MP started canvassing at the age of 7

This profile is one of a periodic series on powerful and inspirational women.

By Jasminee Sahoye

MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan celebrates her election with the late NDP leader Jack Layton, who urged her to run in the riding of Scarborough Rouge River in 2011. Toronto Star photo
MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan celebrates her election with the late NDP leader Jack Layton, who urged her to run in the riding of Scarborough Rouge River in 2011.
Toronto Star photo

Her canvassing and leadership abilities started when she was just seven. She decided she didn’t want to continue to travel a long distance to learn the language of her parents and birth country, Sri Lanka.

MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan (NDP-Scarborough Rouge River) told a group of women at a recent event in Brampton that taking three buses to get to her Tamil classes had become too tedious and she wanted a school closer to home. Her parents approached the school board and the school board trustee who told them to get 25 people to sign up and they would look into the request.

“Seven years old with Daddy in tow, made little flyers, went knocking on doors, canvassing doors. What I learned I still do today and that first year, we signed up 30 people. In 1991 Tamil was introduced as part of the international languages program at the Dufferin Peel Catholic School Board because of a lazy seven-year-old.”

She says age should not deter anyone from making a difference. “So when people ask me, how long have you have been a politician I say since I was seven because my definition of politics is community development and a politician is an agent of change for the betterment of that community.”

Elected as MP in the 2011 federal election, Sitsabaiesan says that as a student at high school and university, she was always involved in student governments.

“The dream of being a member of Parliament was something that came out of, to be honest, frustration.

“I was frustrated as a 14-year-old youth, organizing the community and being an agitator and with droves of people around me who had the similar vision for community building as I had and going to the city councilor and the provincial MPP, the federal MP and all not willing to help.”

The articulate and vocal woman says she grew up in poverty as her dad was on permanent disability when she was very young due to a workplace accident and her mom ended up the single breadwinner for the family, with her first job in a warehouse – “My mom still continues to work at that warehouse.”

She said that in 2004 while she was at Carlton University pursuing her master’s degree she had a call from the NDP to join the party and then in 2008 another call to work for the party.

Sitsabaiesan recalls she later received a call from the late NDP leader Jack Layton urging her to run for office when she was 27 although she had told herself she would wait until age 40.

She remembers Layton telling her “I was trying to get you to run for a while because you’re young woman of colour. I need you to run, I want you to join our team and I want you to win because we need more young people, more women, and we need more people of colour in politics.”

At 29, she was elected as the first woman of colour to represent her federal riding.

“I go to schools and I see the shine in the youth in our community, knowing that when they watch that TV, they can see themselves on that TV – what I didn’t see as a 14-year-old but I did dare to dream.”

Sitsabaiesan has been pushing for her private member’s motion aimed at eradicating child poverty in Canada.

“Twenty-five years ago in 1989, Parliament made a promise that we would eradicate poverty, child poverty in Canada by the year 2000 but successive federal governments have done nothing, absolutely nothing to make that happen,” she says.

“We have almost a quarter of a million children living in poverty in this country. One in seven children in Canada live in extreme poverty” says the woman who began advocating for kids when she was one herself.