Book Review in Sunday Feature Section of The Island Newspaper, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Ties That Bind: Canadian-Sri Lankan Partnerships

August 18, 2012, 5:39 pm
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 designed 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.



Initially unemployed on my arrival in Colombo in October, 2009, I was casting about for things to do when I began to hear some extraordinary stories about ties – historical and current – between Canada and Sri Lanka.  Some were well known, such as the Canadian locomotives gifted under the Colombo Plan more than half a century ago and still pulling trains all over Sri Lanka*.  Or the saga of Squadron Leader Len Birchall, called the “Saviour of Ceylon” by none other than Winston Churchill.  Others were lower profile, such as Saskatchewan’s Evan Hardy, who is credited with training a generation of engineers in Ampara who went on to play formative roles in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development.  Or Paul Hogan, a Canadian artist who used the transformative power of art as therapy for children traumatised by war.  How about Dr. Mary Rutnam, an immigrant to Sri Lanka from small town Ontario and a feminist long before the word existed?

I decided to try to ensure that these stories and others were remembered. This small book represents the culmination of several months of research, including field trips and interviews in Sri Lanka. It is the book I wish someone had passed to me on arrival in Sri Lanka. While pleased to present the results, I already know that the book is in one sense a failure because I could not hope to be aware of or relate all of the stories that have made the Canada-Sri Lanka relationship so special.  My apologies to those that space or time (my unemployment was not long enough, alas!) did not allow me to include.  I dare to hope that someone else will tackle Volume Two!

My warmest gratitude goes to all of those who offered enthusiastic support and suggestions. And a special thank you to Lindsay Morency for volunteering her time to design this book.

Ingrid Knutson

Colombo, August 2012

*I have used the term Sri Lanka for consistency sake even when referring to a period of time before 1972 when the country was known as Ceylon. Ceylon is used only when it is a direct quotation or formal title.

Leonard Birchall: The “Saviour of Ceylon”

Birchall in his Catalina plane (Department of National Defence, Canada)

Imagine the exhaustion and fear of young Squadron Leader, Len Birchall, on April 4, 1942 when he and his crew of eight were shot down 300 miles off Sri Lanka’s coast, shortly after having sighted and reported the incoming Japanese fleet.

Birchall had arrived in Sri Lanka only two days earlier and was based at Royal Air Force Station Koggala at Koggala Lake near Galle. Squadron 413 (“the Tuskers”) were the first such Canadian unit to serve overseas, other than in Britain. Eight hours into their reconnaissance flight and about to return to base they had seen “a black speck on the horizon”. They investigated and managed to make a radio report detailing the extent of the major Japanese offensive heading to Sri Lanka. The port was cleared of shipping and defences were prepared. Another Pearl Harbour was averted. But the Japanese had seen the patrol and sent up Zeros to shoot them down.

Winston Churchill dubbed Birchall “the Saviour of Ceylon” as the defence of the British fleet had much strategic value, even beyond the preservation of Sri Lanka. None of this was known to Birchall at the time, however, for he was shot down without confirmation that his radio report had been heard.

As a prisoner of war, Birchall showed extraordinary courage, braving repeated beatings and near executions in defence of his men. As the senior Allied officer, he insisted that the Geneva Conventions be respected. His sheer physical courage and administrative and leadership skills earned him their loyalty. Under his remarkable leadership, death rates fell from 30% to two per cent, as survival was enhanced by collective solidarity, instead of every man for himself. His example of selflessness generated like behaviour in others. Medicine that was initially hoarded was given up for the greater good. He required unanimous approval of the entire POW camp before the few precious morphine pills could be used. Even after the camp voted to give a man a pill, it was sometimes the beneficiary himself who insisted on saving the pill for someone who might have greater need. Heroism spread.

The malnutrition from which the POWs suffered affected nerve endings. Feet became hot and sore very quickly. Birchall’s feet got hot and sore, when tired, to the end of his life, but that was the only apparent permanent ill effect. His son’s memorial address spoke of his father’s greatest gift to his three children being that, despite his wartime experiences, “he did not pass on any hatred to us. We have never had to carry that burden”.

Birchall led a remarkable life after the war as well. He was the longest serving member of the Royal Canadian Air Force (62 years) and worked as Canadian Air Attache in Washington and with NATO. He retired from the military as an Air Commodore and Commandant of the Royal Military College.

The former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Canada, Geetha De Silva, remembers her visit with Birchall to 413 Squadron’s base in Nova Scotia. “I was so touched to see souvenirs related to Sri Lanka displayed at the Squadron headquarters”. During her tenure in office, she worked closely with Birchall, who was honorary patron of the Canadian Friends of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka remained a constant in Birchall’s life. He made what he called his first “pilgrimage” soon after the war. There were to be many others, most notably to celebrate with other veterans the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the defence of Sri Lanka. In between, he was appointed as Canadian observer of the general elections held in 1994. That experience exposed him to shortages of supplies and equipment in some Sri Lankan hospitals and so he used his own resources to send a large sea container with over eight tons of supplies. He was a volunteer for 15 years at the Kingston General Hospital and so he was aware of hospital needs in both countries.

In 2002, he was accompanied on what would prove to be his last trip to Sri Lanka by his son Charles, an accomplished environmental lawyer. Birchall said during that visit, “I love the country and I’m happy to be here, especially when there’s such a wonderful hope of peace. I pray it will work. I sure would do anything I could to help make it work”. During that visit, he went to the Katunayake Air Force base to see the mural of his Catalina exploit in the officers’ mess. He did not live to see his dream of an end to the violent conflict, dying two years later at 89.

Birchall survived the war but today we can visit the graves, as Birchall did, of the many who did not. The Commonwealth alone has 1999 veterans buried in Sri Lanka. There are regular commemorations and Remembrance Day events, such as the one organized November 11, 2009 at the Jawatta Commonwealth cemetery down the road from Canada House in Colombo. For many Canadians attending, it was the first time they were aware that young Canadian servicemen were buried in Sri Lanka. There are Canadian graves in Kandy and Trincomalee, as well as the 17 Canadian graves (like Birchall, most of them pilots) in Jawatta.

The care with which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission works through their Sri Lanka agency under the Director General of the Department of National Botanic Gardens, is greatly appreciated. Director General Siril Wijesundara receives regular requests by families abroad to lay wreaths on the graves of servicemen buried in Sri Lanka to commemorate birthdays and wedding anniversaries. The meticulous attention paid to these requests is obvious to those who have visited the beautifully maintained grounds. It is a fitting reminder of Squadron Leader Birchall as well.

Koggala Canadian monument marks anniversary of the defence of Sri Lanka (courtesy of David Gilroy)

Len Birchall in Sri Lanka during a visit by Prince Charles (© Dominic Sansoni)

Dr. Mary Rutnam (1873-1962): A Canadian Pioneer for Sri Lankan Women

Colombo newspaper from 1947 featuring Dr. Rutnam

When Anne Ranasinghe asked Dr. Rutnam, 89, what was the most exciting event of her life, Mary is reported to have said, “my coming to Ceylon of course”. She did a great deal for the women of Sri Lanka nearly a century ago and her life’s journey was a remarkable one.

Readers of The Parlour Rebellion, a book by Canadian Isabel Bassett, will know about a period in Canadian history when young women wanted to make a difference in society and change the old ways of doing things. Dr. Rutnam was of that ilk.

Who was Dr. Rutnam? The expert is Sri Lanka’s Secretary to the Social Scientists Association, Dr. Kumari Jayawardena, who wrote a book on the subject, “A Canadian Pioneer for Women’s Rights in Sri Lanka”. E.C.B. Wijeyesinghe has also highlighted her importance to the country in The Good at their Best.

Dr. Rutnam was a founder of the Lanka Mahila Samiti training program for rural women. Of the five Asian winners of the first 1958 Magsaysay Foundation award, she won for her social work. She was the only woman. More than a do-gooder and humanitarian, she was also a political activist, involved in the Women’s Political Union and the All Ceylon Women’s Conference. She wrote textbooks on health and hygiene and visited schools, teaching about reproductive systems and childbirth at a time when such subjects were taboo. She wrote books including A Health Manual for Schools and A Homecraft Manual for Ceylon. She became a vigorous campaigner for less alcohol and more milk consumption. She ventured out with her son Robin to do battle with the 1934-35 malaria epidemic that killed an estimated 100,000 people in Sri Lanka.

The problems of industrialization in Canada in the late 19th century led to increased Christian participation in social reform. Women such as Mary grew up making connections between poverty, alcoholism, women’s health, social problems and women’s suffrage.

Mary Irwin was born in Elora, Ontario and spent her childhood in Kincardine. She studied at Women’s Medical College, attached to Trinity College, University of Toronto, becoming a medical doctor in 1896. She was attracted to global sisterhood and applied for a medical position in Sri Lanka through the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. While training in New York she met and married her future husband, Samuel Christmas Kanaga Rutnam, a Christian Tamil born on an island off Jaffna.

Dr. Rutnam and her family in Canada (courtesy of the Rutnam family)

She arrived in Sri Lanka in 1896 as a missionary doctor but was rejected by the missionaries because of her marriage to a Sri Lankan; worked for the Sri Lankan government, but was not made permanent because of her Canadian rather than British medical degree. In defiance of missionary and colonial society, she stayed in Sri Lanka and left the missionaries. Dr. Rutnam worked at the state-run Lady Havelock Hospital for Women in Colombo until she was denied a permanent position. She then went into private practice, attracting women, Muslims and others who preferred to be treated by a woman. She learned to stay among local people, avoid the English colonial structure and be doggedly non-denominational in terms of religious affiliation.

Lady Havelock hospital with Dr. Rutnam (courtesy of the Rutnam family)

Inspired by the example of a Canadian woman doing similar work in India, she became involved in social work in Sri Lanka and remained a good networker with women in Sri Lanka, Canada and India.

The Rutnams travelled back to Canada in 1907-8 and Mary learned about the Canadian government support for the Women’s Institute movement. The US activist, Ralph Nader, would later write in his book on “Canada firsts” that this movement was the largest organization of women in the world. It was established in 1897 at Stoney Creek, Ontario and went on to establish chapters in 50 countries with a focus on promoting knowledge of home economics, especially in rural communities.

Samuel Rutnam died in 1929 after years of ill health leaving Mary to raise their four sons and one daughter.

Family planning was important to her. In Canada, progress was being made with the Planned Parenthood Association. Trying something similar in Colombo was a challenge. Sylvia Fernando of the Family Planning Association that eventually formed credited her with being “so far ahead in her thinking”. Eventually a Sri Lankan, Bradman Weerakoon, later to serve as Secretary to successive Sri Lankan leaders, became associated with leadership in the field internationally.

She became the first female member of the Colombo Municipal Council in May 1937, the first time women were allowed to contest. She represented the ward of Bambalapitiya, where she had lived for over 20 years.

Despite her many achievements, it can be argued that it was in the area of rural women’s organization that she made her most lasting impact. In the late 1920s while visiting Canada, Dr. Rutnam studied the Women’s Institutes. In 1931, at her urging, the first such institute was opened in Pannipitiya near Colombo. The movement reached out to the poorest women and cut across caste divisions with activities involving health, child care, first aid, home nursing, food preservation, agriculture, dairy farming, handicrafts and dancing and drama. Often Lanka Mahila Samiti became the centre of village social life and they grew to 150,000 members in 1959, becoming the largest women’s organization on the island. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s experience with public speaking was developed with her LMS activism prior to becoming the world’s first female Prime Minister.

 Dr. Rutnam’s family members reminisce today

What makes Dr. Rutnam’s accomplishments remarkable is the fact that she was also the mother of five children. She did not hesitate to credit a wonderful housekeeper for making her work outside the home possible.

Dr. Rutnam and her children in Sri Lanka (courtesy of the Rutnam family)

She had four boys, Alan, Donald, Robin and Walter and one girl, Helen. The boys were educated at Royal College and Helen went to Ladies’ College (and later University of Toronto like her mother). It must have been a financial drain for someone who did not make a great deal of money but her frugal ways helped.

Today her grandchildren live on, including Dr. R. Rutnam who the National Library of Australia lists in its series of “outstanding older women scientists”. Her recent publication addresses the ethics of medical research as part of community health studies. Her grandmother would approve.

As so often in Sri Lankan family histories, Dr. Rutnam’s husband was Tamil yet the marriages of his progeny linked the Rutnam name to Sinhalese, Burghers and Europeans. Dr. Rutnam’s children married into other communities and studied abroad, including at McGill University in Canada, at Antioch in the USA and at Cambridge, UK. They went on to join the Indian Civil Service, practiced medicine, and entered the business and cooperative worlds.

Dr. Rutnam’s Colombo granddaughter, Anne (Anita) Captain, studied dance and still retains that distinct dancer’s upright carriage. She and her sister, artist Nadine David, remember their grandmother with affection. Anne Captain points out that the relationship was nonetheless more formal in those days. Her sons adored her, she said, and yet they addressed her always with great respect.

The family relationships remain strong though marked by tragedy over the years given health problems. Extended family members of the Rutnam family have even returned to Canada. Dr. Rutnam’s diary was sent to the library of the University of Alberta by grandson Brian Rutnam. Canada’s University of Alberta President is Indira Samarasekera and her great grandmother was Dr. Rutnam’s sister in law.

Dr. Rutnam’s granddaughter Anita Captain and Kumari Jayawardene

Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation: A Canadian Returns to Sri Lanka and Addresses Dementia

Canadian Tami Tamitegama, President of the Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation, in front of the Dementia Services and Information Centre in Maligakanda, and his wife Lorraine

Sri Lanka has one of the fastest aging populations in the world, a product in many ways of earlier successful health and education investments.

Sri Lanka has benefited from the services of a Canadian, Tami Tamitegama, who returned to Sri Lanka after 33 years in Canada. He is the President of the Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation which he and his wife Lorraine established to help elders in general and persons with dementia in particular. It is clearly a labour of love which they have equally and passionately pursued, ever since being urged by friends in the Singapore’s Alzheimer’s Association to follow suit in Sri Lanka.

They have a helpline and website and, more importantly, a network of committed volunteers who catalyze the Caregiver Support Groups, do home visits and participate in other related activities. Expatriates who have family members in Sri Lanka with dementia use their services. The pamphlets and brochures are in three languages.

The Foundation takes fundraising seriously. What is most remarkable is that they raised $500,000 over nine years through sheer hard work and personal perseverance. So many fundraising efforts are one-off big bashes not thousands of small contributions which are more labour intensive. Lorraine oversees the selling of 40,000 raffle tickets every year and builds awareness at strategic locations around the city where she spends hundreds of hours on her feet, talking to the community. Tami struggled for years to get clear title to the land for the building site. They have done this largely with contributions from the community in Sri Lanka rather than being dependent on foreign funding. Over 1,200 individual donors, many who are sustained donors, from Sri Lanka and abroad have trusted and supported them, sometimes sight unseen.

They are creative fundraisers. The annual “Memory Walk” takes place around World Alzheimer’s Day on September 21. There are hundreds of active volunteers who support the “Memory Walk” fund raiser, and come to the city’s Cinnamon Grand hotel to participate in the Walk and the raffle draw. A who’s who of the business community provides everything from ice cream to hot dogs at the event and volunteers sell souvenirs. There are musical concerts, which pull in hundreds of people who donate funds. They are working on a “memory tree” where engraved memorials for departed family members would be hung as a giant wind chime.

Canadian donors are not major contributors but they do help. The Toronto Zen Centre is one of the Canadian donors. The North American Women’s Association in Colombo is also one of many repeat benefactors. Mostly funds come from local donors.

In 2011, the Foundation celebrated its 10th anniversary with the completion of the Dementia Services and Information Centre on Crown Lease property at 110 Ketawalamulla Lane in Maligakanda the highest vantage point in Colombo.

Tami was a graduate from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, who then served in the Sri Lanka Army for a short while. Moving to Canada, he was a successful professor, academic administrator and Campus Principal in the School of Business at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto for two and half decades. Tami urged Canadian school children to raise funds, participate in exchange programs and help dig wells in Sri Lanka. He was active in the Toronto Kripalu Yoga Centre and the Vedanta Society, Ramakrishna Mission.

Tami returned to Sri Lanka seeking an entirely new community service life, and he benefited from Canadian learned strengths (business administration and organizational savvy) and Asian learned strengths (spiritual beliefs and immense patience). When he came back to Sri Lanka in 1995 he became a therapeutic counsellor, and actively participated in the development of supportive mental health practices.

Alzheimer’s Disease International, an umbrella world organisation with 72 member countries created an advocacy working group with members from eight countries including Canada and Sri Lanka. They are studying the epidemic that sees 35 million people with dementia in the world today, growing to 115 million in 2050.

Tami reminisces that no write up on his personal experiences is complete without some mention of his work on developing the higher self. Encouraged by his father, learning to be still with some very basic yoga postures at the age of five became a life long endeavour to learn and teach the essence of the five fold path of yoga. He believes that health, happiness and selfless service are not intrinsically possible without some trappings of the lifestyle of a yogi/yogini. Alongside his duties and responsibilities in the Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation, Tami currently serves as a yoga master and secretary general of the Sri Lanka’s branch of the Art of Living Foundation; a community service and human development organisation, which serves 147 countries.

In 2006 President Rajapakse named Tami to the National Council of Elders.

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)

International Airport: Involves Canadians for Decades

Newspaper article circa 1965 proclaiming the airport to be a showpiece of Canada in the East

The Katunayake airport was the largest single aid project in the Canadian aid program to Sri Lanka in the 1960s. The media called it the “showpiece of the East”, partly because in 1965 when the 11,000 foot runway was completed, it allowed state of the art BOAC VC10 to land. Canada’s contribution was Rs 43 million, initially 80% grant and 20% loan (subsequently forgiven). The project was completed three months ahead of schedule and TWA, Aeroflot, UTA, Quantas and British Eagle Airways soon established operations.

D.W. Boyd of the Canadian Department of Transport worked with the Sri Lankan Department of Civil Aviation on the project. The Sri Lankan Cabinet named the road to the airport off the Negombo-Colombo Road the “Canada Friendship Road” in appreciation. The naming ceremony coincided with the visit of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1971.

The most extraordinary thing about the airport in terms of the Canadian connection is the longevity of the relationship, with activities underway from 1963 to the present day.

In 1963 under the Colombo Plan, Canada worked with Sri Lanka on the runway and terminal. Then starting in the late 1970s, the Katunayake International Airport master plan was developed with the Lea, Acres and Norr consortium from Canada working with government aviation experts.

There followed a successful commercial contract to build an airport hangar for Sri Lanka’s airline, Airlanka. Pendrith was the project development company. Michael Couture was the project manager and he still lives in Colombo with his wife, artist Lise Nadeau. Funding was tapped from Export Development Corporation, TD Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia, and Melon Bank USA.

In 2003 ND Lea and Associates with Aecon, a Canadian infrastructure company, worked on a Bandaranaike International Airport feasibility study as part of the Canadian Airports Group and the Department of Highway and Transport.

Fenton was a local contractor that provided electrical engineering services at the Terminal building on the Canadian airport project. Chandev Abhayaratne, Managing Director of Fentons today recalls how he, his uncle and father have all been involved with the airport and with Canadians for four decades. He is now active in a brand new hangar project and the fire detection equipment they plan to install is from a Canadian agency, MIRCOM.

Norr, a Canadian company, also had a long association with the airport. Trevor Carnahoff worked for years in Sri Lanka but it was his personal life that got a lot of attention. He married Beulah Dias (Karunaratne), a famous Sri Lankan beauty and actress. They raised their family in Canada. He has enjoyed a 35 year career in the airport development business working on more than 20 airport projects around the world.

Last but not least, Canadian aviation experience has not been restricted to the Colombo airport. In the south, at Koggala, Canadian David Gilroy operates Ceylon Aeronautical Services (CAS). He has been involved in Sri Lanka aviation since 1986 with Bell Helicopters but only recently established a dedicated and independent maintenance, repair operation providing commercial aviation technical support in Sri Lanka. CAS operates under Transport Canada. Koggala airport has a lot of aviation history and remains an international airport according to the archives. It was the base to the Double Sunrise, the longest scheduled flight in history 27-33 hours non-stop, two sunrises.

Canada Friendship Road sign on the airport road in four languages

Koggala hangar in the South with Ceylon Aeronautical Services operating under Transport Canada regulations (courtesy of David Gilroy)