‘Systemic racism’ in Canada
Posted on September 1st, 2022

Asoka Weerasinghe Kings Grove Crescent . Gloucester . Ontario . K1J G1 Canada

1 September 2022

Editor (Letters)


This is in response to Les Bovell on “Many fear wrongly being called racist”,who is Black and immigrated here in 1969, believes that he was treated well in Canada as a “black” immigrant.   “Lucky You.  Congratulations”, I say to him.

I am a coloured Asian who immigrated on an invitation by the National Museums Corporation in October 1970, doesn’t  feel I was that lucky as he was, and he should be considered to be one of the very few lucky visible minorities who entered Canada then.

My story needs to be told and heard to understand the deck of “Racism” in Canada.  The story happened in the 1970s.

The Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa had been gutted in 1969 with the promise to the public that it will be reopened in one year with 15  new exhibition Halls.  And National Museums Corporation had formed a new Design and Display Division, at 39 McArthur Road,  to accomplish that task.  This new Division, had appointed  a Chief Tom Wood, (War Artist, and Manager of the Canada Pavilion at Osaka); Head of Design Jacques Saint Cyr (designer of the 11-point maple leaf of the National flag);  Manager of Administration Charlie Jessop  (Rtd. Major of the Army); and Head of Thematic Research (was still not filled as they were searching for a competent Liberal Scientist to fill that position).

With their head-hunting, they found me, a Liberal scientist in London, England,  recommended by the Head of the Department of’ Geology, Dr,.Ward Neale, at Memorial University in Newfoundland, who having witnessed the success I had in filling the 12 wall exhibit showcases with rotating geology exhibits that had been empty for almost 20 years. 

 The success showed by the students gathering around them at lunch hours, to study the lessons in three dimensions. As a Liberal scientist, I suppose the National Museums Corporation felt that I qualified to take on the job being a research scientist (Geologist-Palaeontologist-Stratigrapher), an award winning published poet in London, UK,; ‘award winning sculptor in Swansea, Wales; award winning competition ballroom dancer;  pianist and so forth).

I arrived in Ottawa on October 16, 1970, and started work on 1 November 1970,   By then all the staff at Design and Display were on contract.

On the last week in March 1971, Tom Wood,  Jacques Saint Cyr, Charlie Jessop and I received letters from the Public

Service Commision  (PSC) to come over to sign the letters of permanency  to begin  as permanent employees in the Federal Government as of 1st April.   All of us were ecstatic.

On Monday morning I got a call from the  PSC, and the voice on the phone said, “Mr. Weerasinghe, please ignore the letter that we sent you about the permanency. It was sent to you by error.” “Why is there a problem?” I asked.

Yes, we have decided to open the competition for your job across Canada,”

Are the other three coming over to sign the permanency papers?”  “Yes” was the answer.

Let’s cut out this ‘Bull’.  You all couldn’t find anyone qualified for the job.  You found me in London, England,  and invited me to come over.  And here I am.  Are you trying to tell me that there is an aparthied policy in hiring  candidates for management jobs in Canada?”

Is it a case of “If you are white, you’re alright…If you are black, stay back…..and if you are brown,’stick’around.’  I am Asian and I happen to be brown, and I have no intention to stick around.  If I knew that there was an aparthied policy in hiring, I would have not stepped on to this land of  your Canada.  Let me know by noon on Wednesday if you want my services or not.  If you don’t I will be on the first plane out of Canada on my way back to where I came from London, England.”

The Directors, Chiefs and  the  Deputy Minister were upset with the turn of events.  The place was on fire.  Later that day,

 Dr. Luis Lemeiux (Director of the National Museum of Natural Sciences); Dr. Bill Taylor (Director of the Museum of Man), Tom Wood, Jacques Saint Cyr and Charlie Jessop came to my Office  with red-faces of embarrassment to apologize.  And Mr. MacKenzie,  

The Deputy Minister for Museums came to my Office and apologized and asked me  not to leave, and that there will be a call from the PSC for me to get over to sign the papers  of permanency,

Towards the end of the day, I got a call from a staff member from PSC, telling me, “Mr. Weerasinghe’ we are sorry about the confusion”, “Let’s stop this baloney…there was no confusion…You knew exactly what happened.,  You all did not want to see a brown face sitting at the desk occupying the position of the Head of Thematic Research Section, at the Design and Display Division of the National Museums of Canada,

I will be with you tomorrow morning”.  And that was my introduction to Canada.

I understood why the National Museums insisted that the Head of Thematic Research should be a Liberal Scientist.

One day, Dr. Bill Taylor, the Director of the Museum of Man called me into his office.  He told me “Asoka, we are in trouble with the Orientation Hall as the two curators  who were supposed to be coming up with a storyline have had difficulty agreeing with its content.  Asoka, you are an anthropologist and a poet, why don’t you hide yourself for two days and come up with a long poem on the subject,  So I did.  My Trail of Mankind was adapted as the storyline for the Orientation Hall without any changes.  The poem was sold  at the gift store with colour photos of the murals for  one dollar.

It acknowledged me as the poet.

The first two floors of the Victoria Memorial Museum were opened by Prime Minister PierreTrudeau on October 4, 1974, and I was given the honour to take him and his wife around explaining the contents of the exhibition Halls.

The bottom line was, I am a proud, hardworking and an honest  Sri Lankan-Sinhalese, and absolutely no one was going to destroy my dignity because I am covered all over with a natural brown skin. 

There were two other incidents of racism.  One at the Museums in 1975, and the other at the  Medical Services Branch of Health and Welfare Canada in 1979,  It is upsetting for me to regurgitate those “racist”  incidents , so I will stop there.

And all this is my Canada.  Not as lucky  as Les Bovell of Ottawa.

Asoka Weerasinghe

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