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Started in the Mailroom

From war-torn Sri Lanka to Bay Street—lessons in success and diversity

Photograph courtesy of Roy Ratnavel
Roy Ratnavel. Photograph courtesy of Roy Ratnavel

For Roy Ratnavel, “started in the mailroom” is more than just a figure of speech. It’s the first line on his résumé. His first job at a Bay Street investment fund was, literally, sorting mail. Before that, Roy had worked at a Toronto packaging factory. “My job was to stand there with a glue gun, and apply spray foam,” he tells me. “A board would come by on the belt, and I would spray it. It was 1988. I was making $3.50 an hour. I’m not even sure if they were paying me the legal minimum.”

“At night, I would clean buildings.” He gestures around at his twentieth-floor corner office. “Places like this.” On weekends, Roy had a third job as a security guard. His shift would start Friday at midnight and go to Saturday midday. Then again from late Saturday night to Sunday noon. Then back to the factory on Monday. “Then this one time, I’m standing there with my glue gun, next to this guy in his mid-’50s on the assembly line—I forget his name, but he just stood there muttering to himself all the time. And finally, I ask him, ‘How long have you been doing this?’ And he tells me, ‘Twenty years.’ And I saw a vision of myself turning into that guy if I stuck around. I knew I had to get out.”

Roy was living with four roommates in a cheap apartment in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. “They got one newspaper, the Toronto Sun—just for the Sunshine Girl—we never read it,” he tells me. “But that night, I flipped through the job listings, and there was one that said ‘Office Help Needed. $14K.’ I applied—even though I didn’t even know what ‘K’ meant.” His offer letter, dated February 16, 1989—twenty-seven years ago—now sits in a frame above his desk. Reports of discrimination against hard-done-by immigrants make headlines, and rightly so. But it is also important to celebrate the millions of newcomers who are living the Canadian dream.

Roy’s new employer was Universal Group of Funds, a small company that would eventually grow into CI Financial Corp., now the second largest independent investment company in Canada, with $155 billion under management. Roy’s ticket out of the mailroom came when he bonded with one of the company’s rising stars over their shared love of designer neckties. Roy moved to a sales-support position. Then to sales. Then to the Vancouver office, where he rose to manage the whole West Coast sales operation from Victoria to Winnipeg. And then, last year, back to Toronto, where he joined the CI Financial executive team as senior vice president and national sales manager. Quite a journey for someone who arrived in this country twenty-eight years ago with (US) $50 in his pocket.

For me to visit Roy in this office habitat was somewhat surreal—because so many of our discussions in life have centered around the horrors that took place in his native Sri Lanka. Our first introduction came when I was writing about that country’s civil war for the National Post, more than a decade ago, and Roy cold-called me to take issue with one of my columns. It was a subject he knew too well, having been targeted as a member of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil population. His father was killed by pro-government forces—just four days after he’d put Roy on a plane out of the country. Roy, now forty-seven, hasn’t been back to Sri Lanka since.

When liberal Canadians express amazement that immigrants to this country could ever vote for conservative politicians, I often think of Roy. On his social media, you will find no sneering putdowns of Donald Trump or Rona Ambrose. As a career sales professional, he’s rubbed elbows with all sorts of Canadians. His Facebook profile displays shots of him in a cowboy hat, singing country karaoke in Alberta, side by side with images of him sharing fine meals in Toronto wine bars. Roy loves all corners of this country. Being a snob doesn’t get you very far in the sales world.

Nor does being thin-skinned. Roy has spent much of his career at CI traveling through small towns, giving sales speeches to rooms full of farmers and co-op managers. In Dawson Creek, Prince George, Smithers, Fort Nelson, Brooks, and Lethbridge, he’d often be the only non-white person in the room. In the early days, Roy still spoke with a Tamil accent (which has since faded to almost imperceptible levels), and would sometimes nervously alter his word choices to avoid embarrassment. “In Sri Lanka, you sometimes hear people switching their V’s and W’s when they speak English, so ‘market volatility’ would become ‘market wolatility.’ To avoid that, I would say ‘market gyrations.’” To break the ice, he’d make jokes that helped diffuse the social anxiety in a room—“like if I guy was named ‘James,’ and I called him ‘Jim,’ I’d say ‘Oh, you white guys and your complicated names.’”

And yes, Roy heard his share of politically incorrect comments. But the culture gap didn’t stop clients from buying what he had to sell. Amazingly, Roy says that throughout his quarter-century-long career in investment sales, he has never encountered what he regards as unambiguous racism. “I get into arguments with my Tamil friends about this,” he says. “Yes, I occasionally have heard insensitive comments like ‘Oh, you people love curry, right?’ But just because someone says something ignorant doesn’t make them some kind of bigot. If you want to be successful, you can’t go around being offended by everything. My dad had a saying: ‘You can’t control what people say. You can only control how you react to it.’”

“A lot of people I know will go to the lowest-common-denominator argument—‘I didn’t get there because of racism.’ But I keep telling them, ‘If you keep telling your children that there is some big shadowy white figure out there who is going to keep you down in life, they’re not going to try.’”

Things have changed since 1989, when Roy was the only non-white worker in his sales department. The CI workforce is now, as he puts it, a sort of “United Nations.” But Roy says the secrets to success are the same now as they were when he started out three decades ago: Be likeable, learn from your superiors, and—especially—work smart. (To this day, Roy still goes in to CI on Sundays. He never got over his teenage habit of working weekends.)

“I remember one incident, when I was twenty-one, and I was talking to Bill Holland in the elevator, who would eventually become chairman of the board—the same guy who plucked me out of the mailroom,” Roy tells me. “I was mumbling. And Bill interrupts me and says, ‘Speak up! The world will never hear you.’ Now, on the one hand, there’s a cultural thing going on there—because Tamils do tend to speak softly. But he wasn’t criticizing my culture. He was coaching me on how to get ahead in Canadian business. And I took his advice. Immediately. Because I’m not a fan of copying from C students. I like to copy from A students. And this guy was mega successful. And guess what? From then on, I spoke up.”

Because of his extraordinary success and stature within his organization, Roy gets asked about diversity a fair bit. But he says it’s not something he thinks about much—at least, not in the way the issue is framed by modern identity politics. “When I am looking for talent, I don’t have a lot of time for ‘We need to hire X people, we need to hire Y people.’ I just go out and hire the most talented people I can find. CI happens to be a very diverse workplace. But that’s not because I worry about skin colour. It’s because capitalism is the world’s greatest equalizer.”

Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is the editor-in-chief of The Walrus.


How Gay Rights Killed Gay Liberation

Equality for the LGBTQ community has come at the expense of sexual independence


One day in the fall of 2003, several leaders from a new advocacy group, Canadians for Equal Marriage (CEM), showed up at the Toronto headquarters of Pink Triangle Press carrying computers and other office supplies. A few months earlier, the Court of Appeal for Ontario had ruled that Canadian laws prohibiting same-sex marriage violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, making the province the first in Canada to allow same-sex marriage. CEM had set its sights on the rest of the country.

At Pink Triangle Press, a publisher devoted to the LGBTQ community, the decision to donate space to CEM caused a flurry of debate. Gay and lesbian couples had been getting married, but in the heart of Toronto’s Gay Village, where hedonism was supposed to rule, there wasn’t much buzz. At the time I was managing editor of the Xtra! chain of newspapers. In our offices, the same-sex marriage victory was treated as a marginal development, a meagre success of neoliberals and their lawyers. I found myself jumping into all sorts of heated debates. Weren’t the shackles of marriage—its oppression of women, its stifling mandate of monogamy, its failure to recognize the capriciousness of desire—exactly what the movement was fighting against? Our lives were different—why would we want to emulate straight people? Wasn’t this a waste of community resources when police were still arresting people for having sex in bathhouses (and in parks and parking lots)? Didn’t it make us look like hypocrites?

Pink Triangle Press had been Canada’s most vocal champion of the gay liberationist agenda, a parallel movement to the equality-and-rights LGBTQ activism. Gay liberation had emerged out of a broader 1960s sexual radicalism, proposing that mainstream culture placed unreasonable and artificial limitations on sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Just as feminism calls for women to shrug off the patriarchy and take control of their own fates, gay liberation called for gay men and lesbians to follow their sexual desires without shame. Activists wanted to upend the idea of family and marriage, to sever the assumed connection between sex and love. Straight people might have affairs and kinky sex, but gay promiscuity could build a new queer nation. So when the marriage advocates showed up to start lobbying the federal government to legalize same-sex marriage nationally, the reception was not especially warm.

Thirteen years later, the activists and lawyers who focused on equality and rights are seen as true heroes. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and governments across Canada have eliminated or are moving to eliminate almost all legal discrimination against gay and lesbian people, and more recently, trans people. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who this month appointed Randy Boissonnault as special advisor on LGBTQ issues, has suggested the government will apologize to all Canadians who have been persecuted because of their sexuality.

Gay liberation had promised a sexual utopia, an Oz where conventional social judgements did not apply. But that was a dead end. It was only by taking sex off the table did gay and lesbian people make any real socio-political headway in this country.

Being a gay Canadian living through the late twentieth and early twenty-first century was to experience one’s very existence vindicated. Not only officially, but also in the hearts and minds of a majority of the population. Everything you were told about yourself—that you were mentally ill, criminal, perverted, non-existent, incapable of love, untrustworthy, dangerous—was completely reversed.

No other group has had that kind of success, not the anti-racist movement, not feminism, not Aboriginal people, and not Quebec separatists. Yet Canada’s original gay liberation movement has now been pushed aside as a historic footnote to the equality-focused LGBTQ activism that ate it up and spit it out. Events this year celebrating the forty-fifth anniversary of The Body Politic, the influential gay liberationist magazine published by Pink Triangle Press prior to Xtra!, felt more like an exercise in nostalgia than the affirmation of a relevant social force.

A celebration of unbound sexuality, the gay liberation movement’s obsession with the extremes of sexual behaviour often drove away moderates: those who didn’t want to give up their ideas of romantic love, people who were attached to everything about their religion except prohibitions on same-sex relationships, and trans people who cared more about recognition of their identity and improving health services than bedding as many partners as possible.

Lesbians and bisexual women, too, tended to be less interested in the sexual adventures offered by the liberation movement; many were raising children together and yearned for more family stability, not more free love. The WASPy whiteness of the movement’s founders, perhaps understandable in the early years, also prevented it from making a deeper impact in multicultural Canada, even though new Canadians, often coming from homophobic countries, are most in need of support and inclusion.

Operating between 1971 and 1987, The Body Politic, in particular, was often seen as reflecting the interests of a particular sort of gay white man rather than a broader community of sexual minorities. One of its biggest internal controversies was in 1985, over a personal ad for “a young well built BM [Black Man] for houseboy.” Though some collective members saw the ad as racist, objectifying readers of colour, others argued that any expression of desire is legitimate. “Sexual desire is just there . . . it is not there to be morally evaluated and either glorified or condemned,” wrote collective member Ken Popert, who still runs Pink Triangle Press. “Desire is inviolable.”

The Body Politic’s most famous controversy, though, was over a 1977 article called “Men Loving Boys Loving Men,” which spotlighted several adult men who were in relationships with teenaged boys, which included sex. The article triggered a police raid and obscenity charges. The collective eventually won after almost six years before the courts, but the case bothered some in the community who thought the exploration of man-boy love amounted to advocacy and that it perpetuated the belief that gay people were more likely to be paedophiles than straight people. In a society where the straight majority is, inevitably, at the wheel, people wondered how this anything-goes philosophy could improve the lives of average gay and lesbian people in tangible ways.

At its heart, gay liberation was about being left alone, about being given the space to create one’s own relationships, sexual, fraternal, or otherwise. That idea had great power in the reaction to the bathhouse raids in Montreal and Toronto in the 1970s and ’80s, when police busted into saunas to arrest adult men having consensual sex. There were protests in the streets, demands made. Anger can give a community form and confidence. But as time passed, some thought there needed to be more strategy and persuasion—a more unambiguous approach to systemic discrimination.

Bob Gallagher is a Toronto activist who used to explore the gay sexual underworld with the late French intellectual bad boy Michel Foucault. Now head of communications and political action at the United Steelworkers, Gallagher helped establish Canadians for Equal Marriage in the Pink Triangle Press offices in 2003. He sets the date for the tactical shift from free love to equal rights much earlier than I do—in 1994. That’s when the advocacy group Foundation for Equal Families formed after Ontario failed to pass Bill 167, which would have changed the definition of spouse to treat same-sex couples like opposite-sex common-law couples. The decision on the group’s name was a monumental decision. “Family was synonymous with a heterosexual family, which we were left out of. We had rejected that, to be a single individual with sexual desires, who wanted to be free to engage in those sexual desires,” he says. “But politically, having the ‘right to love’ is much more accessible to someone who isn’t queer.”

While the LGBTQ community has gained much during the fight for equal rights, some proponents of the gay liberation movement think that, as a result, some things have been lost. “A lot of people don’t want to be a part of gay culture. They say, ‘I’m married, I go to church, that’s not my life,’” says Sky Gilbert, activist, playwright and associate professor at the University of Guelph. Gilbert remains devoted to championing alternative relationships, “fucking with gender” and camp, but these days he can seem like a voice in the wilderness. The focus on “equal love” has purged the appealing irrationality of sex. “People are talking about how we’re all the same, but I call it very Pollyanna and very misleading rhetoric,” he says. “I’ve always been a believer that we’re not all the same.”

Perhaps the most radical sexual liberationist beliefs were built on the assumption that the straight world would never change: gay and lesbian people would always be illegal, so had no choice but to develop ideas and strategies for being happy while illegal. When Canadian society proved to be more flexible than expected, many LGBTQ people realized they didn’t want to run off to the big city to be campy creatures of the night. They just wanted to live where they wanted, be accepted by their friends and family, and live their lives as straight people do.

Yet, as Gilbert points out, the “we’re just like you” shtick only goes so far. Male sexuality has always had a reputation for being hard to contain, and so gay male sexuality, unencumbered by the double standards facing women, can still be a point of contention. Just this fall, Toronto police set up a sting operation to arrest men having sex in an Etobicoke park, after years of exercising more discretion toward such behaviour. At the national level, the federal government is debating legislation that will set the age of consent for anal intercourse at sixteen, the same as for other sexual acts. Though the existing law, which prohibits anal sex with those under eighteen, makes no reference to sexual orientation, the law is considered to have been built on the fear of gay men “grooming” teens to turn them gay. (The section also prohibits anal sex when there’s more than two people present.) Both the discussions around the park arrests and the legislative reform reveal ongoing anxieties around the sex lives of gay men. After a couple of decades of gay love, we might finally be ready to talk again about gay sex.

Paul Gallant has written for Canadian Business, the Globe and Mail, and National Geographic Traveler India.