Skip to main content

Indira Samarasekera: 'There is no other country in the world where immigrants have had so much opportunity'

With increasing numbers of immigrants arriving every year from Asia, the Caribbean and other parts of the world, Canada's urban demographic makeup is undergoing a profound shift. Marina Jimenez talks with seven emerging leaders from this new demographic, and their thoughts on immigration, philanthropy, success and influence.



Indira Samarasekera is the president of the University of Alberta, one of the country's leading metallurgical engineers, and a recipient of the Order of Canada. She is not just a woman from Sri Lanka who has reached the exulted heights of the academy, but she did so in a field that has traditionally been a strong male preserve.



When did you come to Canada?

Story continues below advertisement



My husband and I immigrated to Vancouver in January, 1977, from the U.S., where we had moved two years earlier from Sri Lanka. It was the best decision of our lives.



What was the biggest challenge?



Here, people challenge the status quo more, seek out and question, more than one would in any Asian society, where authority is highly respected and people tend to follow rules more readily. That was difficult to get used to at first.



What are the barriers people from diverse backgrounds face in becoming leaders?



I think we are seeing many more visible minorities in leadership positions. Of the 10 major Canadian universities, three presidents are visible minorities. There is growing representation in academia, including many vice-presidents.



Who do you hang out with?



I have a lot of friends, they are mostly friends I have had for 30 years since I first have come to Canada, the parents of my children's close friends, people I stood around the hockey rink and soccer field with. Those roots run deep and have endured. I am also friends with my professional colleagues, many of whom are male. I have friends from every culture: Jewish, German, European, Canadian.

Story continues below advertisement



What are you most proud of?



I am proud to have educated a whole generation of materials engineers. I have provided leadership and inspiration, hopefully, as president of U of A, and have allowed others to dream that one can aspire to these opportunities.



Who are your heroes?



My parents. My PhD supervisor, J. Keith Brimacombe, was a real mentor. He taught me how to think critically and uncover my talent and apply it for the greater good. He taught me how to be inquisitive, creative and to never be satisfied. Also, my two Marthas: Martha Piper, a great mentor and friend, and my old boss [former president of the University of British Columbia]and Martha Salcudean [UBC's former head of mechanical engineering]



What is your advice to others?



There is no other country in the world where immigrants have had so much opportunity and have achieved so much. I can tell you that from talking to immigrants who have been to Australia and the United Kingdom. Canada has captured a particular style of welcoming immigrants and integrating them. If we want to recruit more skilled immigrants, we must show that those who come here can have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Otherwise, it is really a waste of human talent.

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter