Ties That Bind: Canadian-Sri Lankan Partnerships


by Ingrid Knutson

A Review Article by Leelananda de Silva

Virginia Woolf once said that ‘nothing has really happened unless it has been described.’ Many would know by personal experience one or two facets of the Sri Lanka-Canada relationship. They would not be aware of the full story. What Ingrid Knutson has done is to describe several of the key features of that relationship, although it is not the complete story. Knutson’s slim volume (engagingly defined by Lindsay Morency) is enchanting and inspirational, and offers many insights into the evolving relationship between the two countries. The volume consists of twenty-one stories from among the many that have unfolded over six long decades. Intertwining strands connect these stories. A few deal with government-to-government transactions. Many of them have a strong academic strain, while others deal with NGO connections (with Sarvodaya, for example), and there are a few stories of key individuals who have conspicuously shaped the story of the two countries. What is fascinating is the role of not very well-known individuals with the flair for innovation and enterprise, through which they have made valuable contributions.

Ingrid Knutson is the wife of the Canadian High Commissioner, Bruce Levy. She has other credentials too. Before Sri Lanka, she had a career in international development, serving in many parts of Asia and working for the United Nations and the Canadian Government. She headed the Canadian development aid programme to Afghanistan. In Sri Lanka, she acted as the director of World University Service Canada (WUSC) in Colombo. WUSC has been productively engaged in vocational education in this country and Ingrid made an important contribution through her imaginative approach to programme development, linking up with government and NGOs. A few months back in this newspaper, she described some of her activities in a long interview.

The Canadian and Sri Lankan governments have had a friendly relationship over the years and the volume describes three of the major projects financed through Canadian aid, apart from the ones with academic institutions. One of the earliest was the gift of fourteen train locomotives to Sri Lankan Railways, the result of a visit by the then-Canadian External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson (later prime minister) in 1956. These locomotives are named after the Canadian provinces, Manitoba, Alberta and so on. The international airport at Katunayake was another recipient of Canadian aid in the 1960s. The airport runway was expanded to receive bigger commercial planes. There followed many other activities to expand aviation facilities in Sri Lanka. One of the largest Canadian aid projects was the Canadian $100 million contribution towards the construction of the Maduru Oya dam within the Mahaweli project.

Turning to academic contacts between Sri Lanka and Canada, the volume has many stories to narrate. One of the most important was the establishment of the Hardy Institute for Technical Education in Gal Oya. Professor Hardy, who set up the institute in the 1950s, came from Saskatchewan and devoted himself to building up the institute as a regional centre for technical education. Canada has played a key role in the consolidation and expansion of the University of Moratuwa. There are now thirteen faculty members who studied in Canada, and many exchange programmes with Canadian universities such as Calgary and Manitoba, enable Moratuwa to keep abreast of new engineering trends. Moratuwa’s rise to the status of a top university has been facilitated through the Canadian connection. Similarly, there have been extensive interactions between Canadian institutions and the University of Peradeniya. A new feature here is that Sri Lankans from Peradeniya proceeded to hold high positions in Canadian academe. Professor A. J. Wilson, who was Professor of Political Science at Peradeniya, moved to the University of New Brunswick as professor there. Indira Samarasekera, one of the most brilliant engineering graduates from Peradeniya, is now the president of the University of Alberta, one of the highest academic positions in the country.

There are three or four people who loom large in this volume, within the overall framework of the Sri Lanka-Canadian partnership. One of them is Dr. Mary Rutnam (1873-1962) who was a pioneer in the Sri Lankan feminist movement. Much has been written about her. She was one of the founders of the Lanka Mahila Samiti. Mary Irwin married a Rutnam, and her descendents are still prominent in Sri Lankan public life. Indira Samarasekera, whom we met earlier, is connected to her family. Then we have the unusual story of Leonard Birchall. As a young pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force he served in Ceylon at the Koggala RAF station and first spotted the Japanese aircraft coming in to bomb Ceylon. His actions pre-empted a major attack by the Japanese. There is a monument at Koggala commemorating the Canadian contribution to the defence of Ceylon. The role of the two brothers, Michael and Christopher Ondaatje in establishing the Gratiaen Trust, is noted in the volume. The trust was funded by Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize winnings for The English Patient.

So far, we have referred to large projects and the better-known individuals that have featured in the bilateral relationship. The volume is not confined to these, and is studded with information on less well-known initiatives. In their own small ways, a large number of people have contributed to the growing affinity between the two countries. The exchange programme between Canada World Youth and Sri Lanka’s Youth Council resulted in 1,400 youth, half of them Sri Lankan and half of them Canadian, visiting each other’s countries, and living with local families in remote areas. There is evidence to show that their knowledge expanded as a result, through greater engagement with local communities. Charitha Ratwatte, as chairman of the Youth Council, had a hand in developing this key programme. In the field of solar energy, Sri Lankans and Canadians have worked together and Sri Lanka’s solar energy programme has gained as a result. Canadian artist Paul Hogan established the Butterfly Peace Garden in Batticaloa, and Nancy van der Poorten created the Butterfly Flowering Garden at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital in Borella. The van der Poortens have worked closely with Dr. D. Weerakoon of the University of Colombo to advance butterfly conservation. Mental health and work on Alzheimer’s have benefited through inter-country connections. The volume is replete with a myriad stream of detail which has nourished and enriched the ties that bind Canada and Sri Lanka. This review can offer only a flavour of the volume’s contents. Ingrid Knutson has made an enormous contribution to the greater understanding of a rewarding bilateral relationship.

Let me now briefly examine two or three issues not unrelated to the insights drawn from this volume. One of the important factors that will determine the future relationship between Sri Lanka and Canada is the role of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Canada. It is estimated that there are about 400,000 Sri Lankans living in Canada, of which about one third are of Sinhalese origin, and two thirds are of Tamil origin. The potential for a more positive and productive relationship between the diaspora and the home country is clear. I witnessed in the Ukraine the most valuable contribution the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada is making in their home country. There are one million Canadians of Ukrainian origin, and they have built up thriving personal, familial and institutional relationships between the two countries. If we are to see more of the type of activities described in this volume, then that will have to be done largely by Canadians of Sri Lankan origin, as they expand into new and diverse fields in their host country. Canada can be an appropriate venue for inter-communal Sri Lankan contacts.

Many of the activities referred to in the volume were financed by the Canadian government, either directly or indirectly. With Sri Lanka moving towards middle income status, development aid from Canada has ceased, and I understand the Canadian International Development Agency offices in Colombo are being closed. Development aid so far has been channelled to countries with low per capita incomes, and that is appropriate so far as it was targeted towards the alleviation of economic and social poverty. An important feature of the new international relations of the twenty-first century is a greater concern with political issues such as good governance, democracy, judicial independence, the rule of law and fair elections. For these to happen, many developing countries would require resources to build up these institutions, through technical assistance. The concept of soft power has become fashionable in the conduct of international relations, and countries like Canada, to pursue such soft power activities, need to back it up with financial resources. There are arguably strong reasons to develop programmes for technical assistance in the broad area of good governance, without being restricted by the recipient countries’ per capita income levels.

The Canadian relationship with Sri Lanka has a Commonwealth dimension. The Colombo Plan was a Commonwealth creation. The Commonwealth offers an increasingly valuable forum to discuss issues relating to good governance and related matters in a more informal setting and without the political acrimony that is a feature of the UN system. In Commonwealth forums one can discuss issues of human rights without the threat of Security Council action and reference to the International Criminal Court. Rather than pre-empting these issues from Commonwealth agendas, there is an opportunity for countries such as Sri Lanka and Canada to work together within Commonwealth forums on these issues.

I shall conclude this review with a tangential tale to add to those of Ingrid. She refers to the visit of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to Ceylon in 1971. I was present at the press conference given by him at Temple Trees during his visit. During that visit, he developed a cordial relationship with Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the then Prime Minister. Trudeau had expressed an interest in Sri Lankan astrology, and it was arranged for an astrologer to meet him. Trudeau at the time was a bachelor, and in his late-forties. The astrologer told him that he would be married within the next year. When Mrs. Bandaranaike met Trudeau, in 1975 at the Commonwealth summit in Kingston, Jamaica, Trudeau was there with a wife and two children. He told Mrs. Bandaranaike that he has a great regard for Sri Lankan astrology! When Mrs. Bandaranaike left office in 1977, Trudeau was one of the four heads of government to write to her. It was my privilege to have seen Pierre Trudeau in the informal setting of Commonwealth summits in 1975 and 1977 in Kingston and, later, in London. My last fleeting encounter with him was at Geneva airport in the 1980s, when he was no longer Prime Minister, waiting with a group of skiers, carrying his own skis to check in for a flight to Toronto. Trudeau was one of the great prime ministers of the 20th century. I like to think that he had a soft spot for this country, at a time when it was a vibrant parliamentary democracy.

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