Long Reads

[Editors note: Emil van der Poorten is a regular columnist in the Sri Lanka media. His short article in the Edmonton Journal (Violence still plagues my Sri Lankan homeland) prompted an invitation to contribute a more fuller account of his life to Groundviews. Emil’s story and his many adventures with politics recounted here with an acerbic wit offer unique insights into political figures and events that have shaped our lives.]

Looking through the scraps of memorabilia from the time prior to my departure to Canada and then through my Canadian clippings to those accumulated in Sri Lanka since my return was a fascinating and nostalgic experience that I would not have indulged in without the stimulus of having to write this piece for “Long Reads” in Groundviews. The exercise was not unlike browsing through old diaries, except the material in those scrapbooks was more akin to snapshots from a lifetime spent in significantly different circumstances in two very different parts of the world.

My Sri Lankan clippings from the 1970’s were pretty sparse, primarily because most people then didn’t have their “fifteen minutes of fame” repeated at regular intervals in the media.  However, reading some of that material brought back memories of my earliest political association. The year was 1965 and I was persuaded that I needed to actively support the United National Party’s (UNP’s) candidate in the Galagedera electorate in the General Election that the “Weeping Widow,” Sirimavo Bandaranaike, had called.

It was an exercise that I look back on with a great deal of pleasure. As the saying goes, I “worked my butt off” for W.M.G Tikiri Banda, the UNP candidate. One of my early memories of that campaign, which began early in the day and most often culminated with a de-briefing at my home in electric light provided by a Lister generator, was quite a dramatic one. I visited the bathroom to empty my bladder late the first night. Lo and behold, the liquid I passed was dark red, almost black in colour! As might be imagined, this was rather frightening. However, on further discussion with those near and dear to me, the cause was located: the dye in the cheap aerated waters (“pop”) that I had consumed throughout the day that was offered by a variety of poor, but hospitable villagers in Tumpane and Harispattuwa. I made sure that I restricted my liquid intake to water or King Coconut (thambili) thereafter, even at the risk of offending the villagers who gave so readily of the very little they had. Things do change over half a century, even in Sri Lanka, because I am sure you don’t have what amounted to cottage industry aerated water manufactories any longer!

Our candidate, a small village trader with the nickname “Ottupaal (scrap rubber) Banda” was as feisty as they come and was not intimidated by the political heavyweight, Tamara Kumari Illangaratne, who was his opponent from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). To cut a long story short, after a team of committed and hardworking people – composed primarily of youth – had put their “all” into the campaign, Tikiri Banda emerged victorious, though by a very slim margin.  He and I were, for the first and I am sure the last time, carried on the shoulders of supporters from what was then the New Kandy Kachcheri to the Dalada Maligawa to give thanks for our victory. Heady stuff, indeed!

I was given cause, not so long afterwards, to regret this political adventure.

Life went on for me during the five years of UNP rule that ensued. I neither expected nor received so much as one “favour” of any description at that time. I diversified my agricultural efforts, replanting land in “non-traditional” crops; established a sheep-enterprise that was considered a bit too sophisticated for Sri Lanka at the time by an internationally-recognised New Zealand expert in the field; broadened the livestock effort into broilers, layers, muscovy ducks, hogs, a dairy cow upgrading effort and even the beginnings of a beef-cattle enterprise. While the experience of dealing with people in the Department of Animal Production and Health of the Department of Agriculture and the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya was an unadulterated pleasure, I experienced some real heart-burn when I was confronted with a medical bureaucracy that viewed my efforts to seek expert medical help in England for a very seriously ill wife with what can be described politely as indifference.  At a time when, despite stringent Exchange Control regulations, some of the “chosen” were spending joyous summer holidays in Britain, our entreaties were greeted with cynicism. Then our MP decided to go to bat for us and talk about a bull in a China shop! He raved at the Minister of Health and moved heaven and earth to obtain the required clearance for us to go to England. If it was not for his intervention, my wife at the time would probably not have survived more than a few years longer after being diagnosed and having to undergo surgery subsequently for a tumor that was described as afflicting only “one in a million.”

Not having had any favours from a UNP government, I was to experience, in spades, what a vengeful SLFP government could subject me to.

When the 1970 election rolled round, I was in two minds whether to campaign for the UNP or not.  However, a friend of mine, no longer among the living, persuaded me that the UNP was certainly the lesser of the evils facing us and that we should, once again, man the battlements, gird our loins (make your choice!) and seek the re-election of Tikiri Banda.

While I didn’t put anything like the effort I had five years before into the campaign, I did more coordinating and acted as the “banker” for campaign funds from donors who were reluctant to hand cash over to our candidate and his minions. When I found that there was escalating violence in the constituency (I was told that boulders were being rolled in front of and onto cars taking seriously-ill patients to hospital etc.,) I went to the Superintendent of Police (SP) in Kandy, Merrick Gooneratne if memory serves me right, to seek his intervention.  To his question as to whether I was suggesting that it was only Mrs Illangaratne’s supporters that were guilty, I answered in the negative and asked that police strength be reinforced to stop the law of the jungle becoming the Highway Code, particularly after dark. The SP agreed to beef up the police presence in Galagedera, though I don’t know to this day whether that ever happened.

Shortly after this, I had a request to meet with the late E.W Balasuriya, the gambling czar and businessman of Kandy. “Bala” gently suggested that I desist from working in the field for the UNP and, instead, donate some money to party coffers as he and other businessmen were doing. I told him politely that I had to continue doing what I was most effective at and I returned home.

After the UNP defeat at the 1970 election, there were very noisy and seemingly violent mobs roaming up and down the Kurunegala-Kandy road from which I had access to my home.

A police inspector from Kandy on special post-election duty in Galagedera came looking for a place to have a shower and, maybe, a decent meal. He found both in our home and proceeded to tell me that I shouldn’t step out on the highway because they had been given instructions not to intervene if any UNPers were attacked. I took his advice and confined my family and myself to our home for a couple of weeks. I had the distinct impression during the latter part of this campaign and what followed that the SLFP forces had a plan for post-election action, which anticipated either a UNP victory or Dudley Senanayake hanging onto power after being defeated. In any event, the storm troopers who subsequently became those of the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurrection could scarcely conceal their militancy during the period immediately following the election. Many of those young people, I know for a fact, comprised the first wave of Che Guevarists in our part of the country in 1971.

The Balasuriya summons also achieved new significance when, sometime after the election, I was reliably informed that two individuals of significantly unsavoury appearance had been making not-so-tender inquiries as to where I lived.  Both of them were, apparently, from the Kolonnawa area, Mr. T.B. Illangaratne’s political home turf at the time! The witch-hunt began immediately after the election.  Hector Kobbekaduwa, a not-very-successful lawyer at the Kandy bar, assumed the mantle of Minister of Agriculture and immediately began seeking out “enemies” on whom to vent his spleen.  In this he had an admirable helper in Mrs. Illangaratne who had returned to Parliament by defeating Tikiri Banda in Galagedera.

Kobbekaduwa named my family and me in the House of Representatives and threatened us with all kinds of dire consequences. I was personally surprised at the man’s conduct because I knew him quite well as a classmate of my maternal uncles and a friend of my parents. Anyway, the first step that the tandem took was to appropriate van der Poorten land. Unfortunately for them, my holdings were entirely within the Akurana electorate, one of the few held by the UNP. No matter, there were other fish to fry, in that my two siblings owned an estate within the Galagedera electorate. The two of them were lifetime Trotskyites and would rather have been dead than be seen as UNP supporters. In fact, one of my brothers had his first “baton-charge experience” inclusive of a busted head in Kandy by working for… guess who?  Tamara Kumari Illangaratne when she (successfully) contested the Kandy seat in a by-election in the late nineteen-forties or early fifties!

A footnote to that particular story is that subsequent to the fall of Mrs. B’s government in 1977, the man who held my brothers’ Powers of Attorney, took the government to court and the acquisition was held to be completely unjustified and driven by vengeance pure and simple. The land was returned in what, I had been informed, was a landmark decision. Anyway, with land reform – another Kobbekaduwa lunacy from the results of which the mid-country of Sri Lanka in particular will never recover – the writing was on the wall for my family and I. I knew for a certainty that until the Illangaratne-Kobbekaduwa cabal had done me in, in one shape, form or fashion, I and my young family would have no peace.

Thanks to several sisters-in-law who had settled in Canada, emigrating to that country did not present too much of a challenge.  I do recall, however, the Canadian Emigration officer, who in those days came down from New Delhi periodically to hold interviews, asking me what we expected to do in Canada. Our response was, “whatever it takes.” My family and I knew we were leaving a comfortable, upper-class existence for goodness knew what in a country very different from tropical Sri Lanka.

However, before we began the next chapter of our lives, along came the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurgency with a little chapter in our lives covering that time that could provide a quite fascinating short story. That, though, will have to await another time and another opportunity. Suffice it to say that because we believed that even an insurgent accused of dire deeds is entitled to “his day in court,” my little family was placed at considerable risk when we chose to harbour an alleged Che Guevarist leader from the Mawanella-Kegalla area until he was able to surrender to the army in Kandy. The alternative, when he sought refuge with us after the back of that rebellion was broken, was to hand him over to the police immediately, which was a step that would have led to him being beaten to death and added to the human pyres burning at night in the Asgiriya area. That fate was not one owing its origin to local gossip but described to us by an army officer patrolling our part of the Province. However, this story even has a happy ending: the man is still alive and living close to Kandy, 40 years later.

My first job in central Canada – Toronto to be exact – was as an accounts clerk at British Petroleum Canada.   It was not ideal employment for someone who wanted to stay in agriculture. Thanks to a Sri Lankan friend who had preceded us into Canada and had secured employment in agriculture, I was able to follow suit and made the winter trek out west, leading the way (in my old Rover 2000TC car) for my family who followed by airline. As I soon discovered, that was hardly the vehicle for Canadian conditions, particularly during the winter! Brooks in Alberta was an oil town and was as conservative as they come in a province that is alleged to contain the blue-eyed Sheiks of Canada. I discovered, however, that the (very successful) local paper had an owner-editor who was part of an endangered species: he was a Liberal in one of the most red-necked towns in the most conservative province in Canada!

I began contributing articles to his paper and made the mistake of saying that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Liberal Prime Minister of Canada at the time, was not a frothing-at-the-mouth communist. As I discovered, this was a very dangerous thing to do that was akin to extolling the virtues of Satan in a Bible-belt town. I was a marked man and in due course, despite the fact that I had done some very useful work for my employer as a commodity buyer for what was then Canada’s largest (cattle) feedlot with a capacity of 25,000 head, I became “redundant.”

This was my first taste of political victimisation in my new home.

We moved farther west to a very beautiful part of the province where, literally, “the prairie met the foothills of the Rockies.” I was still in the livestock feed business and we spent four years in this town of barely 3000 souls where the only other Asians were a Ugandan couple who had been dispossessed by Idi Amin.  Despite its ultra-conservatism and Bible-belt underpinnings, my family and I were treated fairly and with respect and never experienced anything resembling discrimination. I even began writing a regular racquet sports column to our small-town weekly thanks to my facility with the ‘Imperialist language!’  Even though I wasn’t a businessmen, per se, I was elected to the Presidency of the local Chamber of Commerce over several consecutive years (a once-in-a-lifetime experience!), established a local club for the racquet sports and became very involved in them, beginning a seven-year tenure as a Regional Director on the Provincial Badminton association. I mention all of this trivia because it was indicative of a country where, even if the majority of its older settlers might not have been comfortable with a “foreigner” at all times, fairness prevailed and discrimination was very much an exception. I cannot over-emphasize this because I was a new immigrant of colour, espousing “left-wing” views both in person and in print, in a province that had a series of increasingly conservative parties in power from way, way back!  In fact, those Sri Lankans who might remember the early days of commercial radio in Sri Lanka might recall a morning fifteen-minute programme called “Back to the Bible.”  The originator of that programme was “Bible Bill” Aberhart, the first Social Credit Premier of Alberta whose party stayed in power for better than thirty years, commencing at the Great Depression.

My involvement in the community led me also to a preventive social services programme run by a volunteer board that was funded by the Province but with complete local autonomy. I served as its Chair for several years and then decided, without the benefit of a Social Work education, to seek paid employment in a similar programme. This gave me my first taste of “culture shock” since leaving Sri Lanka. I had charge of a similar programme to that in which I had been board chairman. Only this one covered an area about as big as Sri Lanka, with a population, if memory serves me right, of twelve thousand souls in Northern Alberta.  A lot of real estate and very few bodies, most of them Indians and Metis (of mixed ancestry)! Suffice it to say that I was very glad I had been the successful candidate because I shall always remember 1981 to 1987 as probably my most challenging years in Canada.  Despite an ultra-conservative provincial government, a federal government only [1]marginally less so and local politicians – on the majority of whom the appellation “redneck” would sit lightly – a dedicated team of volunteer board members and staff successfully delivered a plethora of services within the programme’s mandate.

The work we engaged in was directed at building self-esteem and community-capacity among very disadvantaged people who lived under conditions that would be usual in the Third World. We had Home Support programmes; day cares; play-schools and youth programmes. We established Information and Referral Centres (staffed with local people) providing access to government services to people of limited formal education. All of this was done with a minimum of funding, the exercise of a maximum of ingenuity and an absence of anything resembling self-aggrandisement. A contrast to what the country of my birth now provides, unfortunately.

Those six years ended too soon. However, before it did, it started me back on the road of formal electoral politics.

I joined the local New Democratic Party constituency association while in the north. This was Canada’s version of left-wing political activity. In fact, the province adjoining Alberta – Saskatchewan – had elected the first Socialist premier of any North American jurisdiction, when Tommy Douglas won a provincial election.  He went on to introduce “socialised” medicine to that province and in time, the Government of Canada followed suit by providing, arguably, the best medi-care system in the world. On a note of trivia, Tommy Douglas was the grandfather of Kiefer Sutherland, the movie and TV star, and the father-in-law of movie actor Donald Sutherland. Kiefer’s mother, Shirley Douglas, an actress and political firebrand had to be rescued once by her Premier father from a police cell in California, thanks to her active support of the Black Panthers. So, all in all, even in an ultra-conservative province like Alberta, being a New Democrat had a certain cachet!

The first Canadian election in which I was active was that of 1986 when, lo and behold, the New Democrats went from a grand total of 2 seats in the Alberta legislature to 16 and Official Opposition status! Within a year, I paid a price for that success when an ultra-conservative volunteer board, which had been deliberately appointed to get rid of the “leftists” in the system, fired me.

With a rather decent (in terms of what prevailed then) settlement in my pocket, I moved into an identical position in the southern town in which I had lived before moving up north. I continued my political involvement; such as it was, in a place where there was virtually no evidence of the NDP. Within a short time, financial constraints began to threaten the programme and it ceased to exist in a form that required an Executive Director.

My next stop was as the manager of a “camp” for the physically and mentally disabled who spent a couple of weeks each year outside their institutional or home environment. While the prospect of working with such a client group was intimidating in the extreme, jumping in the deep-end did not induce any of the traumas I had expected!

A year later, my wife and I were engaged by an Indian Band to set up and manage a business on an Indian Reserve. All the pieces were in place to make the auto repair shop-restaurant-conveniencestore-gas station into a roaring success. However, a Board riven by the traditional destructive rivalries of Indian communities had the capacity to induce suicidal impulses in any who had the misfortune to be caught in the middle!  It was a new and bitter experience of “Indian politics” for the both of us. Suffice it to say that that year couldn’t have ended sooner and provided material for a slim volume in and of itself!

The next three years were spent in formal, paid employment as a full-time organiser/fund raiser for the Provincial NDP. That was another great experience working with people of skill and commitment. When the recriminations following the devastating electoral defeat of 1993 had settled, some of us decided that we needed to set up a new political party without the elements of policy that we saw as having brought about the debacle of that year and which the organisation’s “establishment” refused to abandon. We chose the most democratic method of establishing a new political entity – going door to door with a petition and obtaining the signatures of thousands of citizens who supported our efforts.  Let me tell you that knocking on doors through cold winter nights in Alberta is no fun as a Yorkshireman of Irish origin, an Ethiopean communist and a Sri Lankan, among others, will vouch for! When the snow settled, we had succeeded and The Forum Party of Alberta was born. We ran our leader in a by-election to “show the flag” and four in our group, yours truly included, were candidates in the next provincial general election.

The results left something to be desired and we soon discovered that it took a hell of a lot of money to establish and maintain a political party in Alberta! At the end of that exercise, we all continued to be politically active and support progressive causes, some returning to the NDP fold.

My stint as an employee of a political party was followed by my time as the Executive Director of the Edmonton Multicultural Society lasted as long as that organisation’s (diminishing) municipal, provincial and federal funding. While Edmonton does not have as diverse a population as Toronto and is a much smaller city than the capital of Ontario, it does have a significant population of “people of colour” and I derived a great deal of satisfaction from working with a host of them.

The next logical step was to move into the position of paid coordinator of the community organisation in which I had worked on a volunteer basis for several years – the Immigrant Neighbourhoods Community Planning Association (INCPA).  This was exciting and challenging work with a wide array of nationalities: the proverbial wisdom was 40+ nationalities, speaking 10 major languages within a small, central part of the provincial capital city. While this organisation generated considerable favourable publicity for its successful organising of a significant diversity of residents, it also provided me with the opportunity of managing the campaigns of individual candidates of the NDP at Federal, Provincial and Territorial elections in Canada.  These were campaigns in which the eight-hour day was conspicuous by its absence, but never lacked for variety! The NDP had a tradition of grassroots organising and campaigning, and the utilisation of large volunteer resources. In addition, I was fortunate in the diversity of candidates whose campaigns I managed.  Among them were a retired nurse; a man who had been the only aboriginal speaker of a Commonwealth legislature and the chief of the largest Indian Band in the Yukon Territory; a black woman of Caribbean heritage, a school psychologist who owed his origins to the Punjab and others with marginally more mundane personal and professional backgrounds.

Diversity notwithstanding, the common thread running through every campaign was a commitment to social justice and fairness.

The change in my marital status and the advancing years prompted a “reconnaisance” trip to Sri Lanka shortly after the 2004 Tsunami.

As my Canadian friends keep telling me, I should either have taken a longer look at the land of my birth or I should have made the evaluatory trip a little later, after Mahinda Rajapaksa had established his suzerainty!

No matter, there’s no use in crying over spilt milk, as they say!

I went back to Canada, managed yet another Federal election campaign that spanned the Christmas holidays and came back to Sri Lanka having decided to start a new life here. In the meantime, the partner who was to share the rest of my days had begun the (Herculean) task of seeking to repair and renovate what passes for an ancestral home to the van der Poortens in Sri Lanka. And Herculean it certainly was, as it has proved to be yet another “work in progress” that will, I am sure, have to be continued by at least the next generation!

The attempts to restore a semblance of economic viability to agricultural pursuits on the land have proved, largely, ineffectual. The damage done by the vermin that now infest the surrounding land, which was once a plantation and now a secondary jungle thanks to Hector Kobbekaduwa’s “Land Reform,” is beyond belief and we have just about reached the point of throwing up our hands in disgust and resignation. The real losing battle though has been in terms of governance that makes it impossible for anyone except thieves and thugs (and politicians) to prosper. The fact that I embarked on a career as a columnist in the last of the independent Sunday papers has not helped our case either, with that fact proving a real roadblock to progress from time to time, not to mention the threats from those who don’t share my opinions and the constant, well-meaning warnings from those who do!

I am comforted through all of this, though, by good and sincere friends and the old saying that goes, “the darkest hour precedes the dawn!”