Neethan Shan took the losses and, for a time, took the ridicule. But now he’s a city councillor and a political hero to the people who believed in him most.
Early in his career, Monday’s victor in the Ward 42 byelection was tapped by a Tamil-Canadian community eager to have a voice in all levels of government.
In 2006, at age 26, the math and science teacher won a seat on York Region’s public school board.
Shan, who worked with youth in Malvern, moved his young family to Scarborough and launched himself into municipal and provincial politics there.
On Monday, he could finally say Toronto has its first Tamil-Canadian councillor.
“It was our resilience that got us here,” Shan told Tamils in the crowd. The community went through civil war, and “came here with nothing,” he said.
Shan ran against Raymond Cho for Ward 42 twice, without success. He ran for MPP in Scarborough-Guildwood once, then tried three times to take the Scarborough-Rouge River riding.
Ontario Liberals greeted the third attempt with laughter: “Perennial candidate Neethan Shan continues his lifelong goal of surpassing John Turmel’s Guinness Book of World Records for most elections contested,” the party said in a release last May.
A few months before, in January 2016, Shan won a public school trustee post for the Toronto board’s Ward 21, though some people said he’d leave the job for another opportunity.
Shan answered by saying it’s “not about how long you stay, it’s about the work you do while you’re there,” adding his life’s calling was to use his voice for people. “This is one of the many ways I’ll do it.”
Shan rarely hit back when attacked. After getting nearly 46 per cent of votes in a field of 29 candidates Monday, he started his victory address by calling wife Thadsha Navamanikkam to his side, saying she’s been “a driving force” and inspiration.
“This perennial candidate comes with a wife that perennially supports me,” he said.
Shan, a diehard New Democrat who served as provincial party president for three years, became executive director of CASSA — Council of Agencies Supporting South Asians — and as a champion of “racialized” communities across the city, built more support.
“I understand the struggles of other communities through the struggle that (Tamil-Canadians have) been through,” he said, promising to fix Toronto’s “equity issue,” and fight for workers’ rights with fellow progressives on city council.
“I will stand up for every marginalized person in the city,” Shan pledged.
He arrived in Canada as a refugee from Sri Lanka at 16, and the next 10 years were like 40 for him, Shan said, “because I had to take work four times harder than a non-racialized white male.”
Asked what changed since he last tried taking Ward 42 in 2014, Shan said he always had a base of support wanting a “new voice, change, a new energy for the ward, more action.”
The school board must now decide whether to fill his vacant Ward 21 seat through byelection or appointment.