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Several Sri Lankans have immigrated and reached success in their own ways. Roy Ratnavel is one of them. The Sri Lankan born Tamil-Canadian business executive has been featured in the Canadian media for his ‘rags to riches story’ for being an immigrant who went from mailroom clerk to a Senior Executive at CI Financial, Canada’s largest independent asset management firm. Ratnavel escaped torture and imprisonment in Sri Lanka during the war and with just 50 dollars in his pocket as he fled to Canada and reached the top through determination and hard work. The businessman is also now promoting his book ‘Prisoner #1056 which dives into his life in Sri Lanka, his time behind bars and the torture he encountered. Daily Mirror online featured Roy Ratnavel on ‘The Sri Lankan Story’ where he spoke about his roots and how much he would love to give back to Sri Lanka despite his bad experiences during a lengthy interview.
Q: Roy, you’ve been recognised as one of the top 50 business executives in Canada and your book has generated a lot of interest as well. But let’s go back to your roots. Let’s talk about your Sri Lankan connections. What forced you to leave Sri Lanka and move to Canada?
Well as for the Best Executive top 50 in Canada I suspect there was some kind of an administrative error but I’ll take the accolades anyway. Yes, I was born in Sri Lanka, in fact, in Colombo, in December of 1969 and a few years after my birth my father decided to move us to the North to his ancestral hometown in Point Pedro. I started my schooling there at Hartley College. As the war broke out after the riots in 1983 there was an operation in 1987 called ‘Operation Liberation’ which was organised by the Sri Lankan Army in which I was rounded up along with 2700 other young Tamil men and boys. I was 17 at the time and I was sent to the Boosa camp in Galle. I was kept there for a few months and was tortured. Those were some unfortunate incidents. And when I came out of that, miraculously I would say, because some of my friends never made it out of there, I was able to leave the prison and my father decided that there was no future for a young boy like me, a Tamil boy, in Sri Lanka and decided to send me away. So, I came to Canada in 1988 at the age of 18 and landed here all alone. The rest is history. Today I’m sitting here talking to you, in my early 50s, about the journey I had.
Q: And how has life been after moving to Canada? You went at a very young age. Was it tough?
It was tough in the sense I was young and that was my first overseas trip and you know in a different country and a different culture. I don’t know anything about how to navigate myself into a new society. So in that respect it was tough. But on the other hand I felt safe. I didn’t feel like I was going to be persecuted for being a Tamil. So that was a plus. And man the weather was cold. I didn’t realise how cold Canada could get. But the journey was no different than for any other new immigrant. It doesn’t matter if you are a Tamil or non-Tamil. If you are new to a country you know there are going to be struggles. I met so many incredible people in this country who lent me a hand and I’ve found so many mentors along the way who have helped me through life. It wasn’t easy. There were lots of failures and lots of disappointments, but also lots of wins.
Q: Did what you had to face in Sri Lanka motivate you to work harder and get to where you are now?
Well two days after I landed in Toronto my father was shot and killed by the Indian Army and after his untimely death it left me with the feeling that if I did well enough in life somehow I could make it for the life he should have had. I had to live for two people. That drive for living for him and me at the same time became, I would say, a call to furnace my ambition to drive me forward. So I had to tell myself to win in this game called life, to make him proud for the reason that he sent me to Canada. He told me at the airport- when gave me a last hug on April 18th, 1988 as tears were flowing from his cheeks- don’t just survive, but live. So I had to live for him and I’m glad I did. Now I have a son who’s 18 years old. The ironic thing is my dad died when he was 53 years old and I was 18. Now my son is 18 and I’m 53 year old and I’m telling this story to you. Now he (dad) lives through not only me, but also my son and I think that’s his legacy and I was happy to be able to tell his (Dad’s) story, my story and the collective Tamil story to the world through this book.
Q: Let’s talk about that book: ‘Prisoner number 1056’. The name itself drew much attention.
In my mid-30s I thought about writing this book and of course the title of the book is based on my number as a prisoner. Out of the 2700 people my number was 1056. I wanted to write this book for three reasons. One to tell a tortured teenager’s story and through that to be able to give the overall Tamil community a sense of redemption and also an avenue or platform to grieve and have a cathartic experience. The second was to give the Tamil young generation- who was born outside of Sri Lanka- a voice. To give them a sense of what happened to their parents and grandparents. I think there is a sense of intergenerational trauma that cannot be ignored due to this horrible incident that took place in Sri Lanka and third and probably one of the most important reasons I wanted to write the book is to really give credit to Canada and the rest of the countries that have taken Tamils and given them refuge. They also gave us a second chance at life and I must say thank you for setting up a society that looks beyond culture, religion and colour. Canada is not without its flaws; don’t get me wrong. No country is perfect, but it’s a million times better than what I left behind. So I wanted Canadians to appreciate the country and the society they have built. So putting these three facts together is what the book is all about.
Q: Has there ever been a time where you felt if things were different, you could have been in Sri Lanka as opposed to Canada or any other country?
Obviously there are times I think about how much Sri Lanka has lost in terms of the brain power and human capital. I have met so many young men and women in this country (Canada); many who are Tamils from Sri Lanka or second generation Tamils, who are born to Sri Lankans and entrepreneurs venture capitalists, money managers and tech executives. These are people who could have been in Sri Lanka, building that country. But you know here they are in a foreign land helping Canada. Now it’s our home and it almost brings tears to my eyes because Sri Lanka had so much potential. You know when it got its independence in 1948 it was considered to be the one of the most successful countries; economically and democratically. But what happened since then is just sad. The leaders of the country have turned this into a mess and everyone lost; not just Tamils but Sinhalese as well. Even today’s issues happening in Sri Lanka are all rooted in bad policies.In the book, if you have read it, you’ll see that I’m not putting blame on every single Sinhalese citizen of that country. In fact the reason I’m alive today is because of a Sinhalese uncle who saved me and there have been many heroic Sinhalese who have come to the aid of Tamils in a very dark time. They were the flickering hope of humanity. I call it very civil human beings. I think, if anything, what I hope to achieve from this book is for people to realise that regardless of religion and culture there is something we have more in common than differences; white, black, brown, Buddhist, Hindus, Christians. This book isn’t about trying to point fingers and put blame, but it’s really about reflection. About what happened and what could have happened and how we can collectively move forward as opposed to being hung up on these divisions as opposed to common bonds.
Q: Were you surprised at the attention that the book drew? Not just in Canada but in other countries as well?
Yeah, I had a feeling it would strike a chord; especially with the Tamil community for sure. But then I’ve gotten reactions from many people, journalists like yourself from Sri Lanka, so many kind emails and notes from young Sinhalese from Colombo and all over Sri Lanka from individuals who are really yearning to read the book. Those who have downloaded the audio book and listened to it have sent me notes about what they have learnt. So I have hope for humanity because I think we have to figure out a way in that country to find common bonds and move forward. Sri Lanka has so much potential and it’s untapped and I wish I can in some way give back to that country even though I have horrible experiences. Sometimes forgiveness is the way to go and move forward. To your earlier question would I have achieved what I have achieved? I don’t know as it’s a very hypothetical question. But I think every young boy and girl should have dreams that he or she can attain a certain success in life and the country could potentially give that as long as we can get past all this racial hate and bigotry.
Q: And lets delve a bit into what you are doing in Canada.
I started in Canada when I was 19 years old. Bay Streets is Canada’s Wall Street. One day I was cleaning buildings at night to make some extra money on the side and I saw this corner office of some big shot and I thought man it would be nice to have an office on Bay Street one day. So that drove me to apply for this small asset management company. It’s about stocks, bonds, funds. It’s a tiny family-owned business; a privately operated business. When I started I was the 25th employee on Bay Street. There was a little firm called Universal Group and there was 200 million dollars on the management at the time and then, what do you know, over time it became one of the largest independent asset management companies in Canada. Now it’s managing close to 400 billion dollars. It’s been called many other names along the way. Now it’s CI Financial. So what we do is we manage assets on behalf of individuals and also institutions. We trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange and I am the Executive for a Canadian business. We have U.S. business as well. I was promoted as the Vice Chairman of the company. I think, in my opinion, professionally I have achieved the most I could in this company and I’m making an exit from this business to really focus on philanthropy and give back to society because I actually believe that when you leave this planet you don’t take your accolades with you. It’s really what kind of impact you have made in society that matters; hence I want to spend the rest of my life really helping others, new immigrants in this country and possibly helping Sri Lanka the best I could from here.
You know I have this burning desire to probably take my last breath in Sri Lanka if the conditions are friendly enough for me to return. But in some way, maybe it’s justified, that I’m a little scared to return given the trauma I experienced. But let’s see. I mean ‘never say never’ they say, right? So we’ll see if it works out. I would love to come there. I love the food and the beaches there. I love the people. Maybe one day, if the stars line up I’ll probably get a small house by the beach and enjoy my life in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan Story | Featuring Roy Ratnavel, Canadian business executive - YouTube