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By: Julia Sisler and Theresa Ho
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In China’s Fujian province in the 1990s, poverty and desperation drove thousands of people each year to attempt escape. On the southeast coast, far from the watchful eye of Beijing authority, human smuggling became a thriving business.
Often, young family members were chosen to make the perilous journey to America, to work hard and send back money.
Ming Zhuo was 17 years old when his parents asked him if he’d like to go to the United States to help his family.
“In some ways it was like a doorway opened up in front of me,” he told Linden MacIntyre. “I want to go, yes.”
He was told that he would travel by boat, in comfort, for a relatively short journey.
Instead, Ming and his fellow passengers soon discovered the reality of travelling as a smuggler’s cargo.
There were more than 130 people aboard the ‘Black Dragon’, an old fishing boat designed to accommodate maybe a dozen passengers. They were kept mostly below the deck, without showers, beds or toilets, lacking clean food and water, and suffering seasickness.
Former RCMP officer Ken Ackles was shocked by the conditions he found on the ship, once police stopped it in Canadian waters.
“It was vomit soaked, urine soaked, feces soaked blankets and clothing and everything that was down there in that hole,” he said. “I’ve smelt sewer plants that are cleaner than that.”
And it was not a cheap journey. At the time, it cost about $30,000 US to get aboard a smuggling ship like the Black Dragon - an almost unimaginable investment in a place where a hard worker might earn about $90 US in a good month.
Passengers had to borrow money from family members to pay the human smugglers, known as ‘snakeheads’, a down payment to board the ship. The balance was owed once they arrived at their destination.
Patrick Keefe, a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, has written a book on Fujianese migration and the role of snakeheads.
If a migrant was unable to pay their fare plus interest, he says the snakeheads could be threatening.
“They could be very heavy-handed. I mean they had guns, they had clubs and knives, and there was always the threat that you’d just be thrown overboard.”
Arrival in Canada
After two months on the Pacific, the migrants didn’t know that plans to land in the United States had fallen through. On August 10, 1999 they were deposited on the remote shores of Haida Gwaii, formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the northwestern coast of British Columbia.
Michael Lin, another 17-year-old boy aboard the ship, remembers his disappointment and fear when he realized there was no American city to be found on the desolate island.
“At that time, we think everybody’s going to die from here,” Lin told MacIntyre.
But a passing coast guard search plane spotted smoke from their fire, and the RCMP arrived soon after to take them to the mainland.
Dan Sinclair was one of the first rescuers on the scene, and he remembers one passenger in particular stood out.
“She was such a cutie. She was just a little tiny seven or eight year old child freezing in her pyjamas,” he said. “Had that girl not got help, had she not got a blanket and got warm, it wouldn’t have been very long and she would not have made it.”
The girl in the pink pyjamas was seven-year-old Yan Jiang. She would become a problem for immigration officials, and the human face of a crisis that was best considered from afar.
The arrival of the migrants at Port Hardy, BC prompted curiosity and compassion, but also unconcealed hostility.
One protester told a CBC reporter at the time, “they should be sent back where they come from - right now.”
The Black Dragon was not the only boat full of migrants to come to Canada that summer. In total, four boats reached the BC coast, carrying more than 600 desperate people. There was growing pressure for immigration officials to send a message: that getting to Canada was difficult, but getting to stay here would be an even bigger challenge.
A New Home
All of the adults aboard the Black Dragon were sent to jails, far from lawyers, support groups and preventing direct contact with the media.
But many of the migrants were too young for jail. There were 51 teenagers aged 18 or under, sent alone by their families. Legally, they were children in need of state protection, and so had a strong basis for a refugee claim.
They were taken into provincial care, and sent to a temporary group home called Dogwood Lodge in Burnaby.
But two younger children needed special care. Yan, the little girl in the pink pyjamas, and a 12-year-old boy named Jun Guo, went to live with Penny Ewonus, who had been looking after foster children for decades.
They quickly settled into their new home, attending local Port Moody schools. Yan learned English fast, made friends with a young girl, Joylyn Secunda, who lived next door, and became something of a neighbourhood celebrity.
But after nine months, Ewonus got a shocking phone call - her two foster children were to be deported the next morning.
“I couldn’t believe it. You know, like why is this happening, and why are you doing this? Why are you sending them back?”
The news was supposed to be kept a secret. But Ewonus told the children, then bought a cake, and invited the neighbours over for a goodbye party.
Sometime that night, she went to check on the two children - and found they weren’t in their rooms.
They had tried to vanish into the city, to avoid deportation back to China. Jun had a phone number in his pocket of someone who might have helped them to hide. But he didn’t know how to use a pay phone - and while he was trying to figure it out, a passing police car spotted the two runaways and brought them home.
The next morning, Yan’s friend next door got up to say a tearful goodbye. Her mother, Linda, felt deportation was far too extreme for such a young child.
“As a parent, I wanted to somehow have the power to intervene and stop this. How could I, how could I, you know, stop it from happening?”
Government officials told the local media that they had no choice but to send the children home with their parents.
Jun had come to Canada with his mother, who he visited every week in jail. But Yan was sent by her relatives with a woman who was only pretending to be her mother.
In immigration files reviewed by the fifth estate, Yan and the woman posing as her mother are referred to as #9 and #10. In numerous interviews, other passengers and crew clearly tell authorities that they are not in fact, mother and daughter.
As a child without a parent in Canada or in China, a lawyer could have made a strong case that Yan was a genuine refugee. Immigration law offers sanctuary to people who need protection.
But Canadian immigration chose to believe the fiction that a woman posing as Yan’s mother was all the protection she required.
On May 10, 2000 Yan and Jun boarded a plane back to China, along with nearly 100 other migrants, in the largest single deportation in Canadian history.
Where are they now?
For many people in China, North America is known as the ‘Golden Mountain’.
“The idea is that there was this mythical land in which you could make a great fortune in a single lifetime,” Keefe said.
But the reality rarely lives up to the glowing promise of that myth.
“Then once they got here, they discovered in fact it wasn't what they'd been told at all. It was incredibly difficult work on the fringes of the economy. Really just eking out a living.”
Fourteen years after the Black Dragon washed ashore in BC, the fifth estate set out to learn what happened to some survivors of that voyage.
We found Jun had made it back to the Golden Mountain. Now he has a US green card, and runs a Chinese buffet restaurant in Nebraska.
Jun’s mother works with him, sending money back to China.
“Everyone believes that as long as you are willing to work hard in the United States, you will be able to buy a house. This is my motivation to work long hours.”
But Jun, now 26 years old, says he wishes he had more freedom.
“It’s not a better life,” he said. “I believe there will be a better life in the future, coming years.”
Ming and Lin were two of a handful of migrants aboard the Black Dragon who were able to stay in Canada.
Lin is now a permanent Canadian resident, who runs his own business making kitchen counter tops. It took him 7 years to pay his debt to the snakeheads. The total, with interest, was about $50,000 CDN.
“I work so hard,” he said. “Every day working like 16 hours.”
Ming’s story is similar. He is now a Canadian citizen, working in a Vancouver area warehouse and sending money back to support his family in China. He now has a wife there, and a child he’s never seen. His hope is that one day they too will be Canadians.
The fifth estate also went looking for Yan, the little girl who once stood shivering on Canada’s shores in pink pyjamas - and found her, in an unexpected place.
She was in Fujian for a visit, back where her journey began in 1999. A photograph rekindled her memories of her time in at the foster home in BC.
“I felt I was part of them. Sometimes, even at my place, at my home, I am the outsider, but I never felt that way when I was with Penny,” she said.
Like Jun, she eventually made it to the United States. She has a green card, and hopes to go to university. And someday, she hope to reconnect with the woman she still thinks of as her mother.
“I only got a vague memory of how she looks like, but I had a special feeling. But she remains close to my heart.”