The first time Sumith Dassanayake met Canadian officials was when he had to handle a controversial visit by a former Canadian prime minister to his country.
Mr. Dassanayake, who until this month was the number two at the Sri Lankan High Commission, holding the title of minister, was posted to the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo at the time as the country’s deputy chief of protocol.
It was January 2005, and then-prime minister Paul Martin had decided to visit Thailand and Sri Lanka to see the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami that had struck the region a month earlier. Sri Lanka would eventually declare over 35,000 dead from that tragic natural disaster.
But Mr. Martin—spooked after losing the Chrétien government’s majority at the hands of Stephen Harper's Conservatives seven months earlier—was plagued with an image problem going into the trip. Tamil rebels were criticizing him through the media for not planning on visiting the rebel-controlled northeast region, and two Sri Lankan Tamil MPs had been denied visas to enter Canada the year prior.
The experience of handling a contentious political event with Canadians, Sri Lankan government officials and Tamil representatives mixed together would prove to be quite the foreshadowing for Mr. Dassanayake’s Ottawa posting.
Arrival in a storm
In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government claimed victory in the civil war with the Tamil rebels. Five months later, Canadian security officials seized the MV Ocean Lady off the coast of British Columbia, which carried 76 Tamil migrants, sparking a heated debate over Canada’s treatment of the would-be refugees.
Three months after that, Mr. Dassanayake was posted to Ottawa.
“It was a difficult, but interesting period,” he said in a July 14 interview at his high commission.
Eight months into his posting, a second ship, the MV Sun Sea, arrived carrying 492 Sri Lankan asylum seekers.
Media coverage of the two ships was intense, he said, while ministers in the minority government of Mr. Harper, who had since become prime minister, talked tough about human smugglers and “bogus refugees.” It would eventually pass legislation labelling groups of migrants who show up in Canada as “irregular arrivals” subject to different detention rules.
Sometimes Mr. Dassanayake would find himself prepping the former high commissioner, Chitranganee Wagiswara, for 10 media interviews in a single day, he said.
“We started lobbying, basically, to educate Canadian policymakers, intellectuals, even politicians and officials, about the true picture, and who was behind these smuggling activities.” Canadian federal officials at the time claimed a third of the migrants on the Ocean Lady were rebels and linked the Sun Sea to rebel activity too.
Mr. Dassanayake, a minister-counsellor at the time, was the main political officer. He said he had good interactions with Ottawa media, who were friendly to him despite the swirling controversy.
“When we wanted them to come, they came all the time,” he said. TV crews would set up their cameras inside the high commission. He and his boss would also make frequent trips to TV studios.
Government officials were friendly too, he said, “but they have to toe the line of the government.”
One of his main duties since arriving in Ottawa was to build bridges. “The important thing is relationships; I think we tried our best to maintain relations with the Canadian government, with the Sri Lankan community, even the Tamil community.”
That wasn’t easy, with the two sides of the Sri Lankan diaspora arguing in the pages of newspapers and in protests and both trying to curry favour with politicians.
Still, Mr. Dassanayake points to some events he helped put together that he considered successes, like a Tamil celebratory event in 2010 in Toronto.
Despite all the work, diaspora relations only represented perhaps a quarter of his work in Ottawa. The bulk was in running the high commission’s office: as the number two diplomat, there was the constant expectation to draw up drafts of files and provide information on issues.
Things haven’t exactly been peachy since the days of the migrant ships.
In 2011 Mr. Harper said he would boycott the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka in 2013 if he didn’t see changes in Sri Lanka’s governance of its country and respect for human rights. Two years later, he made good on his promise, declaring that “we have not only seen no improvement in these areas…we have seen a rolling back.”
Canada then cut funding to the Commonwealth Secretariat, and when Sri Lanka put Canadians on a terrorist list, Canada rejected the move, making sure everyone knew it had "no legal effect in Canada." Ottawa also supported a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that called on Colombo to address human rights practices.
Embassy rated relations between the two countries this May as “frosty.”
Mr. Dassanayake chalked it up to politics; Mr. Harper "expressed his position," he said, and "I think he has some political considerations to articulate that position…but we are not happy about that. We told Canadian policymakers that it is not a fair statement.”
Even so, Mr. Dassanayake is a happy warrior, saying he didn’t feel like relations had worsened over his posting. Even now, his president sent a message to Mr. Harper and Governor General David Johnston on Canada Day, he said.
He appealed to Canadians to see Sri Lanka “realistically”—a country trying to pull itself together after 30 years of civil war.
Ottawa would be his longest posting so far, although it would only be his third abroad.
He joined the Sri Lankan foreign service in 1998, working at the foreign ministry for about one and a half years before being posted to Sri Lanka’s mission in Chennai, in the south of India, as third secretary. As the region geographically closest to Sri Lanka, Chennai kept him quite busy, he said.
After three and a half years, he was back in Colombo as the deputy chief of protocol, and then as the deputy director at the overseas division.
Two years later, he was posted to Oslo. At the time, Norway was facilitating the ceasefire agreement between the rebels and the Sri Lankan government, which meant he became familiar with all the main actors of the Sri Lankan peace process.
Another three-and-a-half year stint later, he was back in Colombo as a director in charge of South Asia, overseeing the country’s chairmanship of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and facilitating postwar business deals and ministerial visits.
From there he would be sent to Canada, although not before undertaking a training program at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii. He said there were 87 fellows there, including some Canadians.
Nature's gift to Canada
He loved his days in Ottawa, he said, because it exposed him to new experiences. The posting was “entirely different from my other previous postings,” he said. “I am leaving this country with happiness, having gained lots of knowledge, experience and personal contacts.”
He said the city was a dream to work in: clean, no traffic, friendly people.
But he is fiercely proud of one fact that Canadians might take for granted: “I have not received a single threatening phone call.” He took that as evidence of the high commission’s professional work.
His new job back in Colombo will likely be a director or director general position, he said. He brings back with him his family including his daughter who completed high school in Ottawa.
During his time in Canada he had many tourist experiences, like driving to Halifax in the fall and visiting Montreal. But perhaps his favourite memory was Niagara Falls, what he called the “gift to Canada by nature.”
He went about seven times.
“I have seen many falls, but Niagara Falls is so amazing,” he said with a huge grin.