New Canadian Media
Monday, 10 December 2018 15:30

What Stops Refugees from doing Journalism?

By Maria Assaf in Oxford, England  

In 2016 Canada’s first Syrian newspaper, The Migrant, was founded by Kameel Nasrawi. Nasrawi worked as a journalist and screenplay writer in Damascus before he and his family came to Canada as refugees two years ago. The Migrant shares positive stories about Syrians across Canada to inspire others in the community to create their own success stories.  

Many diasporas across Canada have started their own media outlets to connect their communities, share vital information and to create a sense of home. Some media outlets like the Philippine Reporter, whose publishers faced political imprisonment in the Philippines before settling in Canada, use journalism as a means to challenge the status quo and discuss the effect political events have on the members of their community. 

Back in 2015, Europe was in the midst of a self-proclaimed “refugee crisis.” As the European Union discussed a controversial deal with Turkey that would keep refugees outside its borders, I followed seven Syrian refugee reporters in Istanbul. Leicester University published a paper I wrote  in May 2016 about the challenges these reporters faced regarding freedom of expression.  

Importance of refugee journalism 

Richard Carver and Guglielmo Verdirame conducted research in Rwanda and former Zaire in 2001 and found that refugee outlets help their communities exercise their right of freedom of expression and access to information. It also provides communities access to comprehensive and accurate data about conditions in their countries of origin, which is essential when deciding whether or not to repatriate.  

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Nasrawi explained that because of the language barrier, many newcomers are unaware of programs run by the Canadian government, programs designed to help them integrate into Canadian society.  

Tiziano Bonini wrote that refugee reporting can be an important tool for those who may never be able to return home. For refugees, having publications that understand key issues in their community is vital. For example, The Migrant features articles on issues such as divorce, sex education and entrepreneurship, which the paper found to be pressing among the Syrian-Canadian community.  

With 68.5 million people forcibly displaced around the world and 10,832 refugees accepted into Canada between January and September 2018, ensuring that refugee populations are able to exercise their right to freedom of expression is a pressing issue.   

Challenges it faces 

However, engaging in journalism as a means of challenging “the establishment” is an almost impossible task for refugees worldwide. Although Article 19 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights foregrounds everyone’s right to speak out, international legislation often stops refugees from engaging with political issues. 

The Organization of African Unity’s 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, for instance, specifically forbids refugees from engaging in “subversive activities” or “attacking” a member state of the OAU “through the press, or by radio." Verdirame and Barbara Harrell-Bond found examples of African states that threatened to repatriate refugee journalists for their work. 

Refugees often face an uncertain legal status. In 2016, Turkey hosted 2.7 million Syrian refugees as “guests." A signatory to the Refugee Convention, -the law that governs refugee affairs internationally, Turkey decreed to only grant refugee status to Europeans. These restrictions made it hard for refugee journalism to thrive.

Funding for refugee journalism often comes from donors such as INGOs or Western governments, and it comes with conditions attached. The Syrian reporters I met in Turkey mentioned that funding tended to go to Western-friendly outlets and was usually provided for six months up to a year, making it difficult for reporters to set up sustainable businesses. Outlets often self-censored and avoided discussing Turkish political affairs. “Those are restrictions we are putting on ourselves. Because Turkey is the only place we are left with to work,” one reporter said. In some cases, Syrian newspapers also had an uncertain legal status. In 2014, Turkish authorities began to request that media outlets have government-issued licenses to operate, which many outlets were not able to obtain. The Turkish government also monitors and often interrogates these outlets about their coverage. 

Even in countries with fewer restrictions regarding free expression, doing journalism for refugees has been a historical challenge. Jewish refugee reporters fleeing Nazi Germany found that journalism schools in the United States refused to accept them, often citing anti-Semitic rationale. In Canada, Hermie Garcia, publisher of Canada’s Philippine Reporter, mentioned that he and his wife, who were journalists in the Philippines, were unable to find work in mainstream media because they lacked “Canadian experience.”   

Lack of a refugee voice in the global mainstream media  

Major texts on journalistic scholarship, such as the Handbook for Journalistic Studies by Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch, don’t consider refugee reporting as its own genre. However, scholars like Ullamaija Kivikuru, Melisa Wall, Madeline Otis Campbell and Dana Janbek have warned that the lack of refugee voices in international media reinforces soft-colonial discourse by portraying refugee lives as less valuable than those of the “developed world.” Their study revealed that international journalists often took photos of Syrian refugees without their permission and printed distorted stories about them. 

Palestinian reporters play an essential role in the production of international news about Palestine. But despite having relevant journalistic skills, their contribution is usually limited to translators, producers and fixers. Often, to keep their jobs at international news organizations, they avoid disclosing their views on their situation. Journalistic objectivity is often cited as the reason behind preventing those affected by conflict from telling their own stories. However, literature about multiculturalism and multimedia reporting shows that by collaborating across different communities, journalism can help address inequality.   

Seeking solutions

Many refugee and migrant journalists end up starting their own community publications after being unable to work for the mainstream media in their host countries. Some abandon the profession altogether. This issue is not unique to journalism, as underemployment is a banner issue for many Canadian immigrants.   

Several of the Syrian reporters I interviewed, sought alternative funding from international media outlets who didn’t attach conditions to their aid. Others tried using advertising, charging for content or getting donations from businessmen, but these often came with requests for editorial control.  

One reporter said “I think before we were fighting for independent media from the regime. Now we are fighting for independent media from everyone.” 

Members of the Syrian press in Turkey have formed alliances such as the Syrian Network of Print Journalists (SNP) to share expertise and facilities. Similarly in Canada, The Migrant recruits volunteer writers from different Arab communities, because many people in these communities are journalists in similar situations.  

Existing in a challenging time environment or panorama. refugee journalism still manages to help their communities have more agency in the international conversation about their lives. However, much needs to be done in Canada and abroad to ensure that refugees can exercise their right to freedom of expression. Refugee reporting funders need to respect the freedom of the press and provide realistic timeframes to their aid for these outlets to thrive and become self-sustaining. 

Finally, despite mainstream colonial definitions of objectivity, the people best suited to tell refugees’ stories are refugees themselves. 

Maria Assaf is a Canadian journalist and MA in Development and Emergency Practice. 

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Daniel McNeil in Ottawa

When he wrote about a galaxy far, far away (the United States, in the early days of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency), Barack Obama remembered the nights he spent in college dorms with “the more politically active black students.

“The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets” who discussed “Franz [sic] Fanon”.

He may not quite recall how to spell the name of the anti-colonial activist and intellectual, but he knows how to evoke the motley crew of immigrants and minorities that God-fearing American politicians are so often willing to associate with the dark side.

As we gear up for Star Wars Rogue One, many people seem surprised that Obama might be able to find common ground with the “gregarious” Donald Trump, a reality TV star who believes in monetizing pain and suffering. Trump’s approach, however, is not something plucked from the realm of science-fiction.

It is all too familiar to the 44th President of the United States who has graciously hosted celebrities who have achieved renown by monetizing pain and suffering, happily accepted their donations to the Democratic Party and made sure to reward them with medals of freedom and nights to remember at the White House.

We need to talk more, not less, about this pragmatism if we are to make sense of the connections between Trump and Obama and, more broadly, the links between the type of authoritarianism that repels liberals in Canada and the U.S. and the kind of exclusionary behaviour that liberals are wont to ignore.

Aloof President

One of the key tensions for pragmatic liberal nationalists is, unwittingly, displayed in The Bridge, David Remnick’s recent biography of Obama. In it, Remnick insisted that Obama worked hard to obtain the ‘‘emotional connection that marked his performances [on the campaign trail] later on.’’

Then, two pages later, claims that Obama ‘‘clearly felt that the days of nationalism and charismatic racial leadership were outdated and played out.” Such belief that charismatic leadership and emotional appeals should be celebrated when securing a liberal future for the nation (and denounced as part of an intolerant past when used in service to local and transnational identities) may, perhaps, have influenced Obama’s reaction to Edward Said, a worldly intellectual, Palestinian exile and secular humanist.

As we learn from Remnick’s biography, Obama took a course with Said at Columbia University and was unimpressed by one of the leading post-colonial intellectuals to take up Fanon’s clarion call to speak truth to power. Obama-the-student wanted to read Shakespeare rather than get bogged down in post-colonial analysis.

He wanted to figure out how to sway audiences and opinion leaders rather than deconstruct what philosophers and political scientists like to consider western civilization. The President, dismissed as an aloof Professor by his critics, never wanted to turn out like one of those tenured radicals flogging newspapers on the fringes of college towns.

He might move Winston Churchill’s bust out of the Oval Office to make some room for Martin Luther King Jr., but he’d never forget to remind us that he thinks the British imperialist was a great guy.

Those of us who trace the source of our affirmations of emancipation and enlightenment to the struggles of diverse postcolonial peoples for democracy and liberation around the world may find it more productive – morally as well as politically – to pay more attention to the Obama dismissed as a flake.

When we do, we are reminded that Said was inspired by the wise counsel of Hugo of St. Victor, and a secular humanism that believes that “the man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.”

Trump and Obama find their homeland sweet. They have the power to treat lands across the world as their playgrounds, casinos, and golf courses. It is not clear that they are willing to propose anything that the American people may associate with foreign tastes or values – or at least anything that seems too foreign.

“Second-generation immigrants”

One consequence of all the existential debates about Canadian identity is that Canadian politicians and pundits are often willing and able to view their own land through the eyes of foreigners from the United States and Western Europe.

Yet they remain susceptible to the stentorian tones of the political scientists who uncritically talk about underdevelopment, and the passive aggression of the social scientists who only think to use the second generation immigrant to talk about so-called “visible minorities.”

It is rare to find discussions of overdevelopment in Canada that may help us to work through our attachments to a public sphere convulsed by fear, sickness and nostalgia. It is even rarer to find mainstream journalists using the term “second-generation immigrant” to describe someone racialized as white, particularly if his or her parents were born in the U.S. or the U.K.

For all the column inches devoted to covering an “immigrant from Tanzania” who is running to lead the Conservative Party of Canada, it is difficult to find any articles that hailed David Miller, the former mayor of Toronto who was born in the U.S., or Tony Clement, a Canadian MP born in the U.K., as immigrant candidates.

If we are serious about creating a world with a more human face, we may want to spend more time challenging the unbalanced use of phrases like under-development and second-generation immigrant – whether they pass for common sense in political debates, our media or our universities.

We may wish to heed the insights of courageous intellectuals, some of whom happen to be immigrants and exiles unwilling to give up their critical perspective, intellectual reserve, and moral courage to win awards and popularity.

Daniel McNeil is Associate Professor of History and Migration and Diaspora Studies at Carleton University. His most recent book is Sex and Race in the Black Atlantic. More of his articles on identity, culture and belonging can be found here and here.

Published in Commentary

by Our National Correspondent

July 30 marked the 11th anniversary of the Patriotic Vanguard newspaper published from Vancouver. In our continuing effort to profile and work with ethnic media across Canada, New Canadian Media conducted an interview by e-mail with the paper's founder and chief executive officer, Gibril Gbanabome Koroma, a Sierra Leonean journalist in exile. Koroma is pictured at right, in front of the Vancouver Public Library. 

Q: It's been 11 years since you set up the Patriotic Vanguard newspaper. Why did you set it up and why did you choose the name "Patriotic Vanguard"?
Well, I came to Canada in the year 2000 because of the war in my country, Sierra Leone, and because I was a journalist back home (editor and correspondent for foreign media), I just could not stop writing. So, I contacted fellow journalists from my native country, Sierra Leone, scattered all over the world and set up the Patriotic Vanguard. As you know, it's not easy for a new immigrant to get work in Canadian media, but that did not bother me. I just created my own newspaper. Simple.
The name Patriotic Vanguard came about because we all felt we should do something for our country, even though we found ourselves elsewhere. We can live and work and contribute to say Canadian, British, Australian society and so on and still contribute to the country we left behind, a country that had done so much for us. It's okay to be patriotic towards more than one country. I love Canada and I also love Sierra Leone. I think that feeling is at the core of Canadian multiculturalism.
It's okay to be patriotic towards more than one country.
Q: Sierra Leone is a small nation and rarely makes it into Canadian (and presumably, American) news. Who is your audience and why do you think they've become fans of your newspaper?
We have a vast audience or readership of Sierra Leoneans and non-Sierra Leoneans scattered all over the world. This is a global online newspaper, a diaspora newspaper, which is eagerly read at home and elsewhere, every minute, very hour, every day. Just the other day, somebody contacted us from Harvard University asking for information.
Q: Do you hope to influence the government in Freetown? How?
We did not set out in 2000 to influence anybody. We only wanted to relay the news and comment on happenings back home especially when we observed a distorted presentation of news about our country in the mainstream Western media. We saw so much ignorance and sometimes outright nonsense being written about Africa and Africans, and we saw it as our duty to correct and counter such nonsense whenever we could and we are still doing it. We also publish a lot about Canada and Africans living in Canada and other western countries. Of course, our people and the government back home have very high respect for us.
We saw so much ignorance and sometimes outright nonsense being written about Africa and Africans, and we saw it as our duty to correct and counter such nonsense ...
Q: Please give us a description of how you run the paper and its online editions. Do you plan to expand?
The Patriotic Vanguard is basically an online newspaper for now, but we plan to have a print edition if we get funding, which will, of course, make it more general, incorporating news form other communities in Canada. A print edition in Sierra Leone is also being planned. We are all volunteers; nobody is paid anything. 
Q: Lastly, what do Canadians need to know about the Patriotic Vanguard and Sierra Leone?
Well, a lot of Canadians already know about the Patriotic Vanguard, including you! For those who do not know about us yet, it is what is normally called an 'ethnic publication' targeting Africans everywhere, including in Canada, with special emphasis on Sierra Leone, the birthplace of the publisher (myself) and most of the staff, who are all volunteers. But as I said, we plan to expand into publishing news about other communities in Canada in a print edition if we get funding. We really want to make it a meeting place for all communities in Canada.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Top Stories

Guest Commentary by Pouyan Tabasinejad, Bijan Ahmadi, Mehdi Samadian

The nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 countries on July 14, 2015, marked a milestone in the history of world diplomacy.

The final agreement, which was a result of 20 months of arduous negotiations, was implemented beginning January 16, 2016, with a formal easing of sanctions in exchange for limits on the country’s nuclear program. However, while many of Canada’s allies have already begun to reap the rewards of the deal by reengaging with Iran economically and diplomatically, Canada has not re-engaged as quickly.

Canada is lagging behind her allies. A recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that Iran has complied with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA. This means that Iran’s reintegration into the international community and economy will likely continue to accelerate.

Since implementation of the nuclear deal several international companies have been able to conclude contracts in a variety of fields with Iran. This includes deals with Boeing and Airbus, worth billions.

Diplomatic relations

Reintegration has also taken place in the diplomatic realm as well. The British embassy in Tehran was opened in August 2015 after four years of closure. Over the last 12 months, several countries have started to re-engage economically with Iran and further economic and trade deals are expected in the near future.

In Canada, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lifted some of Canada’s sanctions on Iran in February 2016, leaving in place those relating to arms, Iran’s ballistic missiles program and restrictions on a list of designated individuals.

With a large Iranian Canadian community (a population of around 300,000), who have links with Iran and familiarity with Iranian culture and business norms, there are enormous opportunities for Canada to engage and collaborate with Iran in a variety of fields including trade, cultural exchanges and collaboration in science and research.

[T]here are enormous opportunities for Canada to engage and collaborate with Iran in a variety of fields including trade, cultural exchanges and collaboration in science and research.

Diaspora's views

The Iranian diaspora in Canada have also been largely supportive of the nuclear deal with Iran and re-engagement.

Last year, in two surveys conducted by the Iranian Canadian Congress (ICC), close to 80 per cent of the respondents reported that they were positive about the outcome of the nuclear deal and expressed their hope for rapprochement between Canada and Iran.

[C]lose to 80 per cent of [survey]respondents reported that they were positive about the outcome of the nuclear deal and expressed their hope for rapprochement between Canada and Iran.

All indications point to great potential for trade between Canada and Iran. Canada’s exports to Iran peaked at $772 million in 1997. This figure declined precipitously to $67 million in 2014, after Canada imposed sanctions on Iran.

While Canada lifted most of its sanctions in February 2016, Canadian companies and institutions have been slow to respond. A major barrier preventing further economic engagement today is the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Since the last federal election, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion has repeatedly expressed Canada’s intention to re-engage with Iran and has confirmed that talks between the two countries have begun.

However, there is still significant uncertainty about the timeline and progress of this reengagement process.

Challenges ahead

While the benefits of reengaging with Iran are enormous and clear, it is important to recognize the challenges and hurdles that lie ahead.

The international banking system has been reluctant to reconnect with Iran, fearful of punishment by U.S regulators, an issue that has even affected the services some Canadian banks are willing to offer Iranian-Canadians. These problems may undermine the nuclear deal and the economic benefits Iran expects to receive from the deal.

 There have however been positive steps in this regard, with governments and financial organizations expressing positive sentiments over Iran’s reincorporation into the banking system.

Secondly, the deal’s fate is contingent upon the political will of the leadership of the countries involved. Given the rhetoric from U.S. presidential candidates and the repeated attempts of the Republicans in the U.S. Congress to block the implementation of JCPOA, there is significant uncertainty about the future of the Iran deal.

Another threat to the process of rapprochement with Iran is the issue of human rights. The United Nations has consistently criticized Iran for its human rights situation. Though this issue is not a direct threat to the JCPOA, it has become a subject of controversy in terms of expanding relations with Iran in Canada and other countries.

While there are significant challenges in the path forward, there is hope that continued dialogue and engagement with Iran will address these hurdles.

Canada must partake in this momentous opportunity in the history of world diplomacy and side with peace, dialogue, and constructive, mutually beneficial engagement.

Pouyan Tabasinejad is the Policy Chair of the Iranian Canadian Congress (ICC). Bijan Ahmadi is the President and Mehdi Samadian recently joined the ICC as a Policy Associate.

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 23 June 2016 22:29

Prominent diaspora Sierra Leonean media

By PV Staff.
People often wonder what we have as Sierra Leonean newspapers, magazines and online radio and television stations abroad.
Today we will try to bring some of the well known ones (it's difficult to know all of them because of the age and relative obscurity of some of them). We will categorize by country and prominent characteristics. This is not an exhaustive list; we will bring you more Sierra Leonean diaspora media organizations as and when we discover them. As the say, (...)

- World News

The Patriotic Vangaurd

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Published in Africa

by Vicky Tobianah in Toronto 

Making distant readers empathize with historical events they have not experienced is a challenging feat.

Mohamed M. Keshavjee grapples with getting individuals to feel the pain of the global collective and experience events that they have not been touched by in his latest book Into That Heaven of Freedom: The Impact of Apartheid on an Indian Family’s Diasporic History. 

Keshavjee, a second-generation South African of Indian origin, not only takes readers through his own family history, but also through the history of Indians living in Africa over the course of a hundred years. 

The title comes from Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “Where the Mind is Free:” 

“Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” 

The poem is part of Tagore’s Nobel prize-winning poetry collection, Gitanjali. The book also has a forward written by Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years in prison with Nelson Mandela and is the longest serving human rights prisoner alive today. 

Path to self-discovery 

We are merely there for the ride as Keshavjee takes his own journey through history.

Keshavjee describes the political struggle against apartheid, beginning with his roots – his family’s establishment in 1894 in Marabastad, a settlement in Pretoria, South Africa. He then describes Mahatma Gandhi’s fight against racism during the beginning of apartheid. Keshavjee’s family continues its journey to Kenya and eventually relocates in Canada. 

While Keshavjee writes with authority and knowledge, lurking behind every page is also the realization that he is discovering his own role in this narrative and not merely uncovering the role of his family in history. It is as much self-realization as it is storytelling. We are merely there for the ride as Keshavjee takes his own journey through history. 

At the onset of the book, Keshavjee states: “If I have started a conversation amongst my readers about their own antecedents and their personal recollections, I shall be happy.”

However, as I continued reading his memoir, I began to suspect that the most important conversation Keshavjee would have as a result of this storytelling is with himself, about who he really is as he grapples with finding out who he was not in the country of his birth, and who he was in the country of his ancestors. 

It is by watching his journey that a reader can hope to embark on the same one through their family’s history. 

Recording history 

Where readers might get lost is in the minute details – names of brothers, cousins’ shops, and small communities, each explained in heavy detail throughout, which sometimes feels as if one is reading a classroom history book – ironic for Keshavjee who writes that as a child, he looked forward to the time when he would no longer have to attend school. 

Each new chapter brings with it new characters who are all part of Keshavjee’s history. While the story could have been told without some of those details, it is again evidence of the author's desire to record the names, dates and places of those that came before him, struggled before he did, and persevered to allow him to find his own place, too. 

“I am grateful that, unlike my ancestors, I have been able to tell my story.”


Childhood impressions 

Although the book is very much a journey, it hints at the times in Keshavjee’s life when he did start to locate his place in the world. It’s the 1950s when Keshavjee starts to like school and impresses his teachers with his creativity and talent.

In the childhood stories he writes, “Autobiography of a Penny” and “Autobiography of an Old Shoe,” Keshavjee imagines himself as the coin or shoe and the many places it might have been placed, the people who might have touched it, and the home it ended up in. 

These stories, although only mentioned over the course of a few lines in this almost 300-page book, foreshadow this memoir, as Keshavjee once again describes the life he has and underneath the surface, the life he might have had, had he been born in a different country, to a different race, with a different skin colour.  

Today, Keshavjee is a graduate of Queen’s University and the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, among several other academic achievements. He was called to the bar at Osgoode Hall in Toronto and is a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada. He also practised law in the United Kingdom and Kenya, and served in the Secretariat of His Highness the Aga Khan. 

His success is apparent as the memoir winds down and Keshavjee seems to find his answers.

“I am no longer a refugee in search of a homeland,” he writes.  Perhaps that is not just because he has found a physical home, but a metaphorical one too in this book. As he notes, “I am grateful that, unlike my ancestors, I have been able to tell my story.”

Vicky Tobianah is an experienced writer, editor and content strategist. She has a bachelor of arts, honours from McGill University in political science and English literature. She is passionate about the future of digital media. Find her work at:

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Books
Saturday, 16 January 2016 15:42

Solheim Calls on Diaspora to Work on Peace

by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto
The Sri Lankan civil war holds many a lesson for the island-nation's diaspora community in Canada and the world in general, according to Erik Solheim, former Norwegian Minister for International Development and for the Environment. Solheim's name is synonymous with peacemaking in Sri Lanka. 
“My biggest sorrow was that thousands of Tamils died unnecessarily due to lack of vision from both the Sinhala and Tamil leadership,” he said in Toronto this week, lamenting the futility of the civil war.
The country having gained a measure of calm in recent years, Solheim called on the diaspora community to participate in the South Asian nation's economy and thereby help heal the ethnic fault line. It has long been suspected that the country's Tamil diaspora worldwide, including its largest presence here in Canada, helped fuel the civil war through remittances and arms shipments. 
From 2000 to 2005, Solheim was the main negotiator of the process that led to a ceasefire agreement between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in early 2002 and the Oslo Declaration.
“Around that time, I was the most well-known foreigner in Sri Lanka next only to [then U.S. President] George Bush,” he recalled. “Also, I am the sole non-Tamil who has had the most face time with [LTTE chief] Velupillai Prabhakaran.”
Role of diaspora
Solheim was in Canada this week for the launch of To End a Civil War, a book by Mark Salter on Norway’s peace efforts to end the island nation’s bitter fight.
He referred to the formation of an air force by the LTTE, the first by a non-state player that was made possible by diaspora contributions. “While it was an impressive achievement, it made absolutely no impact on the final outcome of the war.”
Currently the Chairperson of the Development Assistance Committee for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Solheim said apart from political initiatives, a lasting solution to the ethnic fault line can be achieved through rapid economic growth. 

Describing the Tamil diaspora as among the most successful in the world, he said it could play a big role in Sri Lanka’s growth.
“You now need to go back to invest and put your expertise to use,” he told a  largely Tamil audience at the Toronto book launch. “More so because diasporas are generally made up of the most industrious of a populace.”
Bipartisan consensus
The peacemaker suggested that a bipartisan consensus between Sri Lanka's major political parties would further help the healing. The lack of such a consensus between the historically-opposed Sinhala political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had played a role in prolonging the civil war. He hoped the current bipartisan administration of President Maithripala Sirisena (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) can see through the process of rewriting the country’s constitution and move ahead on transitional justice.
Author Mark Salter said the importance of achieving bipartisan consensus is evident elsewhere. “Peace in Northern Ireland is a prime example of buy-in by all factions involved in a conflict.” 
Salter said the inability of the then Wickremesinghe government to explain the peace dividend in simple terms to the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population was a key factor in the failure of the Sri Lankan peace process. Buddhists account for over 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's 21 million people.
Looking back
Solheim said he wished he had a bigger and broader team to engage more broadly with key groups on the island, including Buddhist leaders. “We should have also insisted on better access to Prabhakaran and spoken to him more often.”
In his opinion, Prabhakaran was a brilliant military leader, but a failed politician. “He thought every issue had a military solution and went on to make many wrong decisions.”
It was exacerbated by the death of LTTE political ideologue Anton Balasingham. “Prabhakaran became very isolated and was pushed to the wall. There was not one meaningful initiative from him in an international context.”
Solheim said straight-talking Balasingham was able to give his Norwegian team a unique insight into the LTTE’s leadership. “He never lied to us.”
He said Prabhakaran’s biggest mistake was his decision to assassinate former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. “It was an astronomical blunder that finally led to the LTTE’s destruction [in May 2009].” Solheim said Sri Lanka’s destiny is tied to India on many counts, with close proximity to its giant South Asian neighbour being one. “If one wanted, you could take a boat to Chennai from Jaffna, watch a movie and return.”
Canada's "We're back"
His Norwegian team had been in constant touch with India and the U.S., the two big international players, throughout the peace process.
“No one nation can lead on all fronts in international affairs today,” Solheim told New Canadian Media when asked for his reaction to the new Canadian government’s global aspirations. “You must define a few areas of interest. But most importantly the desire to help must come from the heart.” 
Expressing delight over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s "We're back" pronouncements, he was planning to meet Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion in Ottawa during his trip to the capital for the launch of Salter’s book.
The Toronto launch was organized by Sri Lankans Without Borders and was moderated by Amaranth Amarasingam of Dalhousie University.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in South Asia
Thursday, 01 October 2015 10:57

Foreign Policy Debate Ignores Diaspora Nation

by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto

Rightly or wrongly, foreign policy is not high on the list of issues that Canadians would like to know about during a federal election campaign. 

That said, this week’s Munk Debate, while holding a mirror to Canada’s role in the world, tended to reflect Canadian values and how we choose to see ourselves on the global stage.

While Canadian voters’ perceived lack of interest in foreign affairs can be questioned, there need be no such ambivalence when it comes to immigrant voters. With ties to countries of birth or origin still strong, they are likely keen to know policy directions the next government in Ottawa plans to take in their spheres of interest.

Currently, one in five – or 6.8 million – Canadians are foreign-born. This is the highest share of any G7 country and the Harper government has encouraged social, cultural and economic ties between new Canadians and their birth countries as part of its trade agenda.

The government has said that if re-elected, it will establish a new “Maple Leaf” designation to recognize new Canadians who work to build cultural, economic and social links between Canada and their birth country. The Minister of Foreign Affairs would be among those making the decision to award five to seven designations per year.

Scant mention of China and India

This enthusiasm for trade with countries that have big diaspora populations in Canada did not come through during the debate.

China and India, two of the world’s largest economies that also happen to be two of the largest immigrant source countries, were hardly mentioned during the bilingual debate.

To be precise, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau mentioned both once.

[W]hile China may soon pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, Canada might have already missed its opportunity for greater trade with the Asian giant.

Trudeau said the Harper government did not seem to understand how important it is to be engaged in global trade particularly with the growing economies of Asia.

“That’s why we applauded the Canada-Europe agreement. But Mr. Harper is yet to deliver on [many other agreements],” Trudeau said. “He is nowhere with China, even though Australia has just signed [an agreement with China]. We made a beginning with India after the rapprochement Mr. Harper tried to do recently with the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi).”

Despite being called a “diaspora nation” because of the diverse nature of immigration to Canada, it seems the country is still not ready to diversify trade and cut its umbilical cord to the United States.

Our share of Asia’s trade has fallen by half over the past decade. And while China may soon pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, Canada might have already missed its opportunity for greater trade with the Asian giant.

Missed opportunity

The voters too have missed an opportunity to know from the party leaders their foreign trade policy.

As Daniel Muzyka, CEO, and Glen Hodgson, senior vice-president and chief economist, of the Conference Board of Canada, said in a recent article, if Canadians and Canadian firms are to succeed in the global marketplace, there are several questions they should ask.

Questions include what the leaders would do to build and mobilize interest in our global opportunities, what practical alternative would they support if they did not favour free trade, and what they would do differently to capture a fair share of trade with China.

[T]he repeated reference to our glorious UN peacekeeping past would have come as a surprise for many new Canadians whose countries of birth now carry much of that burden.

While the reluctance to diversify our trade due to the advantage of having the world’s largest economy south of our border was obvious during the debate, there was another theme that wasn’t.

Call it a collective denial or a national consensus to perpetuate a myth, the repeated reference to our glorious UN peacekeeping past would have come as a surprise for many new Canadians whose countries of birth now carry much of that burden.

Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Rwanda, Nepal, Senegal, Ghana, China and Nigeria are currently the top 10 contributors. Canada ranks 62 out of 126 countries with 88 personnel.

Cold War soldiers

It is true that Canada was often the single biggest contributor to peacekeeping missions between 1956 and 1992, sending about 80,000 soldiers by the time the Blue Berets won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.

But, after these relatively benign observer missions, and two taxing tour of duties in Somalia and the Balkans in the 1990s, Canada seemed to lose its appetite for peacekeeping.

By design or not, the issue of Israel and Palestine was ignored amid the predictable sound and fury on the havoc caused by the Islamic State.

It is also important to understand that what motivated Canada all those years ago was the Cold War. It was to primarily defend western interests and our own strategic ones. Far from being peacekeepers, we were dedicated Cold War soldiers fighting the Soviets.

Fast-forward to the Munk Debate and it seemed the Cold War still looms over us.

Trudeau was asked how he would handle Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It elicited a nervous titter from the audience and a banal answer.

This obviously was not about foreign policy, but about paying lip service to the large Ukrainian diaspora in the same way as Trudeau said Harper had turned Canada’s support for Israel into a “domestic political football.”

By design or not, the issue of Israel and Palestine was ignored amid the predictable sound and fury on the havoc caused by the Islamic State. Several other topics of deep interest to Canadian voters, new and old, were overlooked.

But as the pundits have unanimously ruled that this debate was the best so far, so be it. The freeze is still on and we like to keep our myths alive.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Politics

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Published in India

by Peter Sutherland in Toronto

After a hesitant start, Canada has picked up its game and appears committed to play a larger role in Asia, the world’s fastest growing economy and most dynamic region. This is clear from the recent visits by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

Although the two countries differ in scale and influence, the visits shared much in common. Both had a strong trade and investment orientation and both played to large, politically active Diasporas.

Narendra Modi’s visit was the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 42 years and was prompted in part by his appreciation for Canada’s early engagement in Gujarat during his tenure as Chief Minister.

It was equally motivated by the prospect of attracting Canadian investment in two priority sectors – infrastructure and manufacturing. Infrastructure is the biggest single bottleneck to faster economic growth, and significant expansion in manufacturing jobs is needed to absorb the 11-12 million young people entering the workforce every year.

The most tangible result of the visit was the signing of a $350 million agreement with Cameco for the long-term supply of uranium. This is the first concrete manifestation of the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement signed in 2013, which removed a major bilateral irritant, and is intended to encourage further collaboration in nuclear and other forms of energy.

Although there was commitment by both Prime Ministers to accelerate finalization of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership (CEPA) and Foreign Investment Protection (FIPPA) agreements, there was no significant movement and the opportunity for a breakthrough was missed.

The foreign leaders see the approximately 1.2 million Indo-Canadians and 800,000 Filipino-Canadians as bridge-builders between the two countries, an important source of remittances, investment and support back home.

The Philippine President’s visit was also a long time coming, the last being in 1997 when former President Fidel Ramos visited. The country is one of the top three fastest growing economies in Asia and, like India, Canada has designated it a trade priority.

Although a smaller market than India ($1.8 billion versus $6.3 billion in merchandise trade), the Philippines is a gateway to Southeast Asia and a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) group, which has a collective GDP over $2.3 trillion. It is also chairs the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) this year.

Similar to the Indian Prime Minister, President Aquino was keen to talk up Canadian investment in infrastructure and other sectors of the Philippine economy and had the opportunity to do so in Ottawa, and with a select group of CEOs in Toronto, as did Modi. There was also an unexpected agreement to begin exploratory discussions about a free trade agreement.

The Philippines has recently been designated as a focus country for Canada’s development assistance program and the visit saw the signing of a framework agreement outlining the specifics of this assistance. Canada’s bilateral assistance program in India ended in 2002.

Security was a common theme in both visits. Prominent on the agenda were the growing assertiveness of China in the region and ongoing terrorist threats in South and Southeast Asia. Canada has an annual Security Dialogue in place with India and signed an agreement for cooperation in security and defence with the Philippines in 2012.

Indian, Philippine Diasporas Underutilized Assets

The highlight, and some say the point of both visits was relations with the large Indian and Filipino Diasporas.

The foreign leaders see the approximately 1.2 million Indo-Canadians and 800,000 Filipino-Canadians as bridge-builders between the two countries, an important source of remittances, investment and support back home. With a federal election six months away, the timing of the visits was felicitous for the Harper government.

For companies, finding a Canadian who is familiar with local business practice in these markets and has ready access to a network of reliable contacts on the ground can be a substantial competitive advantage.

Apart from the political mileage to be gained by courting the two Diasporas, they are underutilized assets. Not in the sense of influencing an ethnic-oriented foreign policy, which is in nobody’s best interest, but as informed stakeholders who can contribute to the policy debate and sometimes play a back-channel role in its implementation.

For companies, finding a Canadian who is familiar with local business practice in these markets and has ready access to a network of reliable contacts on the ground can be a substantial competitive advantage.

Notwithstanding the agreements reached, documents signed and the photo-ops, the most important result of the two visits was reaffirmation that Canada is ready to play a larger role in Asia.

We have been slower than many to recognize and act on the gravitational shift from west to east. Sustained and active engagement is therefore needed to prove our bona fides and secure a place at the table.

Peter Sutherland is the Senior Business Advisor Asia at Aird & Berlis LLP and former Canadian High Commissioner to India and Ambassador to the Philippines.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Commentary
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