Canada: The Story of Us

When Canadians came together to help Vietnamese refugees

No Western country accepted more Vietnamese refugees per capita than Canada. And it all started in Howard Adelman's living room.
In the late 1970s, many Canadians were moved by the plight of Vietnamese refugees. Through private sponsorship, thousands of Canadians helped resettle Vietnamese families in every corner of the country. (Canada: The Story of Us)

In 1975, after 20 years of war, North Vietnam has conquered American-backed South Vietnam, uniting the country under communist rule. The government of Vietnam quickly becomes a brutal, repressive dictatorship. Over the next three years, several thousand desperate people flee the country by boat. In 1978, that trickle becomes a flood.

Between 1978 and 1981, over a million Vietnamese and Chinese-Vietnamese people flee Vietnam on overcrowded, rickety boats, only to perish at sea or wind up trapped in refugee camps in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines. These refugees are often met with hostility — even outright violence.

But this humanitarian crisis also provokes an outpouring of support from around the world, as volunteers in the West organize themselves to take in the refugees. No Western country accepts more Vietnamese refugees per capita than Canada. And it all starts in one man's living room.

Howard Adelman has made a name for himself as a student activist in the 1950s and '60s, particularly as one of the principal founders of Rochdale College, Toronto's experimental "free university." By the late 1970s, he's a philosophy professor at York University.

Adelman feels compelled to help the refugees the media has dubbed "boat people," both as a humanitarian and, especially, as a Jewish-Canadian. A child when Canada turned away Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, Adelman has taken the phrase "never again" to heart.

In 1979, Adelman invites two rabbis, a priest, his local alderman and ministers from nearby churches to meet in his Toronto living room. He learns that changes to the Immigration Act will allow private groups to sponsor refugees, and he hopes he can help convince his friends and neighbours to become involved.

The plan works. People call Adelman at all hours of the day and night, wondering how they can help. Adelman arranges for people in his local riding to sponsor 50 Vietnamese families, and his idea catches on. Within a week, Adelman's team has quadrupled in size. Popular support allows what is soon called Operation Lifeline to go national. Within eight days, there are 66 chapters across the country, volunteering to resettle Vietnamese families in every corner of the country. In one year, 7,000 Canadian sponsors bring 30,000 refugees to Canada. By 1985, Canada has resettled over 110,000 Vietnamese refugees.

Nearly 40 years later, Vietnamese refugees and their descendants are thriving in Canada, and are found in almost every facet of Canadian life, from the arts to sports to politics. A popular grassroots initiative may have started as response to the humanitarian crisis in the South China Sea, but it's become a successful model for local communities working with the government to help create a new home for refugees.

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