Profile: The making of the NDP's 'perennial candidate' Neethan Shan

Profile: The making of the NDP’s ‘perennial candidate’ Neethan Shan

Neethan Shan is preparing for his 10th election.

He's getting press already — news stories describe him as a perennial candidate who is abandoning his school trustee post just four months in for a shot at a more prestigious office.

Shan was acclaimed the NDP candidate in the Scarborough-Rouge River provincial byelection Thursday evening, and on Friday morning Liberal caucus researchers promptly came around the Queen's Park press gallery with a list of the nine previous elections he has fought in.

“Perennial candidate Neethan Shan continues his life-long goal of surpassing John Turmel’s Guinness Book of World Records for most elections contested,” the caucus service bureau news release says (hyperbolically, because Turmel has been a candidate in 87 elections, at last count.)

Shan spoke QP Briefing Friday afternoon about the criticism over his electoral record.

He frames it this way: the first election that he won — as a school board trustee in 2006 — gave him the distinction of being the first Tamil, and youngest, elected to public office in Canada. Markham elected two Tamil-Canadians that day: Shan as a trustee and Logan Kanapathi as a councillor.

Shan said he's aware of the criticism levelled at him for the number of elections he's run in and lost since then.

"But I think the main concept here is us racialized folks, young people and people on the margins, we don't get things easily. We have to fight and persevere for each position where there is access to political decision-making," he said. "It's the only way we can affect changes for ourselves, whose voices are missing."

"So if somebody feels that is something they could laugh at, they could do that all they want, but they are laughing at the resilience of our communities."

No one starts out wearing the "perennial candidate" label. QP Briefing's archives include numerous stories about Shan over the years and the elections that gave it to him.

He was born Dec. 24, 1978, in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

In a 2006 profile, the Toronto Star described Shan’s early years: “As bomber planes hovered in the sky, 8-year-old Neethan Shan used to dart behind trees or race to underground shelters to keep alive. On the furthermost coast of northern Sri Lanka, this was the young boy's reality as he made his way to school every day.”

"Life was never certain," Shan told the Star.

He immigrated to Canada in 1995 and would go on to graduate from the University of Toronto with degrees in science and education.

At 24, he ran for a Markham trustee seat on the York Region District School Board in 2003, and lost to Tessa Benn-Ireland, but managed to win 36 per cent of the vote.

He ran for a Markham trustee seat again in 2006, winning with 52 per cent. Less than a year later, however, he took a leave of absence from the board to run for the NDP in the 2007 election in Scarborough-Guildwood. He lost, and returned to the school board.

Three years later, Shan ran for city council against incumbent councillor Raymond Cho, who has represented the Scarborough-Rouge River area since 1991.

That was the first of three times Shan has run an election against Cho, so far. Cho is the best-known candidate currently seeking the PC nomination to run against Shan in the Scarborough-Rouge River byelection.

For what it’s worth, the Toronto Star endorsed Shan against Cho in Ward 42 in the last two municipal elections. Shan lost both.

“Neethan Shan is a remarkable Tamil-Canadian with an impressive record of community service, including advocacy for children, youth and immigrants. He's a far better choice than the hapless Raymond Cho, an inarticulate and ineffective councillor who has clung to municipal office for more than 20 years,” the paper’s most recent editorial endorsement of Shan said.

After losing to Cho at the municipal level in 2010, Shan ran for the 2011 provincial election for the Ontario NDP in Scarborough-Rouge River, placing second to incumbent Liberal MPP Bas Balkissoon.

"This is the difficulty for us; we have people who have been in positions of power for decades, who are not fighting for us, who are not articulating the concerns of our communities," he told QP Briefing.

"Whether they be Bas Balkissooon or Raymond Cho, the reason I challenge them is because I need them to know we're not going to sit down and take it, we're not going to let people take us for granted."

In 2012, he was elected as president of the Ontario NDP at the convention in Hamilton. Shan was backed by Leader Andrea Horwath over labour’s choice, organizer Andrew Mackenzie, causing internal party tensions, according to the Star. The choice of Shan was to “project a fresh face for a mostly whitebread and white-haired party with shallow ties to ethnic groups,” Martin Regg Cohn wrote at the time.

As party president in 2013, he oversaw the controversy surrounding the nomination of Adam Giambrone in Scarborough-Guildwood.

Shan ran in back-to-back elections in 2014. In June, he ran and lost in the provincial election in Scarborough-Rouge River against Cho and Balkissoon, who held onto  his seat. In November, Shan challenged Cho in the municipal election in ward 42, and lost again.

Shan's fortunes changed in January, when he ran in the Toronto District School Board byelection in Scarborough-Rouge River, with union backing. The field was crowded with 20 candidates – and Shan won handily despite criticism from his opponents that the perennial candidate was not committed to the school board, only to winning a political seat.

Over the years, Shan has been involved in numerous community endeavours. He's the executive director of the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians, and has held roles with Parent Action on Drugs, the Canadian Tamil Congress, the city's Youth Gang Work Group, the Better Ballot Initiative, the Malvern Community Coalition, the Community Use of Schools Council, the Scarborough Youth Task Group, the Boreal Institute for Civil Society and a Tsunami Relief Coordinating Committee, Canadian Multicultural Radio CMR FM 101.3 and Tamil Vision International (TVi).

Shan won't be the only perennial candidate in the race, if Cho secures the PC nomination.The longtime municipal councillor holds the distinction of running for all three levels of government and belonging to political parties across the political spectrum.

Cho ran for the NDP in 1988 federal election, and lost. He became a Liberal and sought a nomination from that party for the 2004 federal election, but lost the contest and ran as an independent. He lost. Cho also ran as a Progressive Conservative in the 2014 Ontario election, and lost.

Meanwhile, Cho has run in, and won, every municipal election in Toronto since 1991.

Candidates for the Liberal nomination include: former NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan; former executive member of the Canadian Tamil Congress and a vice-president of the Ontario Liberal Party Piragal Piraga and anti-carding activist and former Green candidate George Singh.

The Liberal nomination meeting is scheduled for June 5 and the PC nomination meeting is scheduled for June 7.

The byelection has not yet been called. The premier has until September, six months after Balkissoon suddenly resigned.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Twitter: @jessiecatherine

Jessica Smith Cross

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