I first met Kanna at Toronto Police 42 Division. There he was, a young man being shown around the station by a civilian in uniform. The security card hanging from his neck indicated he might be a co-op student on his placement.
I asked him for an interview, thinking I would get his thoughts on his experience working with the Toronto police.
But Kanna had a far more interesting — and disheartening — story to tell. One of friendship lost in a war-ravaged country, of panic and fear, but also of hope for the future.
Recently, a lot of attention has been given to the turmoil taking place in Sri Lanka between the government and the Tamil Tigers. For the Sri Lankan community in Toronto, including Kanna’s family, thoughts of home and of loved ones are constantly on their minds.
Today, many Tamils living here are using the term “genocide” to describe the situation in their homeland. To show solidarity, Kanna and many other Tamils are banding together.
The 24-year-old, whose full name is Paranivasagam Ranjithkanna, is very active within his community. He also dreams of becoming a police officer and perhaps going back to Sri Lanka to pursue his career, once peace returns to the area.
Beginnings on the island
Kanna was raised in Trincomalee, a historically rich city in the northeast of Sri Lanka with his three siblings. His father spent 12 years working in Saudi Arabia and only once a year managed to visit his family in Sri Lanka.
In 2002 Kanna’s father finally settled in Canada and began the sponsorship process to bring over the rest of his family. It was four years before the family could finally be reunited in Toronto in 2006.
“Senseless killings” at the beach
As we sat down in one of the conference rooms at 42 Division, Kanna began to tell his story. He explained in 2006 the situation in Sri Lanka was still rather peaceful and attacks were uncommon.
But the tragic events that took place the evening of Jan. 2, 2006 would deeply affect Kanna.
It was late evening during a school break when seven of Kanna’s friends decided to gather at their favourite spot, the beach. Kanna, who lived farther away, opted to head home instead and said goodbye to them.
“At around twelve o’clock I heard some students were killed,” Kanna said. “Somebody passed on the message; friends who were living in town called our house and said our friends were killed.”
They had been shot by the soldiers whose camp was located near the beach.
The next day Kanna made the trip to the hospital and ran into one friend’s distraught father. He was so angry he could not speak and Kanna tried desperately to calm him down.
When he had composed himself, the man told Kanna he was home that night and heard the blast and subsequent commotion. He ran outside to see what happened, but soldiers had blocked the way to the beach. That’s when — from a short distance away — he caught a glimpse of his son lying lifeless on the sand, among the bodies of his friends.
That day at the hospital, Kanna was able to see two of the friends who were shot that night, but who miraculously survived to tell their story. They played dead after they were shot and the soldiers left, believing that all seven had been killed.
According to the two who survived, they had been at the beach having a good time when they heard a sudden blast close to them.
“Something happened there,” Kanna explained. “Someone came and threw something, so the soldiers were waiting.”
People panicked, not knowing where the blast came from and in the commotion. The soldiers came running and shot all seven young men.
Kanna still vividly remembers the fear he felt when he learned the terrible news, and calls them “senseless killings”.
“They were just talking and having fun, and the soldiers came and shot them for no reason,” Kanna said. “The soldiers said it was because they were part of LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam], but that’s not true.”
“Canada Help Us”
Sri Lanka’s civilians have been caught up in the middle of the on-going conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the government since 1983, and many people have lost their lives since the civil war began. The Tamil Tigers are demanding a separate state called Tamil Eelam in the North and East of the country and insist that their identity be recognized.
Despite the unrest, Kanna is proud of his Tamil roots. Recently, there have been many rallies to denounce the treatment of the Tamil people by the Sri Lankan government, the most recent at Union Station on Jan. 30.
“Our community people gather together and ask help from Canada to help and save our people from genocide,” Kanna explained. “College students, high school students, and Tamil media; all people participate in these events.”
Dream of badge
After his arrival in 2006, Kanna started attending the Scarborough Centre for Alternative Studies and enrolled in their co-op program and that’s how Kanna ended up at 42 Division where I met him.
He started his co-op placement in September 2008 and finished it last month. During his time with the Toronto Police he worked mostly in administration, but got the chance to learn and grow, as well as network with the superintendent and detectives at the station.
However, it is with mixed feelings that Kanna’s family members watch him draw closer to his dream of becoming a police officer. While they are proud of him, they are also understandably scared. Kanna says he is excited and nervous, but does not have his family’s fears.
“I tell them, this is what I like to do — to help people.”
A glimpse into the future…
Kanna next plans to apply to Centennial College and is confident he will be accepted to a police academy in the future.
In the meantime, he hopes peace will promptly return to his country, as he wants to go back to see his friends and family. Until then he will continue to fight for his people in Toronto, by attending the rallies in order to open people’s eyes to the genocide happening in Sri Lanka.
“I would go back to Sri Lanka,” Kanna says. “I’m waiting for the peace day.”