New Democrat Rathika Sitsabaiesan admits she is still “feeling a little numb” about her historic victory in Scarborough-Rouge River on Monday night. As the first Tamil elected to Parliament, she says she is also humbled. The 29-year-old first-time candidate came to Canada with her family when she was 5. “My parents are very, very proud,” she said Tuesday morning after a night of celebration with throngs of supporters at her Sheppard Ave. campaign office and later with New Democrats from across the city at NDP Leader Jack Layton’s victory party downtown. Despite “still trying to absorb it all,” the advocate for workers, students and newcomers says she wasn’t surprised by her win. The ethnically diverse riding in the city’s northeast end has a large youth population and one of the GTA’s largest concentrations of Tamils. “But it was the entire community of Scarborough-Rouge River that came together for this,” said Sitsabaiesan, who moved to the riding several years ago after completing a master’s degree in industrial relations at Queen’s University.
“People wanted change and they saw me as the only option,” she said. “I am the only one from the community who has been working so hard for the community, and that’s what people saw.” That yearning for change also helped to boost turnout in the riding to 55.9 per cent from just 47.3 per cent in 2008, when Scarborough- Rouge River posted the lowest turnout in the GTA and second-lowest in Ontario.
Sitsabaiesan, who had been building a local profile since winning the NDP nomination in December 2009, said she had a clear advantage over her main competition when longtime Liberal Derek Lee retired in March. Lee’s sudden departure, after 23 years in office, meant both the Conservatives and Liberals were slow off the mark and had to appoint candidates from outside the riding with little local name recognition.
Besides involvement with the area’s Tamil community, Sitsabaiesan belongs to various Malvern community groups and serves as a student mentor. She traces her social activism to growing up in Mississauga as the youngest of four sisters and one of only a handful of Tamil families in the area. Her father was permanently disabled in a workplace accident and her mother, who was training to become a nurse, had to quit school to work in a warehouse to support the family. Despite her father’s disability, he was active in the community and, with Sitsabaiesan’s help, started Mississauga’s first Tamil school in the 1990s. “My father taught me the value of social engagement and serving your community,” she said. “My mother taught me about resilience.”
She has held a variety of positions in student government at the University of Toronto and Carleton University in Ottawa. She helped the Service Employees’ International Union launch the Justice 4 Janitors campaign for better wages and working conditions while completing her graduate degree at Queen’s.
Sitsabaiesan caught the political bug during the 2004 election, when she met the NDP’s legendary former leader Ed Broadbent, who was making a comeback bid for a downtown Ottawa seat. “That’s when I saw how my personal politics aligned with NDP politics and principles,” she said. “Family, community, equality and justice for all are what I’m fighting for in Scarborough-Rouge River.”