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Lewis Perinbam


Lewis was Canada’s most preeminent innovator in and champion of international development and cooperation, as Vice President of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in charge of voluntary sector (NGO) programs for nearly two decades. Born in Malaya in 1925 to Indian parents, he left as a child to be educated in Scotland, where he earned a degree in engineering.

The execution of his father at the hands of Japanese soldiers during World War II profoundly influenced Lewis to seek peaceful resolutions to global issues. In 1953, it also led him to Canada, a country he claimed embraced values and principles which did not prompt domination of others. He joined one of Canada’s first NGOs, World University Service Canada (WUSC) who continues to honor his contributions through an annual award in his name. Lewis also co-founded Canadian University Service Overseas, Canada’s equivalent of the Peace Corps. It sent young Canadians abroad as partners in development. Through both NGOs, he did much to shape the way that thousands of young Canadians came to view the world and their role in it.

After brief stints at UNESCO and the World Bank, Lewis joined CIDA in 1969 to head its fledgling NGO Programs Division, and stayed until his retirement in 1991 as Vice President of the Special Programs Branch (SPB). Under his leadership, SPB launched numerous initiatives to involve the private, NGO and institutional sectors in international development. Many were the first of their kind in the world.

This heightened Canada and CIDA’s reputation as practising humane international development due to the premium they placed on policies and programs that were ethical, cooperative, and non-coercive. Colleagues in and out of government (and he built extensive and impressive net-works) remembered Lewis as a dynamic leader, an “anti-bureaucrat” who made things happen, and did not simply administer the status quo. His work was driven by a belief that the chief enemies of humankind were poverty, disease and illiteracy, which could only be defeated through international cooperation on many fronts.

Canada’s growing stature among the nations of the world in the second half of the twentieth century, he often claimed, was not due to force of arms, but a commitment to peace. NGOs, he reminded Canadians, played a central role in creating Canada’s international image as a compassionate and generous nation. Equally, they were often at the vanguard of great social justice and human rights struggles. Lewis used his power in and out of Ottawa to facilitate timely, consistent, and at times generous assistance to Canada’s NGOs.  While praising NGOs to his final days, he also warned that modern humanitarianism could lead to a new imperialism dominated by “donors” and “recipients;” and advocated for North-South relations based on partnership, not patronage.

Retirement from CIDA did not end his career in humanitarianism or commitment to justice and equality. As chief advisor to the president of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), a Vancouver-based NGO, he helped improve access to education through distance learning resources, knowledge and technology. He chaired its Board of Governors until his death in 2007 and in 2000 led the landmark Canadian Government Task Force on the Participation of Visible Minorities in the Federal Public Service to make the public service more representative of Canadian society. Known for his leadership in “affirmative action”, Lewis helped colleagues from disadvantaged communities chart new paths in much less inhospitable environments.

Lewis’s tireless, if not relentless, devotion to the dream of international cooperation based on a truly equal partnership of service and learning were widely recognized with honorary doctorates (Calgary, York, Quebec, Brock, St Mary’s and Victoria); the Sir Edmund Hillary Humanitarian Award, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and the Order of Canada.


By: Kevin Brushett Ph.D., Assistant Professor/Professeur adjoint, Chair Military & Strategic Studies Program, Royal Military College of Canada/Collège Militaire Royale du Canada.

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