or LA.

In this wonderful multiethnic milieu, a global microcosm, two events have caught our attention. The first, and the one mixed with negative and positive reactions, is the Tamil protests that have taken over Queen’s Park, University Avenue, and last Sunday night, the Gardiner Expressway.

Toronto is said to have the largest Tamil Diaspora in the world. And many in this city watch in horror as Tamil civilians are shelled by the Sri Lankan army in what the UN has declared as a “bloodbath”.  For the past 25-30 years, Tamils and Sinhalese have been locked in ethnic tensions devolving into civil war. It’s been bloody and disgusting with a lot of blame to go around. The Tamil rebels, called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have been responsible for suicide bombings, involved in the assassination of Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi, and for the bomb attack that killed Sri Lankan President Premadasa. The Canadian government has declared the Tigers a terrorist organization.

These details have led to some opposing the Tamil protests since some Sri Lankans, particularly in the Sinhalese community, accuse Toronto-based Tamils of sending funds to support the LTTE.

Bloodbaths and suicide bombings and ethnic rivalries and the killing of civilians. Some of these didn’t matter to many Torontonians who instead complained bitterly about road closures and traffic jams. I think a little perspective is needed here.

Many of us live comfortable lives. We don’t have to worry about getting on a bus or shopping in a crowded market or having mortar rounds rain down in the local dog park. And the Tamil protest, if anything, has been effective in raising consciousness. Yesterday, Ontario’s Premier and Leader of the Opposition both asked for an end to the Sri Lankan conflict.

But these protests also raise questions about who we tolerate doing the protesting. If a bunch of Catholics stopped traffic on the Don Valley Parkway to protest a decision to end public funding for Catholic schools, what would be the reaction in this Catholic–dominant city?

We must also address the claims by elected officials who say that there is a right way and a wrong way to protest. Is there a right and wrong way? Should we be unlawful in our protests when we perceive gross injustice? Is civil disobedience necessary? Gandhi thought so with his Salt March. So did the Freedom Riders during the American civil rights movement. Henry David Thoreau, author of “Civil Disobedience” (as well as “Walden”), was in jail (he would not pay taxes since tax revenue supported slavery) and was visited by friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson asked Thoreau why he was in jail. Thoreau, wondering how anyone could be silent in the face of injustice, responded: “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

When we see an injustice, do we remain silent, do we protest, do we support the rights of others to protest? What limits must be set (beyond the obvious; that is, no harm to people)?

And now some good news (and the second aforementioned multicultural “event”).

After much negotiating and consulting and dithering, Toronto’s new street food program launches this long weekend. For years we’ve had banal and artery-clogging fare such as fries and giant hot dogs, and for awhile, that Mr. Pong’s truck parked outside of Crocodile Rock where you could soak up a belly full of booze with a greasy egg roll.

The Toronto a la Cart program lets us nosh on souvlaki, Pad Thai (and none of that crap made with ketchup), mango lassi and biryani. At last!

In the next few weeks, 8 vendors will be vying for customers, drawing them away from street meat and fries.

Vive la différence!

A happy Victoria Day weekend to you all!

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