New friends, old ties: Building a Sri Lankan community in B.C.

A huge influx over the last five years, in a younger generation of immigrants moving into Canada – most as students –has created a need for a support outreach system. May is Asian Heritage Month, and Renuka Amaradasa, president of the Sri Lankan Friendship Association of BC (SLFABC), reports that the organization has quickly become a hub of resources and connections for Sri Lankan newcomers to Canada.

“This association has become a very important platform for newly immigrated Canadians to interact and know their family members,” he says. “They need a lot of support.”

Community through friendship

“At the end of the day, it gives quite a bit of satisfaction and happiness to look back at some of these photographs…it’s all about the love…I have [for] Sri Lanka,” Amaradasa says, referring to photos from their most recent New Year’s celebration in April.

Challenges, such as navigating mortgage applications and purchasing new vehicles, are the same as those facing any new immigrant. Although SLFABC does not provide support in the form of a designated settlement department, Amaradasa notes how their word-of-mouth networking leads to strong community bonds – highlighting the word “friendship” in their moniker.

“What they were really looking for was to have that warmth and companionship with their colleagues from a Sri Lankan background,” he says, noting the intentions of the original founders nearly four decades ago.

The Sri Lankan Friendship Association of BC hopes to bring all Sri Lankans together through community events and gatherings. | Photo Credit: EVENTZPA Events & Productions

Not only has Amaradasa been involved with SLFABC since 2012, previously serving as the vice president during the COVID-19 pandemic, he also remains close with those who founded the club. He says the association started as regular, informal gatherings between friends. Since its formalization, the SLFABC has been operating as a non-political, non-religious connecting force for Sri Lankans.

“This association does not represent a particular religion. We’re looking at the overall culture of the country,” he emphasizes, noting the cultural and religious diversity in Sri Lanka. “That’s the beauty of this association – it really [is] a catalyst and creates harmony amongst quite a diverse community.”

According to Amaradasa, Canadian perceptions of Sri Lanka are often coloured by its recent history of civil war, which involved an attempted establishment of a separate Tamil state between 1983 and 2009. And while the SLFABC has traditionally been mostly attended by Sinhalese people, Sri Lanka’s major ethnic group, he says there’s recently been more participation from B.C.’s Tamil population.

Amaradasa sees it as a welcome sign the historical gap is in the process of healing, and that all Sri Lankans in British Columbia are welcome to join the community and engage collectively in its rich cultural celebrations.

“I’m glad that I’m making progress with engaging not only the Sinhalese majority but also the Tamils,” he says.

Representing Sri Lankan Canadians

For Amaradasa, an example of this inclusive spirit is their annual new year celebration, which was attended for the first time by the president of the Tamil Cultural Society of BC. Traditionally an agricultural society, the Sri Lankan new year falls on April 13 to mark the harvest season. This year’s event, held on April 6, was attended by over 450 guests dressed in bright colours and included traditional dancing, new year games and food.

“Mostly, it is about exposing that to the new generation, to the kids, for them to see where [their] parents are coming from, what are the cultures, how they get together, how they celebrate,” Amaradasa says.

SLFABC also holds an annual formal dinner and dance later in the year. Amaradasa notes that in the past, they have brought over a traditional Sri Lankan band for this event. Another key gathering is the Sports Day (July 6), a full day event featuring the popular Sri Lankan sport of cricket. Aside from events, SLFABC also serves as a communication channel for the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa.

“If there would be any Sri Lankan dignitaries [or] government representatives who would come to Vancouver, Ottawa will reach out to us and communicate that; and we try to represent the Sri Lankan community,” he says, citing the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s visit as an example.

Amaradasa also notes the opening of a Sri Lankan consulate in BC last year. While Sri Lankans have had to travel to Ottawa for consulate services in the past, the SLFABC is working to spread the word of the new, local consulate.


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