Tamil protesters face down police, some dressed in riot gear, after
swarming onto the Gardiner Expressway at Spadina Ave.
Sunday night. (Alex Urosevic, Sun Media)
Thousands of Tamil protesters who blocked a major highway in Toronto for several
hours ended their passionate but peaceful occupation with news early
Monday the federal Liberals would raise their concerns.
The impromptu blockade of the eastbound and westbound
lanes of the Gardiner Expressway, a major route for people in Toronto and the
surrounding area, began around 7 p.m. on Sunday and snarled traffic as
protesters rushed the highway.
Video of the Tamil supporters marshalling at the bottom of
the on-ramp showed that only a few Toronto
police officers stood between the mass of protesters and a highway packed
with speeding cars.
The half dozen officers in bright yellow jackets who
appeared to be part of bike unit tried to hold them back but the
protesters broke through the line and ran onto the road.
The group, including women with babies in strollers, sat
down on the highway linking arms and chanting. As the sun set and a damp
chill descended, only street lamps illuminated the sea of impassioned
Tamils on the highway.
On the front lines of the protest young women held hands
and looked into the eyes of officers wearing helmets and holding batons.
"We are losing our people every day. Bodies are every
where, nobody is helping," pleaded sitting protester Rathi Vasanthakumar, 41.
please, don't be silent."
Hundreds more protesters also blocked a major downtown
intersection outside the Ontario
legislature, where many people marched to after the crowd on the highway
They cleared the intersection around the same time as the
other protesters moved off the highway, but the boisterous protest
continued around the legislature into the early morning hours.
The dramatic moves by the Tamils followed similar protests
in recent weeks in both Ottawa and Toronto.
Protest spokesman Siva Vimal
said leaders decided to end their protest after speaking with the office
of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and
receiving assurances he would take up their cause at caucus.
"Why we have come to this point is that for months
now the community has been protesting peacefully, and there has been a
serious inaction on the Canadian government's part," Vimal said earlier.
"They have not done everything that they can to
pressure the government of Sri Lanka to accept
international calls for a ceasefire."
Rage and frustration over Sri Lanka's civil war boiled
over earlier Sunday after news reports said that an all-night artillery
barrage in the country's war zone killed more than 370 people and forced
thousands to flee to makeshift shelters along the beach.
Protesters huddled together as temperatures plunged to
just above freezing, held candles and placards and shouted chants through
a megaphone. "Tamil Tigers, freedom fighters," they yelled, and
"no more genocide."
The Tamil Tigers are considered a terrorist group by the
After leaders called for the crowd on the six-lane highway
to move they finally descended, chanting "we won," while a line
of riot police moved slowly behind the crowd, encouraging them to get off
the road, by then littered with water bottles and protest signs.
Some protesters with garbage bags were clearing the litter
as they left.
The large-scale protests were spontaneous and one
organizer said they were able to mobilize so many people so quickly
through word of mouth and through ethnic media.
The Tamils had refused to leave and had demanded to meet
with an official from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office.
Tempers began to fray as the protest dragged late into the
night. Police went behind the protest line on the highway and arrested
two women and a man.
They now face charges of assault on a peace officer and mischief interfere with property.
After the Gardiner occupation had ended, police chief Bill
Blair said he was pleased it came to a peaceful resolution.
"We were able to reach out to some people within the
crowd and within the community, (to) receive some help from some
community members and some of our political leaders to do a bit of an
intervention," he said.
He said the protesters at one point numbered in the
Earlier in the night, he had said police would take action
if negotiations failed but was worried that moving protesters - who
included women and children - could cause a stampede.
"It was a bad mistake, they made a very bad mistake
going up there," he said.
Mothers cradled children and pushed strollers as young and
old sat cross-legged on the dirty pavement chanting during the highway
"Usually it is the men who are at the front but this
time we decided that we women had to be on the front line," said
protester Howsiya Sethu,
"We asked, we begged the government. We are fed
More than 100 police, including some on horseback,
contained the crowd to a narrow area on the elevated roadway near the Spadina Road
Hundreds of cars were jammed for hours in the traffic
havoc created by the highway occupation.
Alayna Longstaffe, was not only stuck on the Gardiner for
two hours, she was also stopped by the protest near the legislature,
trying to get to her nearby home.
"It's a big inconvenience," she said.
"It's my understanding that people have the right to
protest peacefully. I just don't know what they hope to accomplish by
protesting in this area. I don't know what I can do to help their
cause," she said, throwing her hands up in exasperation.
Headlights from cars stuck in traffic for hours could be
seen in both directions and the closure of what is part of a ring road slowed traffic all around and throughout
Police from the surrounding regions sent in officers to
assist the Toronto
Tamil Canadians and their supporters have been holding
protests for several months to demonstrate against violence in Sri Lanka.
-With files from Steve Fairbairn