12/28/2018 08:38 EST | Updated 12/31/2018 13:29 EST

Vijay Thanigasalam, Ontario MPP, Wants To Give Back To Canada After Fleeing Brutal Civil War

The PC MPP for Scarborough—Rouge Park says he’ll use his platform to stand up for Tamils and other “voiceless” groups.

Scarborough—Rouge Park MPP Vijay Thanigasalam speaks at The Filipino Centre Toronto.

TORONTO — Vijay Thanigasalam started high school seven days after touching down at Toronto's Pearson International Airport from India, where his family had fled after escaping civil war in Sri Lanka.

"Everything was new," he told HuffPost Canada. "I learned everything from my high school teachers and my high school friends, A to zed about Canada's language, culture, government systems."

The 29-year-old's family settled in Toronto's eastern borough of Scarborough when he was 14, after seven years of bouncing around in India with no permanent home. Now, he represents the riding of Scarborough—Rouge Park as a Progressive Conservative MPP under Premier Doug Ford.

Thanigasalam's family is Tamil, an ethnic minority that the United Nations says was targeted by the Sri Lankan government during the 26-year civil war. It's estimated that the country's military killed tens of thousands of Tamils through deliberate shellings and blocking of food and medical aid.

"My friends and neighbours, I saw them killed in front of my eyes," Thanigasalam said. "Who died today? That's what we would talk about."

My friends and neighbours, I saw them killed in front of my eyes.Vijay Thanigasalam

Tamils faced "structural genocide" in Sri Lanka, Thanigasalam said, and are still discriminated against today. He says he wouldn't be able to go to medical school in Sri Lanka even if he had a 95 per cent average because of his ethnicity.

"When I came here, this is the opposite to that. This is a land of peace, freedom. You have the opportunity to get education," he said. "It's like a kid in a candy store."

Vijay Thanigasalam, right, is seen in a 2003 photo with his parents and older brother.

Thanigasalam says Tamil-speakers were discriminated against, so his family didn't have the same opportunities as others.

HuffPost Canada asked Thanigasalam if that gives him some sympathy for Franco-Ontarians who have protested his own government's cuts. Ford has faced weeks of controversy for cancelling a planned French-language university and rolling back the powers of the legislature's French language services commissioner.

Thanigasalam said he only speaks for the constituents of Scarborough—Rouge Park, and started talking about gun violence. Asked again about the French-language cuts, Thanigasalam said Ford will find a solution that satisfies everyone.

"Our government is taking care of every single issue, day by day," he said. "I'm sure they will provide the right solution to all the problems."

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The MPP has kept a relatively low profile in the six months since his election. He has no cabinet responsibilities and technically sits on the Opposition side of the legislature. There are so many PC MPPs, they take up more than half of the House.

He was in the news briefly during the spring election campaign, when he apologized for an old Facebook post in which he celebrated the birthday of Tamil Tigers leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Canada considers the Tigers to be a terrorist group for waging a violent secession movement in Sri Lanka that has included political assassinations and terror attacks on civilians.

Thanigasalam said he's changed his views and now believes that Tamils should only use "democratic means" to fight for their rights.

I am always a proud Tamil Canadian to say that openly in Canada.Vijay Thanigasalam

Despite the minor controversy, Thanigasalam won't shy away from using his platform as an MPP to stand up for Tamils.

"I am always a proud Tamil Canadian to say that openly in Canada. If I say that in Sri Lanka, I would be either abducted or prosecuted in a matter of days."

In one of only a handful of members' statements he's made in the House, Thanigasalam spoke about Mahinda Rajapaksa, a politician in Sri Lanka who was trying to bulldoze his way back into power. Rajapaksa was prime minister before, at the time when the civil war came to its bloody end.

"Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government were responsible for a campaign of horrendous crimes at the peak of the Tamil genocide in 2009, including massacres, rapes, torture and abductions which left tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians killed or with permanent physical disabilities and mental trauma," Thanigasalam said at Queen's Park. "The international community must not let this go."

Tamils around the world, and in his constituency, would appreciate the statement, Thanigasalam said. His riding is home to nearly 10 per cent of the 118,000 Canadians whose first language is Tamil.

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The Thanigasalam family in a 1992 photo. Ontario MPP Vijay Thanigasalam came to Canada when he was 14.

"I felt like I should stand up for the voiceless," Thanigasalam said. "When this person, suddenly overnight became appointed as prime minister, sacked the other prime minister and dissolved the House ... it was like the whole experience, the nightmare, the killing field coming before our eyes."

Rajapaksa has since resigned.

The horror he experienced as a boy in Sri Lanka made him extremely thankful for life in Canada, Thanigasalam said. One of the reasons he got into politics was to try and give back.

"Because of the opportunities Canada gave to me, I will be grateful my whole life," he said. "If I work hard, I can do anything in Canada."

As a teenager, Thanigasalam said he never stayed home. He always went to school during the day, worked at night and volunteered on student committees in between because he was determined to make the most of his new life.

Because of the opportunities Canada gave to me, I will be grateful my whole life.Vijay Thanigasalam

Although he says he's indebted to high school teachers and classmates for teaching him about Canada, Thanigasalam says he learned even more at the odd jobs he worked to help pay bills during high school and university.

"In immigrant families, we all need to work to make sure we pay the debt," he said. "If you tell me a job, I probably have similar experience in some way or another."

Ontario MPP Vijay Thanigasalam takes orders at a Tim Horton's. The politician worked at the coffee chain when he was a student.

He's worked at Tim Horton's, Cineplex, Best Buy, in convenience stores and cleaning bathrooms in banquet halls. Those experiences taught him about life in Canada and gave him a way to relate to people. He's lived through low-wage jobs, long commutes and longer hours.

That's why he understands that in Scarborough, the top issues are transit, because so many residents travel downtown daily for school or work, and health care, the MPP said. Because he lives less than 50 km away from Queen's Park, he doesn't get a taxpayer-paid apartment in Toronto. He takes the GO train and then the subway to work every day, and even reaches for his wallet to retrieve his Presto card to prove it.

After graduating with a commerce degree at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in 2012, his goal was to use his aptitude for numbers to help other immigrant families. Thanigasalam worked banking jobs at CIBC and RBC in Toronto and found joy in helping parents save money and invest wisely for their children's futures.

At university, he learned to admire former prime minister Stephen Harper for his handling of the "Great Recession" of 2008 and 2009. Thanigasalam says that Harper's policies are the reason Canada "stood strong" while other G20 countries suffered more drastically.

"It taught me a lot about how you can manage the country's economy through good leadership. That's what I learned from my professors at UOIT."

Conservative politics are all about maintaining what we have for the next generation, Thanigasalam says, something he learned from his parents as they built their life in Scarborough.

"You have to preserve your culture and embrace the Canadian culture at the same time."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said that Sri Lanka only has one official language. It has three: Sinhala, Tamil and English.

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