The Current

'Boat People' share survival stories coming to Canada 40 years ago

Forty years ago, tens of thousands of refugees fled Vietnam. Today, we devote an hour to the stories of those who found a new life in Canada and of those who made it possible. And we look at what we've learned as new waves of displaced people take to rickety boats to escape new wars.
A group refugees (162 persons) arrived on a small boat which sank a few meters from the shore in Malaysia. The flight of Vietnamese refugees began after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In spite of the dangers of unfriendly waters and piracy, tens of thousands took the South China Sea,. (K. Gaugler/AFP/Getty Images)
Nhu Van Nguyen steered a wooden boat w/ 90+ people fleeing Vietnam. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

"I have to gamble with my life for the freedom." - Nhu Van Nguyen

It was April 30th, 1975, forty years ago, that the last U.S. helicopter slipped over the horizon on the outskirts of Saigon, and unceremoniously signaled the end of the Vietnam War. Within 24 hours, on May Day, as they'd planned it, the North Vietnamese flag went up over the Presidential Palace, and Saigon officially became Ho Chi Minh City.

But it took much longer for hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to start new lives... Over the next four years, they clamoured onto boats headed for virtually anywhere.

Tuan Tran was part of the first wave, fleeing in November, 1975. Tuan Tran got into the boat with his two children and they became one of the many Vietnamese 'Boat People', part of wave, after wave of refugees... fleeing Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. At least half-a-million died. But Tuan Tran was one of the lucky ones.

Dr. Tuan Tran describes his escape from Vietnam to a refugee camp in Malaysia.

Tuan Tran's boat landed on the shores of Malaysia and he found his way to a United Nations refugee camp. But for many so called 'Boat People', there was no such warm reception. Boats were often simply pushed back out to sea. And many of those people who did make it to dry land were destined to scratch out a meagre existence, with little or no support.

After four months inside that refugee camp, Tuan Tran emigrated to Canada. So did another 5,000 or so other members of that first wave, between 1975 and 1976. And another 50,000 would join them in a second wave, mostly between 1979 and 1980. 

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Two men who left Vietnam as Saigon fell and eventually made their way to Canada joined us today in studio to share their story. (L) Kien Le, Anna Maria and Nhu Van Nguyen.

Today we're setting out to hear some of their stories four decades on, and to look back on how Canada responded to the international crisis.

  • Dr. Kien Le was a 12-year-old boy living in Saigon 40 years ago. 
  • Nhu Van Nguyen also has memories of being in Vietnam at this time 40 years ago. But unlike  Kien Le, he wasn't able to leave right away. 
Vietnamese 'boat people' refugees huddle together on a tarp as they are airlifted out of the sea during the Vietnam War, 1960s. (Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Boat People: A Refugee Crisis (Video) - CBC Digital Archives

In the end, Canada beat that goal and welcomed about 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The operation that made that happen was ambitious and unprecedented.

Three people at the centre of Operation Lifeline share how it all came about:

  • Mike Molloy was Director of Refugee Affairs and became the the chief co-ordinator of Canada's boat people rescue operation in 1979.
  • Ron Atkey was the new immigration minister in Joe Clark's government in 1979.
  • Howard Adelman, a York University philosophy professor in 1979, developed Operation Lifeline, a Canadian rescue effort that brought 60,000 boat people to Canada in 18 months.
Several boatloads reached Hong Kong waters and were towed in by a Royal Hong Kong Police boat, June 1979. (COR/AFP/Getty Images)

It is remarkable what Canadians were able to achieve when faced with the refugee crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. And of course, it all raises questions about what more Canada might do today to help people from other parts of the world, Syria especially. So many people have died in the Mediterranean sea in recent weeks, attempting their own crossing by boat, into Europe.

During the refugee crisis of the late 1970s and 80sNaomi Alboim was the Director of Settlement for the Ontario Region of Employment and Immigration Canada. She went on to serve as provincial Deputy Minister for Immigration in Ontario. Today she is a fellow, adjunct professor and Chair of the Policy Forum at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University. 

A sponsorship program for Syrian refugees is scheduled to launch in June. If you would like to get information or are interested in sponsoring someone, the email address for Operation Lifeline Syria is

If you're one of tens of thousands of people who came to Canada after the end of the Vietnam War, we want to hear from you.

Tweet us @thecurrentcbc, or call us at 1 877 287 7366. Post on Facebook. Or email us through our website. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar, Gord Westmacott and Ines Colabrese.

Vietnamese refugees adapt to life in Canada

43 years ago
Duration 12:52
In 1980, boat people like restaurant owner Peter Tran are working their way up.