The message of tolerance at the heart of the Trudeau government’s international outlook is now being put to the test in one the world’s most ethnically scarred postwar countries — Sri Lanka.
The ultimate success of Canada’s re-engagement with Sri Lanka, which was formalized last month when Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion visited the south Asian country, will have domestic political implications for the Liberals government in the years ahead.
That’s because Canada is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamils, the Sri Lankan minority group that fought a 26-year civil war against the mainly Sinhalese central government that ended in a final wave of bloodshed in May 2009.
In the aftermath, the previous Conservative government downgraded relations with Sri Lanka’s government as the Tamils continued to face persecution. At the same time, the Colombo government resisted international pressure for an independent investigation of war crimes committed by its military and the Tamil rebels in 2009.
The stars realigned last year with the election of a more conciliatory Sri Lankan government and the arrival of Canada’s Liberals. It raised hopes among many Canadians of Sri Lankan descent, including the large Tamil bloc mainly centered in Toronto.
Canada’s Tamils don’t mind the Liberals talking to the Sri Lankan government again, but only if it continues to push for minority rights.
“It’s a good step in the right direction. But we want more to be done,” said David Poopalapillai of the Canadian Tamil Congress.
“Having the largest Tamil diaspora in this country, Canada is in a unique position.”
Canada is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council, Poopalapillai noted, and now has the opportunity to show it can help forge a permanent peace in Sri Lanka.
“Mr. Dion can be Lester Pearson in the months and years to come,” he added, as long as he can “make sure things move quickly and move fast.”
During his visit, Dion urged the Sri Lankan government to seize the moment and push for real reconciliation, along with strengthening government institutions and the economy. He announced a five-year, $11.2-million contribution to help the Sri Lankan government deliver government services in the Sinhalese and Tamil languages.
“It is clear that delays in the implementation of these critical reforms are not in the public interest,” Dion said.
Dion also encouraged the Sri Lankans to embrace “peaceful pluralism,” reiterating the core message Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has consistently delivered to international audiences: “Canada is strong not despite but because of its diversity, which is a source of openness, acceptance, progress and prosperity. Why should it not become true for Sri Lanka?”
Mahesh Abeyewardene, 30, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian journalist with Toronto’s monthly newspaper, the Sri Lankan Reporter, said, “There’s a lot of lessons that can be learned from Canada in Sri Lanka, in terms of bilingualism, intergovernmental affairs.”
The language funding Dion announced could have a big impact on closing a gap in government services that has left Tamils at a disadvantage, he said.
Abeyewardene called it a good sign that the new Sri Lankan government has agreed to a UN Human Rights Council resolution to investigate war crimes allegations.
“We’re seeing a lot of change but some say the change hasn’t come fast enough,” said Abeyewardene, who is Sinhalese, and whose family includes Catholics, Buddhists as well as Tamils.
“Canada’s strength here is the people. A lot of people are doing work in Sri Lanka, building houses, linguistic, cultural ties, and family ties.”
At his joint press conference with Dion, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said his government wants help from Canada’s Sri Lankan community to help the reconciliation efforts.
Samaraweera said they were invited “to visit the country that they left” or were “compelled to leave, long ago.”
Canada’s re-engagement with Sri Lanka is part of a broader pattern that includes diplomatic engagement with Russia and Iran.
The Conservatives have been scathing in their criticism of the Liberals for deciding to talk to Moscow and Tehran. But not with Sri Lanka.
Deepak Obhrai is the Conservatives former parliamentary secretary on foreign affairs, and represented Canada at the Sri Lanka-hosted Commonwealth summit that Prime Minister Stephen Harper boycotted in 2013.
“(With) this new direction that the Sri Lankan government is following, it is appropriate for Canada to re-engage in Sri Lanka as we have done in the past,” Obhrai said.
“It’s very important for Sri Lanka to come to terms with the brutal war that took place and bring accountability. We are going to be putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government to do that.” (Canadian Press)