“I was a teenage political prisoner in war-torn Sri Lanka. Today, I’m one of Canada’s top financial executives”
After surviving imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Sri Lankan army and losing his father to the war, Roy Ratnavel was determined to make a name for himself in Toronto
When Roy Ratnavel was 17 years old, he was imprisoned by the Sri Lankan army for his Tamil ethnicity. For months, he was tortured and subjected to brutal conditions, until a fateful meeting led to his release. In 1988, he left for Canada on his own. Soon after arriving in Toronto, he convinced a small investment firm to give him a job in the mailroom. Thirty-four years later, he is the head of distribution at the same company—now known as CI Global Asset Management—and the executive vice-president of CI Financial. In 2020, Ratnavel was named one of Canada’s top executives by Report on Business, and his recently released book, Prisoner #1056: How I Survived War and Found Peace, is a national bestseller. Here, he shares his story and how he succeeded against all odds.
I was born in 1969 in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, to a middle-class Tamil family. My father worked in government, my mom was a homemaker and I have an older brother named Ravi. When I was a child, my father decided to move the family north, where most Tamils lived, for our safety. I went to an all-boys school in a coastal town called Point Pedro, where I played cricket and soccer. I had a normal, uneventful childhood—until war broke out in the north.
Since Sri Lanka gained independence from the British Empire in 1948, there has been ethnic strife between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. In 1983, there was a government-orchestrated riot called Black July against Tamils in the south—more than 3,000 Tamils were killed. That’s when the tensions began to mount and a civil war broke out. About four years later, the conflict intensified: in a move called Operation Liberation, Sri Lankan troops set out to recapture lost ground in the north from the Tamil Tigers, an insurgent group.
In June of 1987, the Sri Lankan army came to Point Pedro and rounded up all men between the ages of 14 and 40. My brother had moved to Denmark, but the army took me. They shackled us, made us walk a few kilometres and loaded us onto a cargo ship. We were taken to a notorious internment camp in the south called Boosa. That’s where I was kept, along with 2,700 other men.
At the camp, I experienced many different forms of torture. I was beaten with barbed wires and weighted pipes; military interrogators would fill plastic pipes with sand and beat us around our heels as we lay face down. It was incredibly painful. We were also tortured with electric shocks. I saw some people bleeding through their ears and others with eyes so swollen that they couldn’t see.
The authorities wanted us to admit that we were insurgents and part of the Tamil Tigers. Some men signed affidavits to this effect to stop the torture, but they would never be allowed to leave the prison. My family didn’t know where I was, but about two months into my imprisonment, I had an opportunity to deliver a message to a colonel in the army, who, despite being on the opposite side of the conflict, was a close friend of my father’s. A few days later, I was called up to the prison’s entrance. I thought I was going to my death, but then I saw my dad’s friend standing there in his military outfit. He took me out of the prison and back to my family.
My father decided that, for my safety, I needed to get out of the country right away. My mother’s brother was living in Canada, so my father wrote a plea to the Canadian High Commission in Colombo, and I was called in for an interview. I took my shirt off during the meeting to show the interviewer my scars.
I landed in Toronto alone on April 19, 1988, at the age of 18, with $50 in my pocket. By that time, the Indian army had come to Sri Lanka as a peacekeeping force, and another war had broken out between the Indian army and the Tamil Tigers. My father was shot and killed two days after I arrived in Canada. Part of me died with him, but I also became determined to live on and build a legacy that he would be proud of. From then on, I lived for two people, thinking that if I did well enough in life I could somehow give my father the life he had always wanted.
I lived with my uncle for a couple of months before moving into a house in Scarborough, where I shared a room with three other people. I was able to speak some English since my father had always encouraged me to learn the language. He had also told me that it was important to assimilate, to be curious, to learn about others and to have an open mind. So I started making friends with people from all sorts of backgrounds through work and school. I worked at a packaging factory during the day and cleaned buildings at night. On the weekends, I worked as a security guard. On top of all of that, I was trying to finish high school.
I was cleaning buildings on Bay Street one day when I noticed some large corner offices. I thought, This must be some big shot’s office, and I knew I wanted an important career with an office like that. I started looking for job openings, and I saw an employment agency ad at the back of the Toronto Sun for office help at an investment firm. It paid $14,000 a year. The recruiter rejected my application, so I showed up at the Bay Street office of the firm—then called Universal Group—and refused to leave until I had a job. The office manager heard the commotion and took me into her office. She asked me why I was so determined to work there. I told her my life’s story and ultimately convinced her to give me a job as a mailroom clerk.
I went from the mailroom to working in administration within a year and a half, and I spent a few years there before moving on to client services. The different roles helped me learn how each aspect of the business worked and prepared me for a role in leadership. I became interested in sales—the travelling and profitability appealed to me—and in 1998, I was sent to Vancouver as the vice-president of sales. Eight years later, I became the sales head of western Canada, which involved managing more than 25 people, from Winnipeg to British Columbia. Ten years after that, in 2016, I moved back to Toronto to lead the company’s national sales effort. My role now consists of overseeing more than 150 people and $120 billion in assets. My favourite part of the job is mentoring young people and seeing them grow.
I knew that, if I wanted to set myself apart, I needed to work harder than anyone else. Once, when I was in the mailroom, things got busy and we had a backlog of packages that needed to be mailed out. My manager wasn’t happy, and she wanted to hire someone else to help me. It was a Friday night, and I decided to stay for as long as it took to get through the backlog. I worked from 5 p.m. until midnight. When my manager came in on Monday morning, all of the packages were ready to be shipped out.
When I was in sales, I would have the most meetings of anyone in the department. Even though I worked longer hours—about 12 to 15 hours a day—I was efficient with my meetings. Instead of allocating a full hour to a meeting, as some did, I’d keep mine short and concise, about 20 minutes. I learned that sales is all about networking—the more people you meet, the more deals you close and the more assets you bring in.
I also had incredible support along the way. Robert McRae, the company’s original owner, learned that I was studying economics at the University of Toronto at night. When he found out that the company hadn’t been covering my school fees, he wrote me a personal cheque for more than the amount I needed. He told me that I could put the extra money toward my future studies and that an educated employee was an asset to the company. I later invited Robert to my wedding, and his generous gift paid for my reception.
When I was in the mailroom, I also met a young salesman named Bill Holland, who became a lifelong mentor. He taught me many helpful lessons: that people do business with people they like; that it’s important to have grace, to be personable and to listen; and how to be an empathetic leader, which means not being vindictive or holding grudges. Once, a senior employee whom I managed left the company because he was unhappy with his compensation. But, when he wasn’t satisfied with his new job, he wanted to come back. I don’t get mad when people quit and leave—I signed him back on and took him out to dinner because he’s a great employee.
I first thought of writing a book about my experience back in 2006, but I was busy with work and starting a family. I was 37 and married, with a one-year-old son. Later, as a travelling executive, I was constantly occupied by dinners and evening meetings. When the pandemic hit, I finally had the time to write. I wanted to tell my story as a former teenage political prisoner and to give a voice to those who have been affected by Sri Lankan terror. I also wanted to give the new generation of young Tamil men and women coming of age in this country and other Western nations insight into the trauma that their parents experienced. Lastly, and probably most importantly, I wanted to pay homage to Canada. I hope to remind people what a precious commodity freedom is and why we must do everything we can to protect it.
My father’s guidance and insistence on hard work still drives me today. I believe that humanity thrives on hope and optimism—which helped me survive even in the darkest of times—and I want to share that message with others. I mentor a lot of young people from different backgrounds and industries, and I plan to start giving inspirational talks. Fundraising and supporting my community are also very important to me: I’m a big supporter of the South Asian Autism Awareness Centre in Scarborough. Ultimately, I want to spread my belief that, regardless of culture, people share more similarities than differences.