Community organizer and refugee Krisna Saravanamuttu’s shifts to defending clients’ Charter rights

The newly-called criminal lawyer's personal life and activism will inform his career

Community organizer and refugee Krisna Saravanamuttu’s shifts to defending clients’ Charter rights

Recently called to the bar, Krisna Saravanamuttu says he looks forward to “climbing the steep learning curve” of developing a criminal defence practice. As someone whose legal work will focus on helping clients whose Charter rights have been violated by police, his life experience has already facilitated some of that learning.

Saravanamuttu came to Canada as a refugee, his family fleeing civil war and systemic state violence in Sri Lanka. “We came from war-torn Sri Lanka,” he says, “and I grew up in a metro community housing project in Toronto.”

As a kid in Scarborough, he says he witnessed the racialized policing, police brutality, and the “routine” constitutional rights and civil liberties violations common to low-income Black and Brown neighbourhoods in the city.

“I saw that directly, and many of my own friends and family members have experienced criminalization. That really motivated me and compelled me to want to become a defence lawyer.”

Still a teenager, Saravanamuttu decided to pursue a legal career so he could advocate for and alongside people like those with whom he grew up. Later, as a graduate student in socio-legal studies, he assisted the Ontario Human Rights Commission in developing a policy around racial profiling, which called for an end to the practice of carding. Now, as an associate at Rudnicki & Company, he focuses on Charter violations because that is often the “first point of entry” between an accused person and the criminal justice system. It all begins with a police interaction, he says, a situation with a “huge power imbalance.”

Saravanamuttu says he is grateful to set out on his journey in the legal profession accompanied by his colleagues Chris Rudnicki and Theresa Donkor, two criminal defence lawyers who share his sense of the criminal justice system’s limitations.

“All three of us are unapologetic prison and police abolitionists. We don't believe that complicated human problems can be resolved through carceral institutions.”

They believe that to solve these problems, people must be provided everything they need to be successful: housing, education, healthcare, and access to decent work.

Currently 37, Saravanamuttu came to the law after nearly two decades working as a community organizer. He has helped successfully halt deportations, stop evictions of low-income tenants, and advocated for workers. He has written on topics such as policing, homelessness, prisons, and workers’ rights in various publications, including the Toronto Star, Now Toronto, and Tamil Guardian. And he has been interviewed in the National Post, the CBC, Toronto Life, TVO’s the Agenda, Al Jazeera, and CNN.

“All things that I did shoulder-to-shoulder with community members who were building their own kind of power through their own movements and through their own campaigns,” he says.

During law school, Saravanamuttu worked at Parkdale Community Legal Services’ housing rights division, representing tenants facing eviction at the Landlord and Tenant Board. He developed a specialization in defending tenants who were being evicted because of alleged criminal activity in their units. He says that housing was “by far” the busiest division at the Parkdale legal clinic.

“I think that speaks to the state of housing in our city and even in the country.”

Saravanamuttu sees the cost-of-living crisis as the most pressing issue in Toronto, and he says it impacts every resident. The problem is rooted in the rising inflation rate, the wages that do not keep up with it, and the steadily increasing cost of groceries and rent.

“As defence lawyers, I think we're acutely aware of this,” he says. “The cost-of-living crisis is directly tied to criminalization.”

“When people feel desperate, and people feel like they have their backs up against the wall, people can act in ways that can be both personally harmful and also harmful to people around them.”

When it comes to addressing the complex social problems prevalent in many communities in the city, Saravanamuttu says there is a “tension” between community organizing and the law. While lawyers have a fundamental role to play because advocating for a person’s liberty rights can make such a difference to their family and community, the advantage of community organizing is it builds power proactively and plays offence rather than defence. 

A 2019 CBC article featuring Saravanamuttu roots his activism and community organizing with the 2009 shutdown of the Gardiner Expressway. The 26-year Sri Lankan civil war – fought between the central government and the militant separatist group, the Tamil Tigers – ended that year. The demonstration on the Gardiner, involving Saravanamuttu and thousands of other Tamil protestors, was in response to the Sri Lankan government’s indiscriminate bombing attacks against Tamil civilians during the final stages of the war. While the protest failed to compel the Canadian government to intervene, Saravanamuttu says that he and his fellow protestors have since been vindicated by international human rights organizations who agree that Sri Lanka’s government was guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for its genocidal assault on Sri Lanka’s Tamil people in 2009.

“After those protests, I got more deeply involved within my own community. I became an elected representative within my community, and one of our goals was to pursue accountability for what happened to our people in 2009.”

This led him to an appearance before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where he advised on the plight of political prisoners and the current condition of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

“Next year in May, we'll be approaching the 15-year anniversary of the 2009 genocide,” says Saravanamuttu. “The situation, unfortunately, has in many ways grown quite worse for our people. Our people live under complete military occupation. Every aspect of their life is governed by the Sri Lankan military. We're talking about everything from housing, to education, to agriculture – all of that is run today through the Sri Lankan military.”

While the military conflict has ended, the fundamental issues remain, leaving “embryos for future conflicts,” he says. “It comes down to the Tamil people's self-determination. It also comes down to land rights, and it comes down to fundamental civil liberties and human rights.”

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