Toronto appreciation for Sri Lankans | Daily News

Toronto appreciation for Sri Lankans

Sinhala and Tamil conversations surround me as I walk through Toronto’s underground path system in the downtown financial district. Sri Lankans fill the banks and other financial institutions that fill the skyscrapers in downtown Toronto. Even more than in London and New York, Sri Lankans seem more visible in Toronto despite its great diversity of ethnicities and nationalities.

Now that I am spending more time in Toronto, I have started looking at the city’s history and how the city came to be a shelter for the world with 200 languages spoken here. It’s not a very big city by global standards – 2.8 million people or so.

Taken along with its satellite cities, the numbers swell to an impressive ten million – almost a third of Canada’s population, but that is another story of urbanization and industrialization. I want to focus rather on a pivotal force in early Torontonian history. His name was William Lyon Mackenzie and he was a rabble rouser from Dundee, Scotland with an incendiary pen. He published a newspaper, The Colonial Advocate, in Toronto in the mid-1820s and his main focus was a cabal of influential men who controlled the government and business of Toronto through their web of personal relationships with each other and with their British governors.

In September 1830 Mackenzie wrote in the Colonial Advocate: “There is a natural aristocracy among men, founded on virtue and talents; and there is artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talent.”

He excoriated the local grandees, including the first Anglican bishop of Toronto, for using their governmental influence to prevent competition with their business interests. He believed in the free market of ideas and enterprise to push the developing Canadian economy towards a more level playing field for all. Just as the Dutch rulers of New Amsterdam (later New York City) to the south had been more intent on encouraging commerce than religious conformity and had thus laid the seeds of diversity in that mega city, Mackenzie (who would later spend time in New York after being chased away from Toronto) was keen on supporting a free-thinking public free of undue influence from their betters.

Local governmental powers in Canada

“Ridicule must not be spared,” thundered Mackenzie in his newspaper. “The family connection rules Upper Canada, a dozen of nobodies of well-known narrow and bigoted principles” who performed all the functions of government. “One thing is certain,” he said. “No free popular government can exist unless people are informed. An ignorant republic would surely degenerate into a most corrupt and hateful government.” Fake news has been around a long time. His enemies threw his printing machinery into Lake Ontario while the local prosecutors and magistrates looked on. Popular outrage at this propelled Mackenzie into becoming the first elected mayor of the newly constituted city of Toronto in 1834. He then went on to lead a badly executed rebellion of farmers with pitchforks in 1837 against the British colonial government in Toronto.

Though Mackenzie’s 1837 rebellion was an unmitigated failure, poorly thought through and badly executed, it laid the foundation for increasing local governmental powers in Canada. After ten years of exile in New York, Mackenzie came back to Toronto and was elected to parliament where he re-engaged in a reformist agenda that sought to open up elections and business to competitive forces. He ended up often alienating many allies, however, with his intransigence and he resigned his seat in 1858. He had a stroke and died a few years later. An interesting coda to Mackenzie’s story lies in the fact that his grandson (whom he never knew), William Lyon Mackenzie King, became a master of the art of the possible and Canada’s longest serving Prime Minister. A modernizing technocrat, the grandson understood his electorate and led the Liberal Party through the war-time years of the 1940s. Though he didn’t relish Asian immigration, the policies he and his successors put in place helped make Toronto and Canada the sheltering places they are today.

On Remembrance Day this year, I watched kilted veterans march by on Queens Street, their bare knees looking odd on a bracing November day to my tropical sensibilities. The Scots were ever a hardy race though. They weathered the tropical heat in the Indian subcontinent and also prospered with the fur and logging trade in the arctic Canadian tundra. I then wandered over to Mackenzie’s retirement house, bought for him through small subscriptions by a grateful public of ordinary people. It’s a small house with two small bedrooms on the second floor and most of the living done in the basement kitchen and dining room. It was a tough life even for a Scot, forever on the run and short of cash, but he ended it with a measure of peace.

So do we laud the fire-breathing grandfather who laid the seeds of freedom for ordinary people in Canada and lived an uncomfortable life doing so or do we follow his grandson who practised the art of the possible? The answer will depend, I think, on who you are and where you stand.

I look at my parents’ relatives who are settled now in South Asian enclaves such as Scarborough in Toronto and who buy their string hoppers from shops that have machines that spit out 500 string hoppers per minute (I still think this is an urban myth but that will be for a future investigation). I hear the Sinhala and Tamil conversations as I walk through the financial sector’s underground path system in downtown Toronto. I then compare the immigrant experience here to that in New York City. There is no doubt in my mind that Toronto gives the immigrant a better and less stressful life. This is probably due in large part to Toronto’s lower population density and the resulting greater availability of services. The universal government-funded health care system must also take a lot of the credit. One need not feel desperate every time there is a need for a doctor.

Political and economic refugees

These relatively new immigrants, when I have spoken with them, are grateful to Mackenzie King’s Liberal Party (particularly Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre) who let them in and gave them the chance to succeed. “The Liberal Party could murder their family members and they would still vote Liberal,” a South Asian community organiser informed me a little hyperbolically. But it is not all hyperbole. There is undoubted gratitude from political and economic refugees. There is also the belief that a kid whose parents came from Vaddukottai and who studies hard can do well and get ahead. One of those kids now runs a division at a global bank in downtown Toronto.

Mackenzie envisaged this aristocracy of talent and railed against the people with power who were “nobodies with narrow minds and little talent”. His grandson, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, a man of his time, was more measured in his rhetoric. “It is what we prevent, rather than what we do, that matters most in government,” said the prime minister. This difference in mind-set is perhaps a function of the different times both men lived in as well as their different personalities. The grandfather lived in formative times with an overweening British colonial power. His cry for political and economic freedom showed great courage in his time. He also seems to have had a choleric personality well-suited to his task.

The grandson lived in a more developed country with established institutions. He would never see a magistrate break into his grandfather’s house and throw his printing press into Lake Ontario. It must be noted that though the magistrates watched on as the powerful hooligans threw Mackenzie’s printing paraphernalia into Lake Ontario and Mackenzie was unable to pursue a criminal action against these hooligans, his civil action against them won a resounding victory. The jury in the civil case awarded him a verdict of 625 Pounds Sterling in 1826, far in excess of the 200 Pounds Sterling that the damage had cost him. The outrage that the jury expressed through its verdict seems to have been based on the Lockean notion that “all mankind... being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”

This bedrock of good sense among ordinary people that justice should be done is seen time and again. It showed in Mackenzie’s civil trial against his tormentors. Even firebrands deserve their day in court before an impartial and independent jury and judge. Societies seem to need this bedrock of institutional integrity to grow and withstand economic and political upheaval with stability. And so I wandered out of Mackenzie’s small townhouse at 82 Bond Street in downtown Toronto, musing on the nature of power and the law and the ability of some men and women to affect the course of history and make things better for all.


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