Rathika Sitsabaiesan: Breaking Boundaries, Connecting Communities

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TamilCulture recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rathika Sitsabaiesan, Member of Parliament representing Scarborough Rouge-River, to find out more about her. Even before the election results were called she was considered a candidate to watch, and it’s no wonder! Find out more about her path to success and the lessons she has learned along the way in our interview.

TamilCulture: Tell us a bit about your background?
Rathika Sitsabaiesan: I was born in Sri Lanka, in Jaffna. I came here when I was 5 and grew up in Mississauga. I went to Ottawa and Kingston for my undergraduate and Master’s degrees. Afterward I decided to find a place in Scarborough. From the time that I was in middle school, I started this connection with Scarborough. I started my activism and understanding of the Tamil Diaspora story here.

TC: How did you get into politics?
RS: It’s an extension of the work that I had been doing. My first act of community development was when I was 7 years old, working with my dad to get Tamil school closer to home. After that, I volunteered in the community, and later was involved in the student and labour movements. I saw that to achieve sustainable and meaningful change you needed to have influence through the political sphere. In 2009, I was done school, working, and as a young woman it was important for me to step up. Politics is often seen as a place for old white men and I felt that idea needed to be broken.

TC: How do you feel about Canada’s first Tamil MP being a woman?
RS: In the Tamil community we generally defer our decision making to men. Women believe that they don’t have the ability to advocate for themselves. But the smallest unit in society is the family unit, and it’s really women who do most of the child rearing and caring for the homes. Extended families are very important for us and it’s women who connect them. A young woman being elected as the first Canadian MP of Tamil heritage is a testament to women being the glue that holds the community together.

TC: How do you balance Tamil culture and Western/Canadian culture?
RS: It’s always been a balancing act. My older sisters had more Tamil culture in them than I did, and so I had pressure from them, as well as from my parents about my appearance. My parents allowed me to do whatever I wanted, in terms of academics and community involvement, but we had different opinions about things like the length of my hair or the clothes I wore. They weren’t always happy about every choice I made, but eventually they came around to it. Finding a balance is just about figuring out who you are, and then being comfortable in your own skin.

TC: What are the rewards associated with balancing a Tamil and Canadian identity?
RS: Understanding where you come from and drawing from both cultures really adds a lot of breadth to who you are. My Tamil heritage adds a lot to my understanding of who I am. Canadian culture lets me know that it’s okay to be strong and not fall within the lines of normalcy. I embrace both as much as I can. For some people I might be too Canadian, eh? Others might think I’m too Tamil because I’m a Bharatanatyam dancer and I speak Tamil. But I’m happy with the way I balance the two.

TC: Tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced while pursuing your political aspirations, and how you’ve overcome them.
RS: I think Canadian politics being seen as an old boys club was definitely a challenge, something that I had to break into. So, inspiring and drawing in more women was a challenge but it came with time as people saw that my goal was to build. Being young, people didn’t take me seriously and I had to prove myself as a good candidate for people to put their weight behind me. Once they took the time to look at my track record and talk to me, they knew that I meant business.

TC: What are the most important lessons you have learned from the challenges you have faced?
RS: Never give up. Many people told me that I wasn’t the right candidate and doubted my abilities, but I just kept on going. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do what you want to do. If I, a young immigrant, can leave a war-torn country, come here and become a member of parliament under 30, anything is possible. If you want to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or accountant, go for it. But if you want to do something else, like be a professional dancer, and you know that you will give it 100%, then pursue that. From the get go, go where your passion is and work hard at it. Nothing comes easy.

TC: How have the communities that you have worked in shaped your goals?
RS: Every step of the way, every person I meet shapes who I am and my way forward. Volunteering at a nursing home showed me that the people who built our communities are now ignored. The student movement taught me to lobby and revealed the poverty students are living in. The “Justice For Janitors” campaign, allowed me to see how poorly janitors are treated by those who are well off in our communities. As an elections observer in the Philippines, I saw people stand in the scorching heat for hours to make sure they voted. These experiences have underscored for me the importance of engaging in the political process.

TC: What is the best part of your job?
RS: Best part of my job is that I get to talk to people, learn about their issues and then advocate for them. To directly impact people’s lives is very rewarding. I don’t know of any other job that gives you the ability to do it on so many levels.

TC: What are your future aspirations?
RS: It’s a bit early to say. Right now the focus is on learning how to be the best Member of Parliament I can be, and being the best Member of Parliament Scarborough-Rouge River has ever had. What holds in the future is what holds in the future.

TC: What advice would you give to individuals who have political aspirations?
RS: Go for it. Stay connected to the community because it’s the community that elects you, and it’s the community that goes to bat for you. The world’s the limit, go for it!

Quick 5

TC: Favourite Hobby?
RS: I like to be outdoors, biking, hiking, walking, running, or playing basketball.

TC: Favourite movie?
RS: Finding Nemo. Even during the campaign, I’d be thinking to myself “just keep swimming, just keep swimming”.

TC: Favourite types of music?
RS: Mostly urban art, but I’m also a fan of jazz and indie.

TC: A favourite quote?
RS: “Valkaiyae Porkalam, Valnthu Thaan Parkanum” (In Tamil). Translated to English, it means “Life is a battlefield. You have to live through it to experience it”.

TC: Finish the following sentence. “To me, Tamil culture is…”
RS: To me, Tamil culture is abundant.

– Nive Thambithurai

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Author

Nivethika Thambithurai

Nivethika Thambithurai

Born in Montreal and raised in Toronto, Nive is a dreamer and writer who loves exploring how Tamil culture varies around the world in fashion, food, films and music.

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