Article by Dr. Sarath Chandrasekera

Canada is getting ready to establish April as Sri Lankan Heritage Month

By Sarath Chandrasekere

Canada has been the home for about 450,000 people of Sri Lankan origin. Nearly 75,000 of them speak Sinhala as their first language and the rest speak Tamil and English as their mother tongue. The first Sri Lankan family arrived in Canada in 1948, and during the past two decades, the population has steadily increased with a compelling reason to leave Sri Lanka due to the devastating impact of the internecine conflict. Most of the people of Sri Lankan origin live in Toronto. The second highest concentration is found to be in the province of Alberta.

According to sociological research in Canada (2008), the four main ethnic stripes of Sri Lanka – the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and the Burghers have reconstructed their Canadian ethnic identity in six different forms as the Sri Lankan-Canadians, Tamil Canadians, Tamil-Sri Lankans, Tamils, Sri Lankans and Canadians. It is a                     well-known fact that immigrants in their host country are subjected to various socio-cultural forces and end up being something different from their original identities. The classic example is the creation of Hispanics in the US. The Brazilians, Columbians, Chileans, Venezuelans, Mexicans and all others who migrated to the US from Southern America have been given this new name-the Hispanics – by the US Bureau of Statistics.

Culturally speaking, Canada is governed by the policy of “multiculturalism” which “recognizes and promotes the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage. It also accepts the fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future; it further recognizes the existence of communities whose members share a common origin and their historic contribution to Canadian society and enhance their development. It preserves and enhances the use of languages other than English and French while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada” (Canadian Multiculturalism Act: 1985 4th supplement).

In accordance with this policy, all ethnic groups (about 87) are eligible to apply for the parliamentary approval to establish a special Heritage Day or Month to celebrate their heritage. In the approval process, the Canadian parliamentarians look for the contributions that a particular group has made towards making Canada a better place to live. 

Program on April the 27th in Ottawa

The Sri Lanka-Canada Association of Ottawa has taken the lead to establish a special Heritage Day or a month to coincide with the Sinhala-Tamil New Year. They have invited all Sri Lankans to the Canadian parliament on April the 27th to celebrate this special cause. The very first of such events is planned as the Sinhalese Heritage Day in Parliament. Subsequent events will be named as Sri Lankan Heritage Day according to organizers and they encourage all Sri Lankan Canadian Associations around Canada to follow suit to organize Sri Lankan Heritage events in their own cities. 

The special event on the April 27th will begin with the playing of the Sri Lankan and Canadian national anthems by students of Chamindra Rathnayake followed by the lighting of the traditional oil lamps by dignitaries. After four speeches by invited guests, the audience will be blessed with the welcome dance based on the Sri Lankan traditional admiration form of dances. The students of Rashanthi Hettiaratchy who runs the Rangara Performing Arts in Toronto will perform this item. The next item in the agenda is a presentation by Dr. Sarath Chandrasekere on the forthcoming book titled A Compendium of Scholarly Articles by Canadians of Sri Lankan Origin. The next item is also a dance, popularly known as the Peacock dance performed by students of Renuka Subasinghe. Nilantha karunaratna and Dulansa Epasinghe will present a dance titled Maathra, a creative dance duet that unveils the fusion of two generations on stage.

The next item is a special song by a versatile singer Sri Lal Fonseka about the famous CN Tower in Toronto, and how it brings back memories of Sri Lanka. This song is written by Anuruddha Weligamage of Toronto. Janaka Bamunukula has organized a demonstration of Angampora as a special item. Angampora is a traditional martial art form from in Sri Lanka. It has a history of about 5000 years and King Ravana is known as an Angampora warrior. This will be followed by another dance choregraphed by Dhanuja Senaweera. This is titled Kuveni Asna related to the classical Kohomba Kankariya. The Sri Lanka United National Association (SLUNA) will be making a special presentation on the Sinhalese History in Sri Lanka. Ishani Kodituwakku of Canadia Sri Lanka Association of Toronto will introduce Sinhala/Tamil New Year Traditions. Suwini Sulochana Wijewickrema and her students will introduce a game popular during the New Year season in Sri Lanka. It is titled Eluwan Kema. The next item in the agenda is a creative dance titled Lankanaada choreographed by Deepa Hettige.

The next item will be an introduction to Indigenous Medicine in Sri Lanka by Dr. Jayasinghe Arachchige. This will be followed by a drumming performance by Dr. Nimal de Silva and his team from Ottawa. Sarath Kumarasinghe will play and introduce the musical instrument, Esraj. The next item is a calypso dance in a Sri Lankan style presented by the Canada-Sri Lanka Association of Toronto.

The final item of the program is a swan dance (Hansa wannama) performed by the students of the Rangara Dance Academy and choregraphed by Rashanthi Hettiarchchi.  

There will be several heritage stations set up in exhibition style for attendees to see various items/topics of Sinhalese heritage. The items include Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lankan Indigenous Medicine, Ancient Agricultural Techniques, Sri Lankan masks, Sri Lanka Tourism and Immigration/Emigration Effects on Sinhalese Culture. The ceremony will end with a treat of traditional Sri Lankan food and sweets.

The Hosts for this ceremony are Dr. Charmini Wimalasena of Kitchener (French/English/Sinhala)’               Dr. Mohan Pancharatnam of Ottawa (Tamil/English) and Dr. Wimal Rankaduwa of Halifax (English/Sinhalese).

All Canadian parliamentarians have been invited to witness this celebration. They will participate in this ceremony and eventually support the move to pass an act to establish the Sri Lankan Heritage Day/Month in Canada. 

The ceremony will demonstrate mostly the items of the Sinhalese culture. During the final stage of this legal process, cultures of other Sri Lankan ethnic groups will also be included. 
The Canadian parliament has already granted legal status to Tamils (2016) to have the month of January as their heritage month. There is Hindu Heritage Month in Ontario (2016), and the Italians and the Filipinos use June as their Heritage Month. 

Anura Ferdinand, the President of the Ottawa Sri Lanka-Canada Association and his executive team have been inspired by these developments and decided to hold this event within the Parliament premises between 2.00 pm and 5.00 pm on April the 27th. Over 750 people are expected to attend this function, from Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Halifax, Montreal among others. 

Why a Heritage Day/Month for Sri Lankans?

One may wonder why the Sri Lankans need a special Heritage Day in Canada? A careful examination of the socio-cultural dynamics of the Sri Lankan community in Canada, and especially, their contributions to the Canadian society, has provided a rationale for this move. Let’s examine some of those reasons.

Sri Lankas are one of the few ethnic groups in Canada who have shown a very low unemployment rate (1%) in Canada. Almost all Sri Lankans are employed compared to the average Canadian unemployment rate of 5.8%.

There is a considerable number of international level scholars and scientists of Sri Lankan origin working in Canadians Universities. Their research activities range from Bio-Medical Sciences to Sociology. Just to name a few: The very first woman President of the University of Alberta was Dr. Indira Samarasekera. By profession, she is a metallurgist. Dr. Janaka Ruwanpura, the VP International Development of the University of Calgary, is an Engineer by profession. Professor Randy Boyagoda is the Principal of the St. Michaels College of the University of Toronto. He is a well-known novelist, author and a critic. Dr. Chandre Dharmawardene, former Vice Chancellor of Jayawardenapura University is a resident of Ottawa and helps Sri Lankans to rethink their approaches to development issues in Sri Lanka. 

Dr. Vasantha Rupasinghe of the Dalhousie University is working on blueberries and apple peelings to develop medication to fight diabetes. Dr. Theva Vasanthan attached to the University of Alberta is an expert on food science and bio-research. Dr. Nihal Wijesundera has worked committedly on Renewable Energy Conversion. Dr. Dilantha Fernando, the Dean of Studies at the St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba works on crop health, and has over 130 publications to his credit. 

Dr. Laksman Galagedera is an Agricultural Engineer attached to the Memorial University. Dr. Arunika Gunawardena of the Dalhousie University runs her own lab in cell biology and plant studies. She has won several awards to her credit. Dr. Charu Chandrasekera was the founding Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Alternative Medical Research at the University of Windsor. This is the first of its kind in Canada. They challenge the traditional medical model of research and replace it with methods that will not require killing animals for medical research. 

Dr. Naresh Thevathasan attached to the University of Guelph in Ontario has worked on several interesting projects in the school of environmental sciences. He is a known soil scientist, and agronomy and agroforestry are his areas of passion. Dr. Sashi Perera of McMaster University is a Stroke-Neurologist with a medical background. She is an adjudicator on international multicentre stroke and cardiovascular trials. Professor Wimal Rankaduwa who is with the University of Prince Edward Island is a macro-economist. He has been the president of the Atlantic Sri Lanka-Canada Association. Dr. Kanishka Gunawardene attached to the Urban Planning.

Department of the University of Toronto has adopted the Marxian approach to examine urban issues. Dr. Darshaini Kumaragamage attached to the University of Winnipeg is a known scientist in the field of environmental studies. Dr. Dilan Dissanayake (MD. Ph.D) is currently an expert pediatrician attached to the Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. He is one of the youngest specialists in Canada. 

We also have several scientists like Dr. Chaminda Basnayake, the Principal Scientist of the Locata Corporation working with the private sector. Dr. Basnayake has seven patents to his credit and has specialized in GPS systems. 

The Sri Lankan origin talents are not just confined to the Bio-Medical and Physical Scientific Fields. Michael Ondatjee who won several international book awards wrote the famous novel “English Patient” which came out as an Oscar award-winning movie. Late Dr. Chelva Kanakanayakam of the University of Toronto translated several Tamil literary books into English. He was attached to the English Department of the Trinity College. Dr. Swarna Kanthi Chandrasekera, a known author, has written and published the first-ever curriculum and handbook to teach Buddhism to Canadian-born children. Mr. Nimal Dissanayake, a Solicitor, and Barrister is a frequently sought- after arbitrator to handle union issues by both the public and the private sector. Tissa Boyagoda who was a judge in Sri Lanka is a lawyer known to many in Toronto. 

There are about 15 other lawyers who meet the legal needs of Canadians in Toronto. The number of practicing physicians in Ontario is about 20. Among others are ice-carving experts like Meegoda Nandasiri, artistic designers like Bandula Kuruwita Arachchi, and Venerable Bhante Saranapala who is on a journey of spreading Buddhism (Charath Bhikkawe Charikan) and especially, mindfulness training, across Canadian communities and abroad. 

There are two monthly Sinhala newspapers -Yathra edited by Chandraratne Bandara, a known writer, and Dasatha edited by Chamari Abeysinghe. The Sri Lankan Reporter, an award-winning monthly English newspaper, is edited by Srimal Abeywardene. The Sri Lankan Anchorman is edited by Dirk Tissera, and the Ceylon Express is edited by Nishantha Donsiyambalapitiyage. There are about 27 newspapers published in the Tamil language. The “Kala Kavaya” and “Rupane” are weekly TV programs which bring news and artistic activities to the general public. Sawana is a popular internet-based radio program presented daily by veteran broadcaster, Vasantha Lankathilleke. For the Tamil language speakers, there are over 10 radio programs and a few TV programs currently running in Toronto. The Sri Lankan owned media agencies in Canada keep the Sri Lankans informed of socio-cultural and political developments in Sri Lanka as well as in Canada. 

A few noteworthy Sri Lankans have retired from their service. They include Dr. Sange de Silva who retired as the Director General, Institutional and Social Statistics Branch of Statistics Canada. He has been awarded the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of his exceptional service to Canada and Canadians. His position was equivalent to the second in command of Statistics Canada. Dr. Nimal Ratnayake who is a retired Research Scientist with Health Canada (The Federal Health Department). He has completed several useful medical research projects before his retirement. He has received many awards including the Parliamentary recognition as an outstanding research scientist. Dr. K P Abeytunge is an Engineer who was the Vice President and Director-General of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and safety. Asoka Weerasinghe is a geologist/paleontologist/museologist who was one time the curator of the Ottawa museum. He has published poetry in several countries including the UK and Canada and has received many awards for his literary and community work.

The above-stated scientists (and many more) and scholars have several publications to their credit. Some have patents their scientific discoveries. Sri Lankans in Canada have not stopped their Canadian contributory journey at this point. Almost 10 years ago, they revived the Cricket Association of the Prince Edward Island (PEI) and built a cricket ground and a pavilion on a scenic location in Stratford. Although PEI had a 200-year history of playing cricket from the 1920s, its interest had begun to fade away with the introduction of other new sports. The Sri Lankans with enormous support from cricketers of other cricket playing nations and Cricket Canada revived the tradition in 2009. They obtained funding from federal, provincial and municipal agencies. The first multicultural board of directors was chaired by Sarath Chandrasekere, and the other members included an Englishman, French lady, Jamaican, Sri Lankan, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Australian and an Islander. This is accepted as the best cricket ground beyond the grounds in Montreal. The PEI cricket program continues with amazing glory today. 

It is a matter of paramount importance that these Sri Lankans are spread all over Canada. As a relatively new ethnic group, Sri Lankans have a very high rate of Ph.Ds. It is also noteworthy that over 72% of Sri Lankan families have at least one child who has completed or is in the process of completing university degrees in Canada. This appears to be a remarkable accomplishment of the second generation of Sri Lankans compared to many other ethnic groups. Sri Lankans in Canada have done very well in the business sector too. We have over 35 real-estate agents in Ontario alone. About 15 groceries owned and run by the Tamil Sri Lankans in Toronto. There are about 10 musical bands who are in very big demand. The latest addition to this sector is the Cinnamon Grande Banquets Hall highly patronized by other Canadians for special functions. The Sri Lankans living in Ontario and Alberta have the privilege of watching award-winning Sri Lankan Sinhala and Tamil movies and musical concerts on regular basis. It is noteworthy that a movie is currently being produced between Canada and Sri Lanka based on Chandraratne Bandara’s novel Walakulu Bamma (Wall of Clouds). This film is directed by a famous Toronto-based director Priyankara Witanachchi. 

Given the 70-year old history in Canada as an ethnic group, the people of Sri Lankan origin have created history here in Canada in a variety of ways.

Another important feature of the Sri Lankans is their long-cherished values, manners, and countenance. They are perceived as smiling, kind hearted and caring people. These are the legacies of their original upbringing in the country of origin. The Sri Lankans have already built trust among the other Canadians with whom they work on a day-to-day basis. They are committed to their goals, blessed with Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Christian values and brave in taking risks. 

Sri Lanka, as another multicultural nation, has many iconic structures/contributions which are recognized as part of the world heritage. Thripitaka will be the latest addition to this UNESCO list. Seventy-one years of democracy, free education, higher literacy rates, universal health care and higher participation of women in labour force, are some of the remarkable accomplishments of the country as a nation. Although the past two decades have witnessed rapid deterioration of some of these standards and ethical principles due to immature political decision making, there is every possibility to bring back the good old qualities of the nation. Sri Lanka needs to recognize multiculturalism as a guiding principle blended with higher moral behaviors, freedom of speech and justice.

It is undoubtedly true that the Sri Lankans in Canada, especially the first generation, miss their country in a big way. They also feel that they have the capacity to preserve the Sinhalese and the Tamil cultures in Canada. Owing to the above reasons, the people of Sri Lankan origin are considered a peaceful group to Canadian society. This alone will be sufficient ground for the Canadian Parliament to consider granting a Sri Lankan Heritage Day/month. 

The Sinhalese Heritage Day planned for the April the 27th is an act of cooperation of many Sri Lankans living in different parts of Canada. Bandula Kuruwita Arachchi who designed and decorated the Parliamentary Hall and Tissaarchchige and Patrick Silva who took part actively in decorations deserve very special thanks. Arranging of Sri Lankan food and sweets for the occasion are a voluntary effort on the part of the Seniors Group and community volunteers in Ottawa. They too deserve thanks from the organizers. 

Hon. Chandra Arya, a Member of the Parliament of Canada (MP) was instrumental in getting us the Donald A McDonald Hall to hold this special event. If not for his support and interest, our event would not be successful. Hon. Arya deserves a special word of gratitude.

A commemorative souvenir will be created by Samith Welihinda to raise much-needed funds for this event. A live feed of the event will be made available via the website and the facebook page will be open for the benefit of all those around the world to provide feedback.

[ Sarath Chandrasekere (Ph.D) teaches sociology at McMaster University and the University of Toronto]