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10 QUESTIONS WITH UPALI OBEYESEKERE.

There is a bond, a camaraderie, among the quadrangle schools. There is a kind of feeling we are a special group.

Peterite spirit … Lawrence Heyn catches up with Upali Obeyesekere on Boxing Day, 2014. Picture: Elyse Heyn.
Peterite spirit … Lawrence Heyn catches up with Upali Obeyesekere
on Boxing Day, 2014. Picture: Elyse Heyn.

There is a special spirit among the old boys of quadrangle schools that continues to be a unifying force around the world. In my experience, wherever I have travelled and met old schoolmates, or even other old Petes for the first time, I have encountered great hospitality and unstinting generosity. It is a trait engendered by the words of the Peterite anthem – “Lend a heart and lend a hand…” And, I am sure this bond of brotherhood is as strong among the Joes, Benedictines and Antonians who are doing more than their bit to keep the flags flying well beyond their school years.

One person embodying this spirit is dedicated old boy Upali Obeyesekere, president of the Josephian-Peterite Alumni Association (JPAA) in Toronto, Canada. I was privileged to have met Upali last Christmas in Toronto and had first-hand experience of his generosity, a quality that comes so naturally to him. Upali is a special person, giving his time and energy freely to ensure the old boys are kept well informed and engaged.

This drive spurred him to conceive and inaugurate a unique association in 1984. The JPAA Canada is now in its 31st year and Upali does not intend to rest on his laurels and he has plans to make the organisation bigger and stronger in the years to come.

Upali agrees there is a special spirit and he treasures this thought. “There is a bond, a camaraderie, among the quadrangle schools. There is a kind of feeling we are a special group,” he says.In 2012, Upali was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his significant and distinguished contribution to Canada’s state agencies and boards. Here, he share shares his thoughts on his life and the JPAA.

How did the idea of the JPAA Canada come about? 

“In the early 1980s there may have been less than 100 old Josephians/
Peterites known to us in Toronto. My late father St Elmo Obeyesekere (who attended St Joseph’s College) was a celebrated sports promoter from Kurunegala in the ’40s and ’50s and immigrated to Canada in 1975. He planted the seed of what is known as the Josephian-Peterite Alumni Association today. Sometime in 1982, over a drink of Scotch he said to me, “Why don’t you play a Josephian- Peterite Cricket Match in Toronto?” My good friend and another Old Joe, Benito de Silva, was present when this conversation took place. My father passed away in August 1983, and soon after I followed up on his idea and met with Benito and together we assembled a cohesive group of old boys to form an ad-hoc committee that later became known as the Josephian-Peterite Alumni Association of Canada. The reality was that we did not have enough old boys to form individual clubs, so we formed a joint association to get the cricket match going.

What is the mission statement of the organisation and how has the wider community benefited?

“The mission was to form a forum for the old boys who attended St Joseph’s and St Peter’s to get together and engage in sports and social activities. The vision was to help our respective alma maters financially whenever funds permitted. The broader vision was to interact with other Josephian and Peterite associations worldwide and also with our parent unions in Colombo. To this end, we have been very successful. JPAA Canada was the first among Sri Lankan schools to form an alumni association in Canada. We gave leadership and also spread the concept to the larger Sri Lankan expatriate community who asked us for advocacy.

JPAA Canada was the first among Sri Lankan schools to form an alumni association in Canada.

Spanning friendships … from left, David Heyn, Jeyer Rodriguesz, Dr Adiel Anghie and Upali Obeyesekere at last year’s Canadian Joe-Pete 50-over encounter. Picture supplied.
Spanning friendships … from left, David Heyn, Jeyer Rodriguesz, Dr Adiel Anghie and Upali Obeyesekere at
last year’s Canadian Joe-Pete 50-over encounter. Picture supplied.

Where has the membership come from?

“Primarily it is made up of immigrants from Sri Lanka and there are some from other Middle Eastern countries who arrived in Canada. Immigration had its birth in the ’50s and many Sri Lankans of Burgher ethnicity from the two schools were early settlers in Canada. Sri Lankans of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim ethnicity started immigrating to Canada in the ’60s primarily for education and others came in search of greener pastures. So, there was a captive group of Sri Lankan
immigrants numbering over 3500 and less than 5000 in Canada in the early ’50s.

What are the core activities of the JPAA?

“Our core activities include the Canadian series of the Josephian-Peterite cricket match, always played on Canada Day, July 1. There are two games – one is the
Masters’ event for over 40s, played over 25 overs, and the main game which is 50 overs. We took the leadership role in organising the Saints Quadrangular Cricket T20 Cricket Tournament along with the Antonians and Benedictines. This sports
extravaganza is in its fifth year and has become very popular. We also participate in the Sri Lanka schools rugby tournament, and soccer tournament. Then in October we have the annual gala dinner dance. The
JPAA Canada AGM is always in March of each.

What was your period at St Peter’s and who were your contemporaries?

“I joined St Peter’s College in 1956 in the Prelim A (6th Standard) and left in 1962 from the HSC I class. My contemporaries were Indra Cumaranatunga, Lalith Dabare, Sunil Liyanage, Ranjith Wijesinghe, Jayantha Atapattu, Srimal Abeyewardene, Angelo Gooneratne, Elmo Perera, Dulip Jayamaha, George
Kulatunga, Anton de Mel, Harindra Sirisena, Cecil Perera, Thomas Fernando, Ranjan Fernando and others from Prelim up to the JSC. I opted for the Science medium and in Senior Prep, Senior and HSC I my contemporaries were Lester Weinman, Thomas Crusz, David de Kretser, Darrell de Silva, Arden Nelson, V. Thuraisingham, Hilal Abdullah, Chandru Sathiamoorthy, Indra Cumaranatunga, Angelo Gooneratne, Lalith Dabare, Ranjith Wijesinghe, Harindra Sirisena, JNP Amarasinghe, Ranjith Amarasinghe, Dulip Jayamaha and
others.

In your opinion, who are the five great sportsmen provided by St Peter’s and St Joseph’s respectively?

“I would rate Clive Inman (cricket), Roy Dias (cricket) David Heyn (cricket and hockey), Didacus de Almeida (rugby) and Ranjit Wijeyesekera (athletics) as
the five great Peterite sportsmen. I would rate Angelo Mathews (cricket), Malcolm Spittel (cricket), Malcolm Francke (cricket), Fairlie Dalpethado
(cricket and tennis), and Brian Obeyesekere (cricket and rugby) as the star Josephians.

What is your involvement with the Sri Lankan community in Toronto?

“I became engaged with the Sri Lankan community in Toronto in 1976 when I was elected as Sports Secretary of the Canada-Sri Lanka Association (CSLA), the premier socio-cultural body in Toronto for Sri Lankans. After that, I was on the board of directors of the Canada-Sri Lanka Club – Peel, another socio-cultural association formed as a parallel to CSLA. I captained the Sri Lanka Club Peel cricket team that included many who played school cricket in Sri Lanka including royal and Sri Lanka player Darrel Lieversz before he moved to Australia. In 1984, I spearheaded the formation of JPAA Canada and was its inaugural president. By consensus I was asked to lead this organisation again in 2013 – my third term in this role. I am also a Charter Member of the Canada-Sri
Lanka Business Council, formed in 1990, and am serving my fourth year as
president. The council is the premier bilateral business council that promotes
trade, investment, tourism, technology transfer and industrial cooperation between Canada and Sri Lanka.

In addition to your role as a community leader you maintained a very successful professional career. When did it all begin?

“I started my professional career with Ceylon Fisheries Corporation, aged 19, and served in Trincomalee for a brief period but the rest in Colombo. I was Manager, Exports; Assistant Manager, Kandy and Kurunegala District but the job that really defined me was as Personal Assistant to General Manager Anil Abeywickrema. I immigrated to Canada in 1974 and joined IBM Canada Ltd in Toronto and enjoyed 16 glorious years with the computer giant. I grew up with the IBM culture of “doing a job right the first time”. I quit IBM to venture into a relative unknown field as an entrepreneur. I formed a company under the name and style of Ad-Bri Enterprises Inc in 1983 and it still exists today. We were the first importers of food products from Sri Lanka to Canada. We have now branched off into consultancy and function as the Canadian agents for a few Sri Lankan companies. I was the City of Toronto representative on the board of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the largest conference and convention facility in Canada. I have also served on the boards of TV Ontario and The College of Occupational Therapists of Ontario as the Provincial Government
representative on a Public Appointment by Order in Council by the Lieutenant
Governor of Ontario.

You are about to celebrate a family milestone. What is it?

“I am married to Tamara (nee Wanniappa), a Colombo Chetty from Kotahena, who attended Good Shepherd Convent. Our wedding took place in Toronto on April 26, 1975, and we celebrate our 40th anniversary this month (April). Tamara and I have three children and five grandchildren. The youngest, our daughter Tanya, is still with us and plans to get married in a year or two. Our two sons are married and live on their own.

What next for the JPAA?

“We are in our 31st year and we plan to continue with our regular events. There is a fellowship night on the 26th June and we have invited Tyrone Le Mercier and his wife, Jean, as our guests of honour. They have confirmed their
attendance. We follow this with the traditional Joe-Pete encounter on the
1st of July. Last year, David Heyn and Adiel Anghie were the guests of honour. We have a revolving membership of 75-125 and our aim is to increase it to 200 by November this year. Our website was launched in 2013 and we get a lot of feedback and comments from the OBUs in Colombo and others. That is another tool we use to fortify our existence here. I try to be very current and publicise news very quickly and I know there are a lot of old boys from Australia, England and the States who go to our website for updates. For everything you want to know about the JPAA and news you can use go to www.jpaacanada.com.

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