'Boat People' share survival stories coming to Canada 40 years ago
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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 80s, Naomi 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar, Gord Westmacott and Ines Colabrese.
Vietnam rebukes Canadian ambassador over commemoration of fall of Saigon - The Globe & Mail
Vietnam after the war: Visiting 40 years after the Fall of Saigon - The Independent
Immigration policies make Canada less welcoming, study says - The Toronto Star