TORONTO - Tamil-Canadian activists say Ottawa is trying to deflect attention from Sri Lanka's bloody civil war by suggesting flags flown at protests suggest that a terrorist group is part of the demonstrations.
Siva Vimal, a 20-year-old Tamil protester, says the Conservatives are using the flag to "hoodwink" the real issue: a humanitarian catastrophe in their homeland.
Minister of International Co-operation Bev Oda says she noticed Tamil Tiger flags being flown at the protests, including one in Toronto that shut down a major highway Sunday.
Oda says the flags "would say to Canadians that ... the terrorist organization is part of the demonstrations that happened."
The Tamil Tigers were labelled a terrorist group by the Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006.
Vimal says the red flags flown at the rallies - that feature a tiger jumping through a ring of fire under two crossed rifles - are those of the secessionist Tamil Eelam movement and not the terrorist group.
At issue is the flag that was originally created in 1977 for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, although protesters say writing that linked the flag to the militant group was removed in 1990 when it became the symbol of Tamil Eelam.
Some protesters chanted their support for the Tamil Tigers at Sunday's highway protest.
The thousands of people who flooded onto the Gardiner Expressway left only after receiving assurances that the Liberals would raise their plight in Parliament - which both they and the NDP did during question period Monday.
The group orginally said it would not leave until either Harper or a government representative spoke with them.
"Many government members have met with the Tamil community, we share their concerns, we will continue to dialouge with them," Oda said in the House of Commons.
"We will have meetings with any Tamil community representative that (is) not part of a terrorist organization."
In a statement, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said he would continue to press the Harper Conservatives on the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka but distanced the party from the demonstration itself.
Ignatieff urged that future protests be lawful and stressed that Liberal MPs took no part in the protest.
He also says the Liberals unequivocally condemn the Tamil Tigers.
Premier Dalton McGuinty also assailed the tactics of the protesters who shut down the highway, saying the bloodshed in Sri Lanka does not justify such action.
The rage and frustration over Sri Lanka's civil war boiled over after reports that an all-night artillery barrage in the country's war zone killed more than 370 people and forced thousands to flee to makeshift shelters along a beach.
McGuinty says Sri Lanka should open the northern part of the country to journalists, aid workers and international observers.
The highway protest trapped dozens of motorists and forced police to close it and the adjoining Don Valley Parkway for up to six hours.
"My daughter worked in Sri Lanka for close to a year as an aid worker, so I have some understanding of the nature of the challenges," McGuinty said.
"I understand the passions which are here, but having said that, there is a right way and a wrong way to protest."
Some 75 Tamil protesters gathered on the front lawn of the Ontario legislature Monday, which is exactly the place McGuinty said they should take their concerns rather than blocking city streets.
"They're always welcome to protest on the front lawn of Queen's Park or Parliament Hill," he said.
The protesters, flying both Tamil Eelam and Canadian flags, chanted for Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama to take action to stop the fighting in Sri Lanka.
Other Tamil protesters gathered outside the Sri Lankan consulate in Toronto, and police blocked off a section of University Avenue, just south of the legislature, in an apparent bid to prevent another protest from forming outside the U.S. Consulate.
A series of Tamil protests had closed the busy downtown thoroughfare for more than three days in late April.
Three people were arrested during the highway protest Sunday and the charges against them include assault on a peace officer.
The expressway was fully opened for the morning rush hour, and the protest outside the legislature was being monitored by just a handful of police officers.