University of Peradeniya: Enduring Ties to Canada

The Agricultural Institute of Canada works with the Soil Science Society of Sri Lanka, shown here University of Peradeniya Professors Indraratne (Manitoba) and Weerahewa (Guelph)

Sri Lanka’s largest and oldest university is near the old capital of Kandy. Peradeniya exudes stateliness as befits the stark beauty of its campus and reputation for serious scholarship.

Faculty at Peradeniya study in Canada  

A meeting of faculty members who studied in Canada over the decades (at least 27 of them) elicited stories related to the Canadian universities where they studied.

Many of the faculty had children born in Canada and the family affair often continues with the second generation also studying in Canada. Some of the stories are striking as with the Professor who arrived in Newfoundland for the first winter in which they broke snow season records, making it sometimes difficult to shovel a way out of the house. Surprisingly, he stayed for three more years.

There are academics on both sides of the globe who remain attached decades after first visiting. Canadian Professor Bruce Matthews of Acadia University has written and taught extensively on Eastern religion and civilization. He first came to Peradeniya to study in January 1971 and met visiting Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, who, at a formal reception, is said to have deserted his high level guests to discuss Buddhism. Four decades later, Professor Matthews still visits colleagues and friends in Sri Lanka.

Research collaboration alive in many fields 

Funding sources have been diverse over the years and included the Colombo Plan, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Canada-based International Development Research Center.

Peradeniya’s Veterinary Faculty and the University of Calgary with the Government of Sri Lanka are involved in “building capacity for animal health”, explains the Dean of Veterinary Public Health and Pharmacology, Professor Preeni Abeynayake. Three quarters of emerging human diseases such as swine and bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) have arisen from animals. Global expectations are such that animal threats to public health must be quickly detected. There is now a “veterinarians without borders”, a global organization modelled after the original “doctors without borders”. Canada’s Public Health Agency and others have invested over Rs 100 million to work with Sri Lanka on animal health issues.

It may seem a rather esoteric area of study until related to the devastation wrought by a disease such as SARS. Canada was on the front lines of this global disease but one of the world’s experts, Professor Malik Peiris, a graduate of Peradeniya, is credited with discovering the cause of the disease at his laboratory in Hong Kong. Peiris was the first Sri Lankan to be elected to the Royal Society, one of the highest scientific honours in the Commonwealth.

A casual stroll on campus shows Canadian content in various corners from Arts and Humanities, Science, Engineering to Geology and Agriculture Faculties.

Professors Indraratne (Manitoba) and Weerahewa (Guelph) are involved in work with the Agricultural Institute of Canada. Their two key Canadian partners are both from the University of Manitoba, Dr. Tee Boon Goh, originally from Malaysia and Bob Eilers, now retired. This work brings the Soil Science Society of Sri Lanka and the Canadian Society of Soil Science together to work on food production, ongoing since 1995 and funded by CIDA. Working in nine major farming systems of the country, they focus on better food management practices.

It is not only in the scientific sphere that there has been collaboration between Canada and Peradeniya. A respected and erudite don and Chairman of Political Science, Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson, during the “Golden Age” of Peradeniya in the 1950s and 60s was cherished by his students and is the subject of a 2009 tribute in the newspaper. He is recognized as the architect of the District Development Councils plan for J.R. Jayawardene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was also the son-in-law of the Federal Party leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. He spent most of his distinguished academic career at the University of New Brunswick in Canada and died with substantial correspondence with political leaders in Sri Lanka still unpublished.

Former Vice Chancellor Sarath Abayakoon is an engineering graduate of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where he did his doctoral dissertation from 1981-87. He thinks the attitude at UBC towards life, work and learning had a more important impact on him than anything else. He felt “thrown into the deep end”. He had to face the challenge of going to the library, thinking independently, keeping an open mind and producing results promptly. He was urged to analyze and work with his own strengths. In Peradeniya he has applied that same attitude in his work with others.

Indira Samarasekera is another well known graduate of the University of Peradeniya and UBC engineering. She leads one of Canada’s top universities as President of the University of Alberta. Dr. Samarasekera, reportedly the first female engineering graduate of Peradeniya, is the first Sri Lankan-born citizen to head a Canadian university and is the first woman to lead a university in the province of Alberta.

She was born in Colombo, lived for a while in Jaffna, and was then educated at what she calls the “wonderful Ladies’ College”. She speaks Sinhala and Tamil but feels blessed that the English she learned in Colombo allowed her to easily go global. She accompanied her husband to Canada and she joined “a spectacular PhD program” at UBC. She admits she stumbled on UBC by accident. “Canadian universities are the best value for money anywhere in the world”, she says, but they are not well known in Sri Lanka.

Her culture shock was not too great on arriving in Canada even without today’s benefits of the internet, which she says is a great boon to prospective students coming to Canada. When queried about her reaction to the weather and the cold in one of Canada’s most northern universities, she says the variety and change of the Canadian four seasons “feeds her soul”.

University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera, a University of Peradeniya graduate receiving her Order of Canada award (courtesy of Indira Samarasekera’s mother)




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