John Cartwright's article

John Cartwright

2 min read

Sri-Guggan Sri-Skanda-Rajah – a powerful voice for social justice

Canada lost a powerful voice for social justice with the passing of Sri-Guggan Sri-Skanda-Rajah in 2022. As his life has been honoured by so many within the Tamil community, I wanted to add the perspective of someone who came to work with Sri-Guggan in a different context. For twenty years, as the President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, I often met with Sri-Guggan to talk about how people of good will can shape a better world. I was first introduced to him as a leader of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, a group that was founded in 1975 to challenge systemic racism and violence aimed against newcomers. The UARR grew to become a well respected organization in Toronto for its unrelenting advocacy combined with practical solutions for dismantling racism.

The Labour Council, which represents 220,000 union members from every sector of the economy, was one of the founders of UARR, and we wanted to keep strong links with the organization. The labour movement was working to deepen its own commitment to a comprehensive agenda on racial equity. Sri-Guggan agreed to meet and take part in a dialogue about that important work, and patiently walked us through the experience of the Tamil diaspora in Canada. His advice helped guide us as we developed ties with different community organizations as well as engaging Tamil-Canadian union members.

Those relationships allowed us to respond without hesitation during times of difficulty for the community – whether after the tsunami disaster or the human rights emergency as government military forces took over the remaining Tamil territory in Sri Lanka. That trust-building led to the creation of Canadians Concerned about Sri Lanka, a coalition of labour, human rights and Tamil community groups to demand action from the Canadian government, and others, around the myriad of issues that came the fore with the end of the civil war.

As President and Board member of the UARR, Sri-Guggan used his voice to help shape a progressive agenda for Canada’s largest city – one guided by principles of inclusion and social justice. That included strategizing about how communities of colour could be better represented at decision-making bodies such as City Council or School Boards. And how Toronto’s police could adopt an approach that best “serves and protects” every resident of the city.

In 2012 when the news was full of stories about youth violence, people in the Somali community were deeply troubled by the number of young men whose murders were never solved. Somebody asked how other communities had dealt with this issue in the past. Soon we had a meeting with Sri-Guggan and others to talk to Somali community leaders about their experience. The determination of the Tamil community decades earlier to force public agencies to understand their mandates differently, with a proactive engagement of young people whose families had suffered through trauma, war and discrimination, was the key. So was the creation of Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre. From that dialogue Faduma Mohammed and others went on to expand the work of Positive Change, an award-winning community group that relentlessly pursues changes within policing and the criminal justice system.

These are just a few examples of my memories of Sri-Guggan. As we continue on this ongoing journey of creating a city and a society where everyone counts and everyone is respected, the wisdom and patience of leaders like Sri-Guggan have been crucial. His legacy lives on in so much that is good in our world. May he rest in power.

John Cartwright is the past President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council