The Lanka News

By: Percy Seneviratne

From: Polyphony Vol.12, 1990 pp. 42-46
© 1991 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

This essay describes the establishment of a Sri Lankan newspaper in Toronto. The ethnic divisions that have led to civil war in Sri Lanka have made a significant impact on such enterprises in Canada. While the founders of the news seek to attract a broad-based Sri Lankan readership, the large community of recent Tamil Sri Lankan refugees is more likely to read one of the six Tamil papers now published in Toronto.

In April 1989, Canada/Sri Lanka Publications Inc. launched the "Lanka News", the first English-language newspaper to serve the Sri Lankan community in North America. My brother and I had been newspapermen in Singapore, and our shared experience as copywriter and journalist led us naturally to try to use these talents in our new home. We brought other credentials as well. Our grandparents had migrated from Sri Lanka to Singapore early in the century, and we were born into a multiracial and multicultural world that was a fact of our daily lives. Our idea of nationality reflected Singapore's successful accommodation of many peoples. A savant of the Indian freedom struggle has described the kind of nation that was built there and that, despite current troubles, is still being built in many of the states of South Asia.

A nation is not made by common blood, a common tongue or a common religion; these are only important helps and powerful conveniences. But wherever communities of men, not bound by family ties, are united in one sentiment, as aspiration to defend a common inheritance from their ancestors or assure a common future for their posterity, there a nation is already in existence.

For me as a representative of a new immigrant generation for my family, this definition of a nation has a special meaning, and it forms the foundation of the paper's mandate. Through the pages of the "Lanka News" we seek to reinforce the connection that the shared heritage which we and our parents and their parents have carried with us to our new homes, and to facilitate the accommodation of this legacy in a newly shared Canadian identity which will be our children's future.

The catalyst for the initiation of this enterprise was a dance organized by the Canada Sri Lanka Association. There was energy, enthusiasm, and harmony in that get-together, but the community lacked direction. Aside from the dances, cricket matches, and a series of bulletins circulated to members of the Association, there were no activities or programs that brought Sri Lankans together in creative encounters. There was no attempt to address serious issues: removing the residue of mistrust between the Sinhalese and the Tamils; equipping and steeling the new immigrants for the challenges of their adopted country; helping them to blend with other members of a multiracial Canada. Worse still, mushrooming of Sri Lankan as clubs only created compartments-fragmented a community that desperately needed a single voice because of its small size.

It was in this context that I sought to make some contribution, and as a journalist my vision was restricted to one answer: publishing. Other ethnic groups had their own publications, and the major newspapers were insular in their coverage and largely indifferent to matters outside North America unless some crisis arose in some other part of the world. It seemed to us that the community would welcome a newspaper that provided them with news of the old country, of their developing society in Canada, and of cricket, a sport that Sri Lankans play with great passion and panache.

One of the difficult decisions we had to make was whether our paper should be distributed free of charge. That would certainly have its advantages: spontaneous acceptance, less pressure on our circulation operations, and appeal to potential advertisers whose primary concern, after all, was maximum exposure for their products. But argument was outweighed by one observation: anything given free is assumed to have no value. We were convinced that a free paper would not command respect, no matter how deep our commitment to the community. We began with meagre funds and sought assistance from government and granting agencies. But our failure to secure any form of support forced us to slash production costs.

At that stage, the technical work had to be performed outside our editorial office; and as Canada was still new to us, we had to grope around for production people whose charges were appropriate to our budget. Anyone accustomed to typesetting and paste-up charges in Singapore would find the Canadian costs exorbitant. With the advertising revenue not matching our expenses, it was quickly obvious that the boat had too many leaks for two brothers with limited financial resources. With a mixture of innovation and improvisation we have survived the initial crisis. Our home-made light box-crudely fashioned with light provided by an Indonesian lamp-and other implements belonged to a primitive printing shop. But the redeeming feature in our editorial room is our desktop publishing software that is uncomplicated, fast, and versatile. It performs all the functions of newspaper production except printing and it has enabled us to produce the paper on a much lower budget.

In creating a masthead for the paper, we sought to blend a Sri Lankan element with a Canadian identity. But the pensive Lion of Sri Lanka seemed incompatible with the maple leaf, and our new national identity had to be given priority. It took us some time to develop a symbol that was both professionally attractive and a good reflection of our mandate. After an initial attempt to do the job ourselves, we hired a professional artist and the result is a masthead that has been well received and one under which we are proud to serve the community.

The main policy question which concerned us as we prepared the first edition of the paper was whether to include politics in its contents. We felt particularly qualified to deal with this issue, as our Singapore experience had enabled us to view the community friction in Sri Lanka with minds that were objectively neutral and unemotional. But we feared that political features about the situation in Sri Lanka would nourish the distrust and suspicion that existed within the community. Moreover, the Sinhalese names we bore were enough to fuel accusations of sinister intentions, so we decided to stay clear of politics or issues that would entangle us in controversy. We had launched the paper with the intention of getting all factions of the community to share a common experience, a common dream or vision. In the process we also wanted to remove the hurt and the bitterness. We wanted other Canadians to be proud of the community.

The continuing turmoil in Sri Lanka, however, demanded the attention of an honest journalist. I travelled to Colombo in early April 1989, just before the publication of our first issue. It included an eye-witness account of a troubled society involved in a violent and destructive struggle. The narrative was objective, and coverage of this issue-so important to the community settled in Canada-remains part of our regular news stories. Within our community, the "Lanka News" seeks to offer leadership in a dialogue we must have among ourselves. Since the ethnic struggles that divide Tamils and Sinhalese in our motherland have their reflection in our new Canadian home, we need to come together in order to come to terms with our Canadian life as a community.

A landmark for us in this regard was our coverage of the elevation of Tamil to compulsory status in Sri Lankan schools. Set in reverse print - that is, white letters on a black background - for emphasis, the front-page headline celebrated the change: Sinhala and Tamil to be compulsory, a major step towards integration of Sri Lanka's battling Sinhalese and Tamil communities.

In our editorial titled "Towards True Integration," we described the compulsory and equal treatment of Sinhala and Tamil in schools, with English as the link language, as possibly "the most acceptable solution to the cancerous confrontation in Sri Lanka." Though some might argue that the new legislation only addressed a language issue when the country was being torn apart in civil war, there is nothing more fundamental for national identity than language. A seed had been planted in the schools, the place where the next generation of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers might grow to care for each other and to share a common emotional experience and a common dream, with no barbed-wire barrier or bomb between them.

In Singapore, language policy has had a unifying influence by giving Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil equal status, and English a dominant place in education. The dangers and the goal as described by Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, have significance for Sri Lanka. They have, as well, meaning for all of us who have brought a new language and culture for inclusion in Canada's mosaic.

If in the four different languages of instruction, we teach our children four different standards of right and wrong, four different ideal patterns of behaviour, then we will produce four different groups of people and there will be no integrated, coherent society. What is in the balance is the very foundation of our society. For if we are not to perish in chaos caused by antagonisms and prejudices between watertight cultural and linguistic compartments, then you have to educate the right responses amongst our young people in school.

Any paper needs to build a loyal clientele in order to survive. For an "ethnic" paper, there is the additional requirement to identify with the community and be recognized as its voice. One moment stands out: a move by a section of the community to persuade the Canada Sri Lanka Association to manage a non-profit housing project. In responding to their call we drew attention to the plight of families earning $10,000-$12,000 annually who can only afford to pay $300-$400 a month for housing, far short of the average monthly rent of $800. We also pointed out that the federal and provincial governments were eager to provide funds to groups who wanted to manage such projects.

Our editorial noted that other communities and church groups were already involved in over fifty non-profit housing schemes.

The Sri Lankan community should not shirk this duty to the Canadian society. Because housing can be equated to the possession of a basic stake in society. Because these projects can help break the bondage of misery. And, because Sri Lankans would then be acknowledged as a compassionate community-a community that cares deeply for other human beings.

Our stand in the non-profit housing issue gave us a new visibility, causing many to take us more seriously. The rapport with our readers was now distinctly livelier. And with the new policy suddenly exposing the sterility of earlier efforts, we realized that our reluctance to speak out frankly about life in Sri Lanka had been unwise. We were certainly in our element when plans took shape for the historic United Way charity cricket match between the West Indies and the Rest of the World at the SkyDome in November 1990. Our match preview was a sellout outside the SkyDome on the morning of the event. Besides a pictorial centre spread which featured the magnificent SkyDome, with the fielding positions superimposed on it, we gave our readers-this time, a large percentage of them were watching a match for the first time in their lives-an insight into its excitement, with this editorial:

Facing the intimidating charge of Marshall (the West Indian bowler who is the fastest in the world)-and the hard, glossy red ball travelling at over 90 mph-can be a shattering experience. Just as disconcerting is the delivery that swings, swerves or dips; tempting but inimical; every ball like every other, yet somehow unlike, the destroyer lurking amidst any of those deliveries.

Then there are the batsmen, employing their bats like rods of correction, chastising the bowlers by forcing their deliveries to leave scorching trails as they speed towards the boundary-a sight that will, no doubt, enthral saucer-eyed spectators.

And what of the fielders who are seemingly detached and diffident? On the contrary, they wait in ambush, eyes intent, bodies poised to swoop in for the scudding ball or, with adhesive fingers ready to pluck a slashed sizzler, if they are in the slips a mere yard or two from the flashing blade.

Just when we believed there were no more minefields to traverse, the latest flare-up in the North and the East of Sri Lanka between the Tigers and the government has plunged the country into another conflict. This time, we fear the worst in the island's history. For this time, it is a real war. There can be no doubt that these troubles "at home" will continue to affect the views and relationships of Sri Lankans in Canada.

But we will remain unaffected and unemotional, reporting the facts in a detached manner. Equally important, there won't be any strident personal tone-because we are committed to the whole community. And the community here will continue to build its new life and find a place for its mix of identities, loyalties, and concerns, stimulated by the extraordinary opportunities provided in this wonderful country. We Sri Lankans intend to make a contribution and not merely be a footnote in the fascinating story of multiculturalism in Canada. The "Lanka News" intends to play its part.

Percy Seneviratne is the editor of the "Lanka News."

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