The Importance of Inclusion: Lessons Learned While Working Remotely Across an Ocean

Taryn WilkieBy Taryn Wilkie

This summer I am working for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, however, due to the pandemic, I am working remotely from Canada. While the project I am working on does not require being in an office, and is relatively self-directed, the distance has made my work more challenging. For example, I miss being able to easily speak with others who might have valuable feedback about what I am working on. Instead, I am dependent on emails for answers to my questions, and the nearly 12-hour time difference means I usually do not get responses until the next day. Consequently, I have had to be fairly independent in my work and carefully plan my emails to make sure each one is clear, and I can get answers to any questions as quickly as possible.

Working remotely has also made it more difficult to accomplish the goals of my project. I am currently attempting to schedule interviews with women activists in Sri Lanka about their experiences; the distance between Canada and Sri Lanka has complicated this process. I am reliant on email to contact them instead of being able to call or visit organizations where they work. For those who do agree to an interview, I must find a time that not only fits their schedule, but also works with the time difference. Working in Sri Lanka and not having to deal with the pandemic would therefore have made this aspect of my project much easier. Nevertheless, I hope I will be able to interview many of the women activists I have contacted, as I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with them and learn from their experiences.

Yet even without having currently completed any interviews, this internship has highlighted the diversity of issues activists aim to address. When I first learned I would be interviewing Sri Lankan women activists, I thought these activists would focus primarily on women’s rights issues. However, I have found they work in many different areas, including the environment, garment work, tea plantations, health, the legal system, peacebuilding, and the rights of children, youth, minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community, in addition to women’s rights issues.

The diversity of topics reinforces the importance of understanding women as more than just their gender and recognizing they should be included in attempts to solve many different issues as they will make valuable and unique contributions. I am thankful this internship has made me more aware of the diversity present in activism and given me the opportunity to learn about so many different areas of important work from women who are directly involved.

Researching Sri Lanka has also caused me to reflect on the importance of reconciliation. Divisions between the majority Sinhala population and the minority Tamil population, who are the majority in Sri Lanka’s North and East, led to a brutal civil war between 1983 and 2009, as many of the Tamils fought to secede.[1] However, years after the war’s end, and despite a reconciliation commission, it appears the underlying grievances which led to the conflict have not been resolved.[2] Consequently, I have become aware of how difficult it can be to build a lasting peace in a country with deep divisions, and how easy it can be to ignore what are often legitimate issues that have led to conflict, especially when one side has greater power.

Although the situation between settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples is very different, the increased discussion about reconciliation in Canada this summer has led me to think about what is needed for change to occur in both countries. I hope members of the majority communities and governments in both countries will learn to listen to minority communities and work to address their concerns, as otherwise reconciliation and peace may remain elusive.

Overall, I have learned many important things about Sri Lanka, activism, and human rights work from working at ICES this summer, and I am grateful for the opportunity. I look forward to learning even more as I continue my internship and interview women activists about their experiences.

[1] Nithyani Anandakugan, “The Sri Lankan Civil War and Its History, Revisited in 2020” (31 August 2020), online: Harvard International Review <hir.harvard.edu/sri-lankan-civil-war/>.

[2] Anandakugan, supra note 1; Kate Cronin-Furman, “UN Human Rights Council Outlines Sri Lanka Abuses, But Demurs on Action” (26 March 2021), online: Just Security <www.justsecurity.org/75510/un-human-rights-council-outlines-sri-lanka-abuses-but-demurs-on-action/>.

Listening to Survivors

By Chiara Fish

* I wrote this post in July… better late than never…

Several weeks ago I was talking with one of my colleagues about residential schools. Her father was in Winnipeg for the Truth and Reconciliation’s National Event. I didn’t know if or when the TRC would visit Iqaluit, but a few days later I found out the commissioners were in town. That evening I went to the meeting after work.

There were fewer than 40 people present, including the 3 commissioners. Most of those present were Inuit and had a story to share. I was there to listen, learn, and bear witness.

Everyone told different stories – some are still very very angry. One lady said she was NOT proud to be Canadian, that she was a victim of genocide and that she will not forgive the fact that she was kidnapped, taken without permission. Her parents did not permit her to be taken. She spoke in English, the language that was taught to her in residential school so that she could communicate what happened to her in a way that we could all understand…

Others spoke in Innuktitut. They talked about the abuse, the beatings. They described being lured into bedrooms with candy. They talked about not learning to read and write. They talked about losing their culture and language. One lady said she does not know who she is – her identity was stolen. Others said that it was only in the last few years that they realized it wasn’t their fault, that they are valid.

They talked about what it was like to return home: the impact on parents of having children taken away – losing the ability to parent… having children for only a few short weeks or months every year and not being able to parent during that time because it was just too precious.

They talked about losing childhood.

As I sat listening to these horrific stories I felt deeply ashamed of our history and our country.

Some children never came back. Some are still missing. We don’t know where they were buried or what happened to them. There is always an empty chair at TRC events to represent those who never returned, those who have not yet been found.

I am so impressed with the strength and resilience of the people who shared their stories. It takes incredible courage to talk about what happened, and this community has strong people to heal and rebuild.

Some talked about the future – what youth today are lacking. One commissioner quoted an elder from another community, saying that we must not move into the future looking backwards… but that history is essential to understand where we are today. Today’s youth must understand the history to understand the present and why they and their community are where they are, to understand the problems and challenges they face.

As a Jew I have grown up listening to Holocaust survivors’ stories. In kindergarten my teacher was a survivor, and ever since I can remember I have had the privilege of listening to survivors’ stories. Survivors are our links to our history. All Canadians need to hear residential school survivors’ stories. It is the only way we will learn about our history and understand the present.

As I sat at the back of the room with tears rolling down my cheeks I felt a hand on my back. The lady standing there asked me if I wanted to talk, and told me that she was a facilitator. I said no thank you, I just wanted to listen. In the ultimate irony, this residential school survivor was comforting me.

(For more information about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: www.trc.ca)

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