One of Sri Lanka’s longest running youth exchange programs was a partnership with Canada. It involved 1400 youth, half of them Sri Lankan and half, Canadian. The impact on many young people was life altering.
Canada World Youth (CWY) is an organization created by the late Senator Jacques Hebert. It has operated since 1971 and remains active in 17 countries. Its objective is to help young people “experience the world for themselves, learn about other cultures …while developing leadership skills”. There is considerable emphasis on non-formal education in this model, “learning by doing”, with young people getting involved in communities in Canada and abroad.
Speaking to Sri Lankans who were involved at the start, is to go back to an era when many young Sri Lankans belonged to independent youth clubs. The clubs had a keen desire to reward outstanding young people with education that was community-based.
Charitha Ratwatte is former Finance Secretary and current Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre and Member of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. He was the Chairman of the National Youth Services Council (NYSC) when these exchanges took place. In his words: “it was a ground breaking concept, to bring young Canadians and place them in Sri Lankan village households to undertake community service projects with young Sri Lanka counterparts, giving them an overwhelming culture shock. The young Sri Lankans going to Canada on the second leg of the exchange program later at least had some mentoring and preparation from the time they spent with their Canadian counterparts here. But it was an enormous learning experience for the youngsters and seems to have had a lasting impression on all the participants and the hosting households and communities in Sri Lanka and Canada. What stunned us, the managers of the program, was the inherent adaptability and resoluteness of the youngsters adapting to completely new conditions. It reaffirmed our faith in the future”.
The NYSC and its Directors General and Chairpersons worked hard to keep rural youth involved, which is why village displacement due to conflict became a constraint to the operation until it closed a few years ago.
An early participant, Canadian Chris Eaton, lived for months in the rural south during JVP demonstrations. He remembers the challenges and notes how very complex Sri Lankan society remains. He left Sri Lanka to work in Africa and Afghanistan, working for the Aga Khan Foundation for years before taking up his current position as Executive Director of the World University Service of Canada.
Canada World Youth started in Sri Lanka in 1978 and ran successfully until 1988 before succumbing to security concerns. Another start up in 1996 ran for a decade and then stopped, also due to security.
Devika Rodrigo worked for the NYSC from 1979-1982 and was a program youth services officer in Puttulam district. She worked with rural young people in setting up national youth service projects – renovating tanks, roads, canals…as well as pursuing cultural and sports programs, working alongside young Canadians, some of whom were city kids with no knowledge of rural Canada, let alone tropical Sri Lanka. At a youth vocational training exhibition held in Vavuniya’s Technical College in May 2012 another CWY participant and group leader remembers fondly his experience from twenty five years ago and how it now shapes his NYSC work with youth clubs.
The Canadians, ages 17-20, lived with village families who were poor and earned some additional money housing them. Most of the young Canadians enjoyed the experience although some struggled to cope with travel on crowded buses, sleeping on the floor and handling mosquitoes with malaria and dengue which were new experiences for them.
Of course the young Sri Lankan villagers struggled to cope in Canada, too, when they settled in Ontario and British Columbia. They usually had no English and little familiarity with urban settings. An orientation before their departure tackled urban life skill challenges such as eating with utensils. Sri Lankan girls found the Canadian independence and lack of chaperoning odd. Weather was a big shock, too, with skin irritated initially by the dryness. Yet the young Sri Lankans adapted quickly and their confidence in “speaking out” grew until they were soon “very forward”, recalls one official.
Iroshan, a young man from Anuradhapura who took part in one of the last exchanges, and who now works for a development education and training organization, recalls his work placement at the Muskoka Art Gallery in Bracebridge, Ontario. He was involved in a number of cultural exhibitions there which he found rewarding. He talks about how diverse his own learning was from the experience. He had to translate to fill awkward gaps in understanding of some delicate subjects, undertake an education day presentation on Canadian indigenous people with his Canadian partner and he spent time in downtown Toronto’s Chinatown. It all impacted on him. The actual work in the community, both in Ontario and then back in a working hospital in Sri Lanka, seemed to be the easiest part. What were his toughest moments? It was the differences in food that took their toll. When his host family learned of this, they offered to buy the ingredients he craved so he could finally have rice and curry again with some spice.
In the early years the selection process was extremely rigorous to meet the criteria of independence, gender equity, an open attitude to learning English as well as a hands on, practical work ethic. The local youth officers who knew the village people nominated for interviews in Colombo. Later some of that rigour was lost and this ultimately hurt the programme.
Devika Rodrigo worked with Canadian Don Brownell who was a group coordinator in Colombo with CWY. Together they worked with groups in Matara, Puttalam and Kurunegala in villages where Sinhala was spoken and learned by the young Canadians. Don Brownell now heads up the Canadian funded national languages project in Sri Lanka and is one of a handful of Canadians who have remained engaged for decades. Two others learned to speak Sinhala. Calvin Piggott and his wife, Judy Mathews, were both CWY participants and returned to Sri Lanka after the tsunami to work with CIDA. A lot of these relationships were built to last.