Interview with Rathika Sitsabaiesan

Rathika Sitsabaiesan was elected Member of Parliament for the Toronto riding of Scarborough Rouge River on May 2, 2011. She is seeking a fresh mandate to continue fighting for you as part of Tom Mulcair’s NDP team in the newly redrawn riding of Scarborough North.

As Ontario’s youngest MP and Canada’s first of Tamil descent, Rathika has distinguished herself through her extensive community work and bold advocacy for social justice issues. Causes close to her heart include poverty reduction, affordable housing, access to education, employment equity, immigration, and the preservation of Tamil language and culture.

Rathika was recently named deputy critic for Heritage in the NDP Shadow Cabinet. She previously served as critic for Post-Secondary Education and as vice-chair of the national NDP caucus from 2012 2014.

Rathika has been a strong and effective voice for Scarborough. Her constituency office has directly helped over 800 constituents with federal casework. Her motion to eliminate child poverty was passed by the House of Commons with near-unanimous support.

She fought for the creation of the Rouge National Urban Park and remains a strong local and national voice for the protection of Rouge Park and its ecosystem when it becomes Canada’s first urban national park. She has also introduced legislation to protect the Rouge River and to officially designate January as Tamil Heritage Month. Voted “Best Local MP” by NOW Magazine readers in 2012 and 2014, Rathika was also the recipient of the V. K. Krishna Menon Institute's "Personality of the Year Award" in 2012 for her efforts on human rights issues in Sri Lanka and outstanding leadership in her constituency.

Rathika was born in Sri Lanka and came to Canada with her family at age five. Her political, social and cultural consciousness took shape early on in her life as her parents have been community activists who worked towards the advancement of Tamil culture in Canada.

Rathika became involved with the NDP as a volunteer in the 2004 federal campaign and was a campaign manager in the 2008 election. In 2010, late NDP leader Jack Layton appointed Rathika as his advisor on Tamil issues to help draft the NDP’s resolution on truth, justice and accountability in Sri Lanka.

Rathika earned her Bachelor of Commerce degree from Carleton University and obtained her Master’s Degree in Industrial Relations from Queen’s University.

MBE: What are your earliest memories growing up in Canada?

Rathika: One of my earliest memories is going to Mississauga to learn my native language which is Tamil. The school was very far from where we lived in Scarborough and I remember having to take three different busses to reach the academy. I initially complained to my father about having to make such a long journey every Friday but at the time there was no close by alternate. So at the young age of 6 years old my father and I set out to set up a place where we could learn Tamil closer to home. After approaching many different institutions we were finally told by one authority to gather at least 25 people and then we could start a class. My father and I were able to find enough people and through our efforts Tamil was introduced as an international language for the first time at the Dufferin Peel School board. This is also how I feel my career in politics started because I define a Politician as someone who helps in community development

MBE: How did you get involved in helping the community around you during your younger years?

Rathika: I actually got involved in the Tamil community around me through my family. At the time, even though my parents were not rich or wealthy and six of us lived in a two bedroom apartment, they were very giving and were always willing to help others. Whenever an immigrant family would land in Canada they would contact my parents and we would provide them with a roof to stay under and food to eat until they were able to settle in. This brought me very close to my community and taught me from a young age the importance of helping those in your own community and those around you.

MBE: How did you get involved in politics?

Rathika: As I grew up I continued to get more involved in the community I felt that those politicians that were representing these communities were not actually in tune with how the people were feeling. The leaders did not have the same kind of connection with the community that I did and this naturally pushed me towards politics. Even though I was only 14 at the time I decided that if I really wanted to make a change in the community I would have to do it myself and not wait for the politicians at the time to take action.

I was involved in student council from middle school all the way up to the University level. I was Vice President of Carleton University's students association and at this time I was first approached by the NDP to run for office. At the time I felt I was too young, but after being asked a couple of times I finally felt that it was the right time to step up and run for office. around you.

MBE: What were the challenges you faced initially?

Rathika: Growing up I was an avid watcher of the news. The thing I always noticed on the news was that there was no young woman of colour that was ever made the news or making a difference in politics. The majority of the politicians at the time were older and wealthier men and breaking this stereotype was the biggest challenge I faced at first.

MBE: Rathika what is your personal and your party’s stance towards small businesses and small business owners?

Rathika: We at the NDP have been the main proponent of asking for the reduction of taxes upon small businesses. In this current parliament we proposed a motion to reduce the tax on small businesses from 11% to 9% but sadly the conservatives voted against it. We feel too much is being done for large multinational companies and not enough for small businesses that are the backbone of our economy. The large MNC’s are being taxed breaks and are taking these breaks and still shutting up shop after a couple of years in the market.

Examples of this can be seen through companies such as Caterpillar and other companies that took these tax exemptions and still ended up closing their operation in Canada. We need to stop giving so much help to the MNC’s and need to focus on small businesses which are providing 78% of the jobs in Canada.

MBE: What other important actions do you feel have to be done to further improve Canada’s economy and employment figures?

Rathika: Canada uses to be known for their manufacturing industries but now we have become better known for our services industry. To help these service industries the government needs to start investing more money into human capital. People need to be better trained and better educated in order to succeed in the services industry and I feel not enough is being done to improve our human capital. I am the one who proposed a Post-Secondary education act in Canada, which I feel will help people be better trained and qualified to work in various industries.

MBE: Rathika lots of immigrants with valuable experience such as doctors, teachers and lawyers are moving from other countries to Canada but are having trouble applying their trade here. What can be done to help these professionals coming from other countries?

Rathika: It’s very sad how these professionals are coming from other countries with valuable knowledge and skills and their skills are being squandered as most of them have to start over as far as education and training is concerned. Most of these immigrants do not want to spend many years starting over and therefore end up taking jobs such as driving taxi’s where their skills are not being put to use. Canada and these foreign countries need to set up with the help of local universities a process where such an individual’s experience can be accredited to comply with Canadian standard. If these Universities abroad can set up such a program that last shorter periods of time, these professionals can accredit their degrees and qualifications before coming to Canada, so that when they land they can start working as soon as possible and put their valuable knowledge to the best use possible.

MBE: Rathika how do you like to spend your free time in which you are not working or helping others in your community?

Rathika: Even though I have very little free time, the time I do have I like spending it with my family first and foremost. Since I was raised in a very tight knit family it has been very hard spending so much time away from my family, but the little time I do get off I like to make the most of it. Some of the other hobbies which I still take time out for are running, reading and classical dancing. Yoga is another activity I like doing with my time off as it helps me collect my thoughts and helps with the stress that is involved in my line of work.

MBE: Do you have any last message for the small business community and our other readers?

Rathika: Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourselves. Don’t be afraid to show your support as the elections come along and don’t let anyone bully you into supporting a cause you don’t believe in. Finally, my message for everyone is that don’t ever feel as if any is ever better than you are bigger than you because at the end of the day we are all equal and together we can make a better Canada for ourselves and our future generations to live in.