Taking Stock of Civic Pride at Thai Pongal

By Harrish Thirukumaran for Monsoon Journal

The New Year, now being 2016, has once again been marked by the Thai Pongal Gala dinner organized annually by the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC).

The CTC held its 9th edition of the cultural event at the Hilton/Toronto Conference Suite Centre in Markham, Ontario on January 16th. Aside from celebrating the harvest festival of the Tamil people, it also raised considerable funds for initiatives assisting war-affected female widows in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. The activity essentially reflects the broader altruistic purpose of the organization, which is to help Tamil people integrate into Canada, and address issues concerning Tamils abroad, particularly in Sri Lanka. As in previous years, it enthusiastically presented a microcosm of the grand achievements and endeavours of CTC in 2015, all towards their goals for Tamil Canadians and Tamils abroad.

Often joyously characterized as the Tamil Thanksgiving, Thai Pongal has been a way of giving thanks to Surya, or the Sun, farmers, and livestock for ushering in an abundant harvest. Pongal, a traditional Tamil sweet rice dish customarily overflows in a big cooking pot, symbolizing the great abundance and prosperity shared amongst one another. It is marked on January 1 of the Tamil lunar calendar, with this harvest bringing an ambivalence of energy from darkness in the atmosphere. This was fully embodied by an entertaining Bharatanatyam performance by a few talented youth that commenced this event’s honouring of the festivity. Defined by a sense of renewed commitment and positive outlook, the special occasion has served as a unique backdrop in learning of the ongoing results CTC’s work has realized for the Tamil community.

Raj Thavaratnasingham, President of the Canadian Tamil Congress, first highlighted Tamil Fest as one of the various 2015 successes for the organization’s commitment to Tamils. “CTC planned and executed Tamil Fest, a street festival attended by nearly 90,000 people, featuring Tamil arts, culture, and most importantly, mouth-watering spicy food,” said Mr. Tharavatnasingham amusingly. Moreover, the organization aspires to make the historic event into an annual tradition, similar to prominent Torontonian festivals, such as the Taste of Danforth. Another 2015 accomplishment was the continued presence of CTC at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), successfully passing a resolution in October to further reinforce post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Mr. Thavaratnasingham was also particularly proud of the collaboration with organizations like the United States Tamil Political Action Council (USTPAC), British Tamil Forum, and Global Tamil Forum in meeting these goals.

He further expressed that although changes on the island have not emerged as envisioned, there is nevertheless optimism about the serious efforts to move Sri Lanka in a better direction. His speech applauded the Canadian government in undertaking a new policy role for ameliorating the regular injustices experienced by First Nations people as well. Additionally, he specified that the Tamil community also have a responsibility to play in advancing the betterment of the First Nations in Canada. Looking ahead in 2016, two projects that CTC hopes to get off the ground in partnership with others like-minded groups are a Tamil community centre and an economic development centre.

Giving greetings on behalf of the new federal Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau to the nearly 1000 attendees and observers of the 9th Thai Pongal dinner was Stephane Dion. “Vanakkam!” said a gleeful Mr. Dion, who is currently representing Canada on the world stage as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet. With his subsequent speech, Mr. Dion echoed the PM’s rhetoric that Canada’s own strength is not in spite of its diversity, but rather it is precisely because of it. Furthermore, he took aim at Sri Lanka for not acknowledging this with their own diverse society, for not seeing it as “an opportunity to be bigger human beings and learn from each other.” Presumably in his capacity as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Dion is dedicated to ensuring the relationship between Canada and Sri Lanka is enhanced, by consistently showing its role in all Sri Lankan affairs relevant to Tamil Canadians.

Despite the ongoing global trauma caused by acts of terrorism, most recently in Burkina Faso, individuals should not lose faith, because at the same time, positive action has somewhat been seen in other countries such as Sri Lanka. “We believe it’s possible to have people of different religions in Sri Lanka to look at each other as friends, brothers, and sisters that’s possible,” Mr. Dion proclaimed. Yet in terms of practically attaining this prospect, Canada must revitalize its role in the United Nations to enable any substantive impact of the UNHRC accountability resolution in Sri Lanka. Leveraging the knowledge of the Tamil community in Canada is particularly crucial in addressing the outstanding problems facing Tamils and all Sri Lankans, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister emphasized.

Other speeches made by prominent politicians included Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath, and Toronto Mayor John Tory. Regardless of the apparent political differences, especially with the former two, they commended the contributions of Tamil Canadians in all walks of life in Ontario, and Canada.

Another highlight of the evening was the recognition of exemplary services to the community. Awards were granted to two individuals who have had distinctive impacts on the Tamil community in Canada, and abroad. Rajavorthiam Sampanthan, a Tamil Member of Parliament (MP) of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and now the Leader of the Official Opposition in Sri Lanka received the first recognition, the Living Hero Award. Though Mr. Sampanthan was unable to attend the gala in person, Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran accepted the award on his behalf.

A leading MP in the TNA back in Sri Lanka, Mr. Sumanthiran spoke of Canada in high praises in supporting the ongoing struggles of Tamils in the country. Moreover, he emphasized the importance of a soft power approach for Tamils to gain their rights. This is most readily channeled through a well-respected renowned leader, a quality exhibited by Mr. Sampanthan according to MP Sumanthiran. Importantly, Mr. Sumanthiran noted that individuals of Sinhalese origin, the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka, genuinely respect the TNA leader. However, the Tamil MP is mindful of some Tamil community members’ opposition to these gestures, believing Mr. Sampanthan to be disingenuously representing Tamil concerns. In spite of these, and other challenges to his leadership for Tamils, confidence lies in the fact that the TNA has won elections continuously, demonstrating the implicit faith a majority of the community has in Mr. Sampanthan to empower Sri Lankan Tamils, Mr. Sumanithiran asserted.

For his fundraising efforts following the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and cofounding the “Canadians Concerned about Sri Lanka,” Toronto and York Region Labour Council President, John Cartwright accepted the Leaders for Change Award.

This 9th annual Thai Pongal gala is considered the first since Gary Anandasangaree was elected as the Member of Parliament for the new federal riding of Scarborough-Rouge Park on October 19, 2015. Mr. Anandasangaree was heavily involved with the CTC in a number of leadership roles, where he took the stage to make a special announcement. Accordingly, a formal celebration is to occur in St. Johns, Newfoundland in August 2016, to mark the 30th anniversary when Canada cordially admitted more than 150 Tamil refugees arriving via the sea. As with the Canadian government’s appropriate response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the Tamil Newfoundland experience exemplified the passion of Canada for the wellbeing of refugees.

“Thai Pongal event by Canadian Tamil Congress” – The charming Tamil Festival of Thanksgiving has now firmly transpired into an important annual Toronto dateline in taking stock of civic matters, duties and pride for the invited guests of honor and attendees. The 9th annual Thai Pongal dinner turned out to be another great success and firmly encrypting the event as a hallmark to commence the year.

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