Canadian Properties in Colombo: Canada House, the Official Residence of the Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka

Canada House, Official Residence of the Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka

Canada House, Official Residence of the Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka at 254 Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7 (courtesy of Lindsay Morency)

Canada House, located at 254 Bauddhaloka Mawatha in Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo 7 is one of two imposing properties in Colombo owned by the Canadian Government. The other is the High Commission itself at 6 Gregory’s Road.

The decline of the cinnamon export trade in the 19th century led to the selling of land for “villa development” by the British Government and the development of what came to be called Cinnamon Gardens.

The Canada House property was registered in 1928 but the house itself is thought to have been constructed in 1933 by the Gabriel family. Its style is distinctively art nouveau based on its moulding and original wood, typical of the 1920s and 1930s in Sri Lanka. There are rumours that the flamboyant staircase was modelled after Kensington Palace in London. The ground floor was used as a waiting room, surgery and consultation office for medical patients of Dr. Vraspillai Gabriel, a surgeon who also worked at the Colombo General Hospital.

Dr. Gabriel, his wife, Mary Florence, and only child, Anthony (Tony) Gabriel, lived until 1951 in the house that was to become Canada House. The original name of the property was “Kamalai”, a Tamil name for a water lotus which is linked to Kamalam, the Hindu Goddess of Wealth.

The house on then Bullers Road sat in 160 perches of land and was close to other homes that had some illustrious personalities. For example, living around the corner was Dr. Richard Spittel, the “jungle doctor” or “surgeon of the wilderness”, located at Wycherley, Coniston Place.

Tony Gabriel also went into medicine. He was an oncologist who studied in Colombo, then in the UK and Germany, serving in out stations in Badulla, Jaffna and Galle before returning to Colombo’s Maharagama Cancer Hospital. He was educated at Royal College and was a Colonel (commanding officer) in the Sri Lanka Medical Corps from 1979-1982 and President of the Sri Lanka College of Surgeons 1984-1986. In 1995-1996 he was President of the Royal Colombo Golf Club. The Gabriel family still lives in Cinnamon Gardens, represented by Dr. Tony Gabriel’s wife, Jeevamany (nee Kadirgamar Mather) and her sons, Sanjeev and Harin.

The first Canadian High Commissioner in Colombo, James Joseph Hurley, leased Canada House in 1955. It was purchased in 1966 for
Rs 560,000 or $127,000. A total of 18 Canadian High Commissioners and their families have lived in the house.

James Hurley 1952-1957
Reginald Cavell 1957-1960
James George 1960-1964
George Grande 1964-1966
John Timmerman 1967-1970
Ronald Macdonnell 1970-1973
Marion Macpherson 1973-1976
Percy Cooper 1976-1979
Robert Clark 1979-1982
David Collacott 1982-1986
Carolyn McAskie 1986-1989
Nancy Stiles 1989-1992
Benno Pflanz 1992-1995
Konrad Sigurdson 1995-1998
Ruth Archibald 1998-2002
Valerie Raymond 2002-2006
Angela Bogdan 2006-2009
Bruce Levy 2009-2012

Oliver Castle, Canadian Chancery

From a plaque at Canada House showing the Gabriel family portrait (courtesy of the Gabriel family)

The Canadian Government leased Oliver Castle from the Sri Lankan Government in 1952 and then purchased it in 1971. It served as the Canadian Chancery until 2009 when it was closed for extensive rebuilding. It was named after Oliver, the eldest son of Henry Oliver Watson Pieris.

It was built in 1898 and occupied in 1903. There is speculation that the German Consul may have lived there in the intervening period of five years as it was the Sinhalese tradition not to have the owner occupy the house on completion but to rent it to another party for a time. It is cited in the 1907 Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon publication. It was owned originally by Henry Joseph Pieris who was a leading plumbago (graphite) exporter and plantation owner. The Pieris family is reported to have passed the property to the government to compensate for death duties.

Cindy Munro was a junior immigration officer in the Canadian High Commission and collected ghost stories she heard from Canadian and local staff. She was told that the house is haunted by Mr. Pieris, his family and domestic staff. Many people have seen the ghosts, others have felt them and the most common reporting relates to strange sounds, lights or movements of objects in the office. With the substantial remodelling of the future Canadian Chancery planned perhaps these stories will come to an end.

From a plaque at Canada House showing the Gabriel family portrait (courtesy of the Gabriel family)

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