April as Sri Lankan Heritage Month in Canada
17 January 2017
In a series of interviews The Diplomatic Society Global Editor Srimal Fernando began interviewing notable South Asians living in Canada. As of 2011, South Asian Canadians constitute almost 5 percent of the Canadian population, being the largest visible minority in Canada. In the changing strategic atmosphere, Canada is playing a constructive role in the economic development of the South Asian countries and has emerged a key promoter of economic cooperation in the region. Today 300,000 Sri Lankan descendants are estimated to live in Canada.
Photo: Association Event (ex Cultural / Campaign Photo)
For this month’s edition we introduce you to two Sri Lankan community leaders, Chaminda Wijesinghe, President of the Sri Lanka Canada Association of Ottawa (SLCAO ) and Anura Ferdinand, immediate past President of the Sri Lanka Canada Association of Ottawa (SLCAO ) who have taken up the mantle of campaigning and promoting "April as a Sri Lankan Heritage Month in Canada" on behalf of their Association.
Chaminda Wijesinghe, President
Srimal Fernando (SF ): Welcome to The Diplomatic Society. Chaminda Wijesinghe, would you tell us a little about yourself and your current role as the President of the Sri Lanka Canada Association of Ottawa (SLCAO )?
Chaminda Wijesinghe (CW): Thank you for giving us this opportunity Srimal. I migrated to Canada in 2008 with my family and I’m currently living in Ottawa. I felt the warm welcome by the Canadian Sri Lankan Community extended to me and my family from the very beginning. It led me to the realization that we left Sri Lanka, but brought all our great qualities with us to Canada. I made many great friends among them and that led me to join the Executive Committee of SLCAO about 4 years later. Last year I accepted the role to be the President of SLCAO. My role as the President is to provide leadership and guidance to the Executive Committee towards accomplishing objectives of SLCAO. I get a lot of support from the committee, and the members of the community in accomplishing our tasks.
SF: What are the missions of your organization?
CW: Our Mission statement is:
Sri Lanka Canada Association of Ottawa (SLCAO) shall promote social, cultural, recreational and economic welfare of its members; assist newly relocated members of Sri Lankan origin in Ottawa to better integrate them into the broader Canadian society; contribute to the preservation and awareness of the Sri Lankan – Canadian cultural heritage; undertake special projects to help deserving segments of the population living in Sri Lanka; help people affected by disaster situations either in Canada or elsewhere by organizing, launching and promoting special activities at the discretion of the board of directors that will foster the interests of the association.
Objectives of SLCAO
1. To promote social, cultural, recreational and economical welfare of members;
2. Assist newly relocated members of Sri Lankan origin in Ottawa to better integrate into the broader Canadian Society;
3. Contribute to the preservation and awareness of the Sri Lankan cultural heritage;
4. To undertake special projects to help deserving segments of the population living in Sri Lanka;
5. To people affected by disaster situations either in Canada or elsewhere; and
6. To undertake any other activity by organizing, launching, assisting and/or promoting special or continuing activities at the discretion of the Board of Directors that will foster the interests of the Corporation and its members.
SF: Over the last seven decades naturalized immigrants from Sri Lanka have made Canada their home and contributed significantly to the economy. How many Sri Lankan Canadians live in Ottawa and in Canada?
CW: While it is a very hard statistic to follow, we believe there are around 1000 families of Sri Lankan descent in Ottawa. Nationally it’s about 300,000 people from the last known statistic
SF: What does April as a "Sri Lankan" heritage month mean to you?
CW: The month of April is significant to all Sri Lankans. It is a time when Sri Lankans come together to celebrate one common event which is the dawn of New Year in accordance with the ancient Oriental calendar system. Historically, Sri Lanka being largely based on agriculture, celebrated the New Year after the harvest of their crops. It had been a time of renewed hopes, relationships, optimism and time to reflect on the past year. It had been a time to give, make friends and enjoy the time they earned after a year of hard work. It had been the time to visit friends and relatives, engage in recreational activities, play traditional games and share your happiness with others by spreading kindness and generosity. Over time many cultural aspects such as traditional dancing, folk music and recreational games had been incorporated into the New Year celebrations.
Today, for all Sri Lankans living in Sri Lanka and in other countries, April is a time to connect and reconnect with our heritage and culture. This is the time to visit friends, neighbours, relatives and family. It is a time that brings the sense of renewal into our lives. It signifies a new beginning and new hopes for a better and brighter future. It is a time to preserve the great, and unique cultural observances we inherited and carry them on to the future for our next generations to enjoy and to learn about our heritage.
We have many Sri Lankan cultural events throughout Canada, including, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg, PEI and other parts of the country.
SF: What topics would you want the media to focus on for April as a "Sri Lankan" heritage month?
CW: We hope the media will focus on the positive impact the Sri Lankan culture has made in this great country which we now call home. The month of April signifies giving, sharing and coming together by strengthening family and social ties. Traditions and customs behind the Sri Lankan New Year have deep meanings about peace, love and forgiveness. It is about looking beyond conflicts and reaching common grounds to exist and thrive in harmony while respecting individuality and differences.
SF: How can other Sri Lankans living in Canada get more involved with the campaign launched by the Sri Lanka Canada Association of Ottawa?
CW: Sri Lankans can promote the online campaign by signing and forwarding to more members in the community. Currently the Past President of SLCAO, Mr. Anura Ferdinand is actively and tirelessly working towards bringing the message across to other Canadian Sri Lankans for their support. There are some grass root Sri Lankan organizations that are currently in the negotiation stages to promote this cause. More information will be announced shortly.
SF: Would you like to add anything more?
CW: Yes. The April New year celebrations and related activities are not limited to the SLCAO. These activities go beyond SLCAO. Many other institutions with Sri Lankan origin have similar activities in different scales throughout the month of April.
SLCAO hosts the Annual Sinhalese and Tamil New Year Celebrations which is an event focused on Cultural Activities. This event is open to the entire community regardless of cultural, religious and political differences. It is the biggest event hosted by the SLCAO and also the one with the highest number of participation from within and outside the community including leading and prominent Canadian politicians as invitees.
In addition to that, the Seniors Group of SLCO also host a Traditional Sri Lankan Tea Party which is open to similar communities outside ours as a means of sharing our culture and bonding with other communities.
Apart from those, the three Sri Lankan Buddhist temples in Ottawa host events to celebrate New Year in April by focusing on preserving traditional aspects of Sri Lankan culture.
Sri Lankan organizations across Canada host events to celebrate New Year during the month of April carrying out similar activities with similar themes.
As you can see, the month of April is a month of celebration and with a huge cultural significance to Sri Lankans living all over Canada. It is a part of the multicultural Canadian Society that can bring out a very powerful positive message about peace, love, hope and heritage. Our efforts are simply to give due recognition to a part of Canadian Culture which is has become an integral part of Canadian Society.
Anura Ferdinand past President
Srimal Fernando (SF): Anura Ferdinand, as a past president of the Sri Lanka Canada Association of Ottawa, you have been such a leader for the Sri Lankan community living in Ottawa. Tell me a little about yourself.
Anura Ferdinand (AF): First of all, thank you Srimal Fernando for this opportunity. I have been an Ottawa resident for the past 17 years. Had the opportunity to work in our community through SLCAO for the past 8 years. Over the past years, I had the privilege of working with many in our community and establish a network for Ottawa Sri Lankans. As I took on the role of leading the SLCAO in its 40th year of existence, one of the tasks at hand was to formalize the Organisation as a Registered Not For Profit Corporation in Canada with the help of my Executive Committee and dedicated volunteers. The next step was to place SLCAO as a community service brand among the Ottawa community. With the help of many we did about 23 projects raising close to $20,000 throughout the year. New website, the creation of a new constitution, getting the new constitution approved and registering SLCAO as a not for profit corporation, forming the SLCAO Seniors group, the creation of an Ottawa Sri Lankan Talent Show and the initiation of the St. Anthony’s Feast called Kochchikade in Ottawa were some of the accolades to be proud of.
SF: What is your role and the purpose of the newly formed Global Sri Lankan Forum?
AF: The Global Sri Lankan Forum or GSLF is a group of expatriates of Sri Lankan descent, established to safeguard and support a unitary status of the Island. As you are aware, descendants from Sri Lanka are scattered around the world; with a centralized movement we hope to connect Sri Lankans who have an interest in Sri Lanka. There are representatives from many countries taking part and forming a collective voice towards issues pertaining to Sri Lanka. I am the country representative for Canada. I would like to take on this opportunity to connect Canadian Sri Lankan expats to this new Global movement, while sharing my experience and skills towards a cause for Sri Lanka.
SF: How can other Sri Lankans living out of Canada collaborate with the newly formed Global Sri Lankan Forum?
SF: When did the first wave of Sri Lankans come to Canada? Are there any specific locations where Sri Lankan Canadians are populated?
AF: The first known Sri Lankans were from the late 1930s. Sri Lankan Associations started since the 1970s. Toronto and Ottawa were the first cities in Canada to start Sri Lankan Associations. Toronto stands as the city with the largest concentration of Sri Lankans. Currently there are known Sri Lankan organizations in Ottawa, Toronto, Cambridge, Guelph, Kitchner,Waterloo, Montreal, Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Prince Edward Island.
Links between Canada and Sri Lanka expanded after its Independence in 1948. One of the earliest gifts from Canada was fourteen train locomotives to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), after a visit by the Hon. Lester Pearson in 1956. These locomotives are named after the Canadian provinces, Manitoba, Alberta and so on. The international airport at Katunayake was also part of Canadian aid in the 1960s. One of the largest Canadian projects was the $100 million contribution towards the construction of the Maduru Oya dam within the Mahaweli project. A highlight of Sri Lanka's links with Canada was the visit of Prime Minster Pierre Eliot Trudeau in 1971.
SF: Why is "Sri Lankan" heritage month important to you?
AF: Sri Lanka has a documented history of over 2,000 years, mainly due to ancient historic scriptures like Mahawansa, and with the first stone objects dating back to 500,000 BC.
Sri Lankans have been in Canada since the 1930s. It is a known fact that most Canadian Immigrants will lose their Heritage Language by the third generation. When we look at the families and we see even the disappearance of the language in the second generation.
When we migrated here, we brought along with us a rich culture that we can contribute positively towards Canada. Namely cuisine, dance, music, holistic medical practices, religious beliefs, various sports (with special emphasis on Cricket, netball and badmington) and various traditions. We feel that as a 40 year old Organization that has been organizing various cultural events, we were able to bring a “Sri Lankan” experience to the Canadian community. Also various other organizations throughout the country with the help of many volunteers we were able to bring this “Sri Lankan” experience to their own communities.
Since Canada is a multi-cultural society, having our Sri Lankan culture highlights along with other cultures which is significant to us. As naturalized Canadians, we share the basic values of democracy with all other Canadians who came before us. At the same time, Canadians are free to choose for themselves, without penalty, whether they want to identify with their specific group or not. Their individual rights are fully protected and they need not fear group pressures.
The heritage month is important to establish the Sri Lankan identity to many new generation of Canadians of Sri Lankan descent who look back on their culture. In doing so we hope to promote the culture, throughout Canada in the month of April.
The Heritage month is important for all Sri Lankan communities to get together to organize various cultural activities in the month of April.
SF: Do you think Sri Lankan heritage month can play a positive role in the Canadian society? If yes, what is that role?
AF: Yes, of course! In 1971, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy. By doing so, Canada affirmed the value and dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation. The 1971 Multiculturalism Policy of Canada also confirmed the rights of Aboriginal peoples and the status of Canada’s two official languages.
Over the years Canadian Sri Lankans were blessed with some great leaders who acknowledged and supported Sri Lankan Associations and causes. There were many organizations reporting support from municipal, provincial and federal levels of governments.
Recently even our Prime Minister Hon. Justin Trudeau has acknowledged the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year by letter and also a “Happy Thai Pongal” video greeting. These are special moments for all Sri Lankans to be proud of in this great country.
As my children would ask “What are Sri Lankan traditions?” as Sri Lankan descendants we can use April as Sri Lankan Heritage Month to showcase our traditions using the most revered Sri Lankan cultural event the “Sinhalese and Tamil New Year”, celebrated in the month of April. It is also an opportunity for all of Sri Lankans in Canada to use this month and promote the Sri Lankan culture to the Canadian Society.
There are many ethnicities present in Canada. We see a visible Tamil majority in Canada. As you see as Sri Lankans of all ethnicities, we can use the “Sinhalese and Tamil New Year” month to promote the cultural heritage, peace, love and unity among all of Canadian Sri Lankans.
We also can state that Sri Lankan expats in other parts of the world can also contribute to this cause mainly because there maybe a loved one here or Canada maybe a future destination to live.
In agreeing with Chaminda on his statement as “ April signifies giving, sharing and coming together by strengthening family and social ties”, I think every Canadian can use this as month to make a true difference in their way of living at least once a year or a one time commitment to make a difference.
SF: What is your best piece of advice for all Sri Lankans living in Canada?
AF: While there are lots, let me start with the simple but not to be taken granted fact that we must enjoy this great land and home which we call Canada. Be proud and honoured to be here and serve Canada. It is certainly a privilege and honour to be here, enjoy and integrate into many rich Canadian values. As we go about our lives in Canada, please take a moment to help preserve Sri Lankan cultural heritage here in Canada for our identity sake and for future generations. Please sign the campaign launched by the Sri Lanka Canada Association of Ottawa, on behalf of all Sri Lankan Canadians. Visit www.slcaottawa.com/ahm