Neethan Shan: Toronto's First Tamil-Canadian Councillor

First, I'd like to congratulate you on becoming the first Tamil-Canadian councillor for the city of Toronto. Your achievements as a youth worker, school board trustee, community activist and politician are remarkable. From being the first youngest Tamil-Canadian elected to public office to now becoming the first Tamil City Councillor is inspiring to youth like myself, especially to those interested in politics.

TamilCulture sat down with Neethan Shan, who was recently elected to Toronto City Council for Ward 42 Scarborough-Rouge River.

First, we'd like to congratulate you on becoming the first Tamil-Canadian councillor in the City of Toronto. Your achievements as a youth worker, school board trustee, community activist and politician are remarkable. From being the first youngest Tamil-Canadian elected to public office to now becoming the first Tamil City Councillor is inspiring, especially for those interested in politics.

Could you explain the role of a City Councillor? How are you able to serve the constituents of Scarborough-Rouge River and Toronto while holding this position?

As City Councillor for Ward 42, I will advocate for and vote on decisions related to public transit, city planning, childcare, housing, employment initiatives, environmental initiatives, roads and infrastructure, and the budget of the city.

In addition, I will be helping residents access city services including libraries, public health, emergency response, parks, snow removal, garbage removal etc.

Finally, I would like to focus on four broader areas of youth leadership:
(1) education, employment and justice,
(2) fighting racism and discrimination within the city,
(3) advocating for services and support for newcomers, refugees and recent immigrants,
(4) getting more diverse communities in civic engagement and decision-making within the city.

What struggles did you encounter when you first started in politics and how did you overcome these barriers?

When I first ran for public school board trustee in Markham in 2003, I was 24 years old. As a young person with limited financial resources, the barriers to break through in politics were difficult. Today, a significant number of Tamil-Canadians are well-trained in politics and campaign organizing but in those days, we were learning on the go.

What was more challenging was the ageism I faced upon being elected as the youngest trustee in the YRDSB, and the racism I encountered while being the only person of colour within the 12 member board in York Region. But as someone with the resilience and “thick skin”, I focused my attention on getting things done for the diverse students and parents I represented.

What projects are you currently involved with to serve Ward 42?

For the upcoming year:

  • Actively push for the Bloor-Danforth subway extension to Scarborough Centre and launch a campaign to connect Malvern through rapid transit to the Eglinton East LRT.
  • Improve parks and green space in the area and organize a campaign to have more community members utilize them.
  • Better coordination amongst various services supporting the community at times of crisis and unsafe situations, and proactive public safety measures such as neighbourhood watch, safety audits etc.
  • Work with the Morningside Heights and Rougeville communities to build new community recreation centres in each of these neighbourhoods.
  • Establish a youth council to get about 100 youth between ages 14 to 25 to develop leadership skills and to take an active role in the city’s various initiatives including transit, justice, employment, environment etc.
  • A number of other initiatives to address racism and discrimination that I will be announcing shortly.
  • What do you hope to achieve if/when you leave City Council?

    I hope to have brought more rapid transit to Scarborough, bring more community space including two community centres to the ward, train youth and residents in civic engagement thereby creating the next generation of leaders, improve the image of Malvern by highlighting the positive aspects of the community, and make the City of Toronto more inclusive and welcoming to diverse communities.

    In addition to ward-specific matters, I wish to champion equity, inclusion, youth leadership, community infrastructure and anti-poverty initiatives at the city level.

    What are some accomplishments that you are proud of?

    I am proud to have supported hundreds of youth and their parents through my work as a youth worker, teacher and as a trustee. I am very proud that the Tamil Heritage Month initiative I started in 2010 is now accepted in many school boards, cities, the province of Ontario and Canada. It is now going global.

    I am proud to have broken many barriers in politics and to have paved the path for other youth to succeed in politics. I have championed anti-racism work in school boards and headed a campaign that helped to establish the anti-racism directorate in the province of Ontario.

    Most importantly, a number of youth development programs, after-school programs, community organizations and anti-racism initiatives I started over the past twenty years are still running successfully across the GTA. There is definitely more work to be done and I am eagerly looking forward to it.

    What is your opinion of the progress the Tamil community is making in Toronto? 

    I am very proud of the success and progress Tamil-Canadians have made in various fields including businesses, education, politics, arts and culture, and social and public services. The resilience, hard work and perseverance of the community has taken us to great heights.

    At the same time, I will say that there is still more we can achieve if we coordinate a community-wide plan to get there. I will be launching an initiative to bring our social service organizations together to plan for a collective vision to help the most vulnerable within our community.

    As City Councillor for Ward 42 where Tamils are the second largest minority group, what are some of the major issues the community is facing and how do you plan on tackling these issues?  

    The issues I outlined earlier are issues that affect Tamils as well - lack of youth employment and underemployment, lack of community space for children, youth and seniors, lack of rapid transit, racial discrimination etc.

    I will host regular town halls and training/information sessions to make the Tamil community become more aware of how they can shape city policies and how they can advocate for their issues. I am looking forward to working with the community to support establishing a community centre for Tamil-Canadians and also a seniors home for Tamil seniors.

    In addition, I will be working with the community to achieve the objectives of the Toronto-Jaffna Partnership Agreement to support the rebuilding of Jaffna District in the fields of library services, education, governance, city services and economic development.

    Immigrating to Canada as a refugee at the age of 16, do you feel that refugees are in better hands now than when you first arrived? 

    I feel that the recent rise in xenophobia and the blaming of refugees by media and certain politicians in Canada, the US and other Western countries has made the environment very hostile for refugees today. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians arrived as refugees and have contributed enormously to the economic prosperity of this country. We are fortunate to have a network of organizations, advocates and activists who are helping to make sure we provide an inclusive environment for newcomers and refugees.
    What advice would you give to youth pursuing political office? 

    Youth who wish to pursue politics need to be prepared to work hard and not give up. Most successful politicians – especially those who don’t come from a family of politicians – got there through resilience, hard work and perseverance. Therefore, be prepared to put in the time.

    Through having worked in a number of community projects, I had a network of individuals who were able to donate their time as volunteers and provide fundraising for my campaign. It is important for youth to volunteer in the campaigns of other candidates to know what is actually involved. One cannot fully understand the extent of what is involved in being in politics until they engage in campaigns and political organizing.

    My biggest advice to youth wanting to become a politician would be to not rely solely on politics as your only career. I had an executive role in the not-for-profit sector and a career in teaching in the past. If I ever I feel a need to step down from politics, I will be happy to go back to the field of education and community development. When the time comes when one wants to leave politics or politics leaves them out, there is always a steady path for you to help the community.

    What are your hobbies and interests outside of politics?

    Generally, community development work is of great interest to me. I do a lot of volunteering on projects that aim to help people who are marginalized to access opportunities, power and decision making.

    I am a big fan of movies and music, especially Tamil cinema. I follow Tamil music from the black and white era to today. I used to act and direct stage drama, and am hoping to direct short films in a few years.

    With respect to sports, I have played soccer and cricket in the past and hope to get back to it soon. Now that I am a father of two boys, I enjoy spending whatever free time I can get with them and doing things they love.

    Finally, it's great to see the support given by your wife. Can you tell us a bit about how you met and what it feels like to have a strong supportive wife?

    My wife, Thadsha, and I will be celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary this year. Within those ten years, I have had many challenging elections and other community projects with a heavy workload. She has been very supportive – always inspiring and motivating me to keep up the fight.

    My success would have not been possible without the support and encouragement of my wife. She is not only supportive of my involvement in politics, but her contribution is even greater than that. She is a reliable advisor who understands political organizing and community service, as she is from the same field as me.

    We actually met while working for a community organization. She worked on supporting women in various women’s programs while I was doing the same for youth through youth programs. So a lot of our dinner conversations revolve around community development and politics.

    Most importantly, she is an even stronger fighter for equity and fairness than I am, so she keeps me on the right track to not give up standing up for fairness and justice. Her perspective, knowledge and support helps keep me going with the passion and drive I have.

    Thank you Neethan for taking the time to speak with us and giving us your insights. We wish you all the best in achieving your goals as City Councillor for Scarborough-Rouge River. We will be sure to keep in touch with you and to update the community of your future achievements.

    - Interview by Siva Samson Ravindran

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