'It still carries their story': lifeboat becomes symbol of hope on World Refugee Day

Thirty-one years after parched and starving Sri Lankan refugees were found adrift in the ocean, the lifeboat that transported them to Canada is being celebrated as a beacon of hope on World Refugee Day.

Origin story of Sri Lankan refugees to be honoured at Ryerson University's World Refugee Day event

Thirty-one years ago, 75 Tamil refugees huddled and teetered in this lifeboat while stranded for three and a half days in the northern Atlantic Ocean until they were rescued by a fisherman from Newfoundland. (Cyrus Sundar Singh)

Thirty-one years after parched and starving Sri Lankan refugees were found adrift in the ocean, the lifeboat that transported them to Canada is being celebrated as a beacon of hope on World Refugee Day. 

"That idea of people finding hope in boats has never changed. It's been ongoing for a thousand years," said filmmaker Cyrus Sander Singh who brought the boat to Toronto from St.John's, Newfoundland. 

In an interview on Metro Morning, Singh explained the Sri Lankan "boat people's" plight and how it inspired him to make a documentary about their rescue.

Filmmaker Cyrus Sander Singh tracked down the boat last summer in Newfoundland and brought it to Toronto so it could be celebrated at Tamilfest in Scarborough, World Refugee Day, and Canada 150 celebrations in Ottawa. (Metro Morning)

"They were told they would be in Montreal in four hours," he said while telling the tale of their escape from civil war, travelling on a cargo ship through Europe and eventually being left more than 300 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland.

'It is a last resort when you put your family and children in boats and try to find hope.' - Cyrus Sander Singh

"They did not know where they were. They had one motor, two lifeboats and one small bottle of fuel," Singh said.

"It is a last resort when you put your family and children in boats and try to find hope." 

Two of the former refugees are overcome with emotion as they sit in one of the life-boats that brought them to Newfoundland. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The boat, Singh explains, once carried shame for the souls who used them as a vessel to a better life. For some in the Tamil community, the "boat people" were jumping the queue. 

Now, Singh and the Canadian Tamil Congress are changing the lifeboat narrative into an origin story that will be honoured Tuesday at Ryerson University's World Refugee Day event. 

Five former refugees, Tamils from Sri Lanka, revisit one of the lifeboats they crammed into on St. Mary's Bay, Newfoundland 31 years ago. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

After that, the boat will make a road trip making multiple stops in cities where Singh hopes people will attach messages to the boat on it's way to Parliament Hill for Canada Day. 

"That is it's new purpose, to carry people's stories." 

About the Author

Ali Chiasson

Reporter, CBC Toronto

From teleprompter to Associate Producer, Ali Chiasson worked many desks at CBC News Network before stepping in front of the cameras at CBC Toronto. Ali covers a wide range of breaking and feature stories and has a special knack for people profiles. Off the clock, Ali is happiest walking through Bloordale with headphones on, picking through local produce markets, sipping bubble tea and snapping pics of street art.

With files from Metro Morning