Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Balancing life and inconvenience

It was a balmy Sunday afternoon. A perfect time to clean the backyard although there was a hint of frost in the forecast.

My wife left the house an hour earlier to meet with our youngest daughter for their Mother’s Day dinner date, and later, to watch a documentary film, Poetry in Motion, at the Royal Theatre on College Street. Halfway to the venue, the 506 streetcar she was riding got stuck behind four other streetcars on University Avenue.

My daughter called on her cell phone, wondering whether her mom knew the restaurant’s address. She had to leave her apartment late to give more time for little Onegin, her new dog.

I reassured my daughter that her mom had left an hour before and could just be browsing inside one of the vintage shops near the Royal. That night, my wife went home late after her tryst with our youngest, fuming she had to take a cab as no streetcars were in sight. “But we saw a very good documentary,” she said, as I tried to catch the climax of a TV movie re-run.

My wife rattled on and told me she had to get off the streetcar twice because the streetcars couldn’t move; some stretches and intersections along College were clogged with Tamil demonstrators. She had to walk almost a mile to meet my daughter. When they got off the theatre, little did she know that the Tamil demonstrators had seized a ramp of the Gardiner Expressway along the lakeshore causing more traffic. It was only the next morning when she picked up the newspaper from our porch that she realized what had transpired.

The city mayor warned he would order the arrest of defiant Tamil protesters if they created another traffic chaos while the Toronto police chief was visibly irked at the organizers for bringing children and seniors to join the march. More than 2,000 demonstrators of Tamil origin commandeered a ramp of the Gardiner Expressway, one of the city’s busiest highways.

“The protesters were endangering themselves, they were endangering the public, and they were endangering the police,” the Toronto mayor said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Tamil Tigers were reportedly killed in a bloodbath in Sri Lanka that weekend. Tamil Canadians were demonstrating on the streets of Toronto to denounce the attacks which they called genocide. Leaders of the Coalition to Stop the War in Sri Lanka said there would be more and larger protests forthcoming.

Many Torontonians woke up the following Monday morning feeling crabby over the inconvenience to commuters, motorists and pedestrians caused by the blockade of the Gardiner. The city bureaucrats and police were spinning concerns about imagined dangers to the public if the street protests should go awry.

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon. Those who drove their cars going to the city could have easily taken alternative routes through the city inner roads. Commuters on streetcars could just have stretched their legs and walked on a beautiful afternoon, as many riders like my wife did. How would this little inconvenience compare with 3,000 innocent lives wiped out by a ruthless government?

The protesters were Canadians of Tamil origin, who brought their elders and their young children along because this was a serious life-and-death family matter: relatives and other members of their families in Sri Lanka are being massacred.

Does the Canadian government have a responsibility to respond to the demands of the protesters? Of course there is, and it is a legal and moral one. Relatives and members of Canadian families are being killed in a genocidal war and all the protesters are asking is for the Canadian government to listen and put pressure on the Sri Lankan government and for other nations to declare an immediate ceasefire, or to impose economic and political sanctions if the Sri Lankan government refuses an international plea for ceasefire. Is it so difficult for the Minister of Foreign Affairs to summon the Sri Lankan ambassador to his office to explain the continuing killing of innocent citizens in his country?

Canada is known as a peace broker and for its efforts to rehabilitate and rebuild regions in the world which are devastated by armed conflict. We cannot simply watch on the sidelines and ignore the genocide in Sri Lanka. We have peace-keeping troops in Afghanistan and our soldiers are getting killed in a war against terror that primarily benefits the United States, yet it is absurd that Canada will not step in a desperate situation where relatives of its citizens are getting killed.

We are a signatory to the Protocol Additional II to the 1949 Geneva Convention and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (1979), which Canada ratified on November 11, 1990, and the Canadian Charter of Rights also guarantees the freedom of peaceful assembly.

The city mayor of Toronto and the police have no legal override to restrict the right of Tamil Canadians to peaceably assemble on our streets, especially if they do not threaten the safety of the public or cause public mayhem, except for minor inconveniences such as traffic or commuter delays. As a peace-loving and humanitarian society, the killings of other innocent citizens, though they may happen thousands of miles away from our shores, also affect us very deeply, and therefore we have a moral obligation to extend our help to victims of such carnage and the duty to speak to the world to act in order to stop these killings now.

Street protests have been vital to democracy. Public rallies in East Germany helped bring down the Berlin Wall. The American civil rights marches led to stronger equality rights laws. More than a million Filipinos protesting in Manila during the height of the Philippine Power Revolution brought down the Marcos dictatorial regime.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution specifically allows peaceful demonstrations and the freedom of assembly to facilitate the redress of grievances against the government. Our own Charter of Rights guarantees this freedom subject only to reasonable limits that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Outside of North America, especially in regions where democracy and the rule of law are still fledgling concepts, street protests are about life-and-death issues. It’s probably because the stakes of protest here are a lot lower that we easily whine if we are inconvenienced by traffic snags. It was entirely different from the 1960s when young people took to the streets in droves because they were afraid they would be shipped off to Vietnam.

Given that the armed conflicts in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan may not be our own wars, the loss of innocent lives on account of an unjust war should be sufficient enough for us to feel empathy and compassion for those who lose their loved ones. The loss of life of a fellow human being should be powerful enough to galvanize us because our lives are also affected in many ways.

This year, Parisians hit the streets to object against Facebook’s redesign. In India, nearly 1,000 snake charmers played their flutes as they marched through the streets performing with cobras and other live snakes that have been banned since 1991 Their demand: allow snake charmers their traditional way of life and let them perform again. How much rage do we need to draw people to the streets to denounce the genocide in Sri Lanka? If these freak issues could hold the attention of many to the chagrin of some bureaucrats, why wouldn’t the city of Toronto be inclusive enough to let Tamil Canadians march down city streets demanding the Canadian government to show concern for the lives of relatives being killed in Sri Lanka?

Toronto is a much more liberal and caring city than the University of Utara Malaysia whose chancellor, the Sultan of Kedah, warned intellectuals not to get involved with negative activities such as street demonstrations. The Sultan said streets are not the right avenues for protest against the establishment, suggesting that the university should adopt the Socratic approach instead. Let’s hope he wasn’t insinuating that we drink hemlock, as Socrates did, to end it all.

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