The people who need people

Ken Becker August 20 1979

The people who need people

Ken Becker August 20 1979

For 34-year-old Hua Van Thinh, bone-tired and impatient, Montreal’s Mirabel Airport was little more than a necessary nuisance stop in a terrifying odyssey that ended late last week with the promise of a new life in Central Canada. With 197 fellow boat people, Hua listened quietly to welcoming speeches by federal and Quebec officials, applauded perfunctorily and quickly headed for army bunkhouses designed to handle the real business at hand: resettling part of the expected influx of 50,000 outcast Vietnamese in other locations across Canada. For them, and also for their new countrymen who welcomed them, Phase 2 of the great Vietnamese refugee saga had begun.

In Phase 1 there was only the horror, the desperate and perilous dash from the dictatorial rule of Hanoi into the emptiness of the South China Sea. Their eyes pleaded every night on the national news, the first holocaust broadcast coast-to-coast in living color.

The pictures brought the response they cried out for. The world answered, Canada, if not first in line, rushed toward the head of the queue. The Clark government upped its quota of 8,000 to a potential 50,000 Vietnamese refugees by the end of next year on a matching basis with private sponsors. By last week, 6,118 Indo-Chinese had arrived, 1,300 since Immigration Minister Ron Atkey’s July 18 announcement of the expanded plan, and the boat people saga had entered a new and hopeful stage.

Nearly every day, in cities and towns across the country, the scene was played out: hundreds of refugees pouring out of Boeing 707s, hundreds of sympathetic and committed Canadians waiting on the tarmac to greet them. People such as Ross Munro.

He and his wife and daughter were at Ottawa’s Uplands Airport last fortnight. It was 3:45 a.m. when the aircraft taxied to a stop. The Munros had been advised not to go to the airport, told they would meet their sponsored Vietnamese family a few days later after the paperwork and jet lag were over. But the Munros couldn’t stay away and immigration officials understood. They introduced the two families across a barrier of rope. “It was incredible,” said Munro. “We were strangers, yet all of us dissolved into hugs and kisses and tears. I think we exchanged a few words, but I don’t even remember what I said.”

Probably never before have Canadian citizens in such numbers expressed such a commitment to the homeless masses of the world. Perhaps it was those scenes on the nightly news; perhaps it was the frustration of never before having been shown how to help in a positive way; perhaps it was simply that the time was right in this nation’s history; all of which undoubtedly will be explained in the future, in Phase 3. Will the historians and sociologists of the 1980s and ’90s look back on the phenomenon of people rushing forward to sponsor Asian refugees as a summer daydream, just another trendy exercise like ordering Perrier and lime? Or will it be seen as having marked a change in the direction of society, in the texture of the country?

It is not the first time Canada has opened its borders to refugees (see box on page 15). After their crushed revolt in 1956, 37,189 Hungarians settled in Canada. In 1968, 11,943 Czechs escaped Soviet tanks and made it here. But they were white Europeans—as were most Canadians’ ancestors. They integrated quickly and easily, their culture and values never all that different from their neighbors. But when former dictator Idi Amin booted out Ugandan Asians in 1972, and Canada gave refuge to more than 7,000, it was different. Cultures clashed. The word Paki became a too-familiar put-down—although they were not all Pakistanis.

However, Ottawa and the refugee sponsors are not looking to the East Indians for a precedent. Predictably, they’re pointing instead to the Orientals, the Chinese and Japanese and Koreans, who have become such an integral part of Canadian society. And they’re also counting on the Vietnamese who have been here a while, the 9,000 or so who came to Canada after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Atkey (see box) stresses the industriousness of the Vietnamese, their sense of responsibility. He says they’re glad the government is making them pay back $750 for each adult’s air fare. “It represents the goal of a huge early achievement,” Atkey said last week, adding that the Vietnamese who have been living in Canada are “seldom, if ever, on unemployment.”

And Vietnamese such as Hua Van Thinh back him up. Hua had his wife, son, daughter, sister and brother with him when he climbed off the plane last Wednesday. Though they landed at Mirabel Airport, he doesn’t plan to join Montreal’s already large Vietnamese community, one that has flourished despite internal political differences during the war in Vietnam and the period of sudden growth immediately after it.

Hua wanted to come to Canada instead of the United States because it’s “a vast and rich country, where there are fewer people, where we will be better accepted.” He will go to Toronto instead of staying in Montreal, although he speaks French as well as English, because he feels it’s a better place to be “independent and rebuild a life.” If he’s lucky he may repeat something of the experience of a 1975 arrival, Peter Tran, who did choose Montreal originally, only to leave a year later to follow the economic indicators to Toronto. He worked as a waiter and bartender until he became a bar manager in a posh downtown hotel and he still looks ahead. He’s 43, has a wife and three children, and was once an English professor in Saigon. But he sees his future in the business community. “I’d like to get back to education, but the economic indicators in education are all going down and the indicators in business are all going up. So that’s where I’m going.”

If there is any widespread sentiment against the refugees, it has been hidden in a tidal wave of support, but there’s no use denying there has been some loose talk. A couple of journalists—notably columnist and broadcaster Doug Collins in Vancouver—have preyed on the fears of their audience. Perhaps it’s important to note that Collins’ breast-beating coincided with the publication of his book, Immigration: The Destruction of English Canada. Then there’s Jack Pickett, a former Alberta Liberal leader, whose voice was heard last week protesting a scheduled (Sept. 15) CBC benefit for the refugees.

Others have economic bones to pick with their neighbors and their government. The Métis in Manitoba (see box on page 16) want charity to begin at home. Although there has not been any violence, there has been the threat—including death threats against Atkey, which last week prompted the RCMP to put the minister and his family under 24-hour guard. Ottawa Mayor Marion Dewar, who originated the Project 4,000 drive in her city, has received letters that call her a “moron” who is turning the country over to “hordes of Chinese.” A letter in the Winnipeg Free Press asked: “They now inhabit one-quarter of the earth’s surface. Shall we give them our share of North America too?”

The negative response reflects “a long-standing tradition of racism and xenophobia in this country,” says Harold Troper, a historian and associate professor at Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Troper currently is working on a study of Canadian immigration during the Nazi holocaust. “Canada’s role, as seen through the smokestacks of Auschwitz, was very negative,” Troper says. “Then, the government saw ‘refugee’ as a code word for Jew. Now it has become a code word for Vietnamese. But the response has been phenomenal this time. It is a very interesting phenomenon for Canadian society. One may ask whether this is the generation of the ’60s in adulthood, now living up to the social fervor of the ’60s.”

Whether the fervor is sustained or not will have much to do with the quality of life the newcomers enjoy in Phase 3—when the heartwarming TV clips and newspaper interviews have run out and the boat people find themselves forgotten in the crowd of other Canadians trying to plug along on foot, inevitably suffering some of the shoves and pushes to which newcomers are prone. “The more heterogenity you introduce, the more you increase the risks of conflict,” says Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Perhaps the wisest move the new Conservative government has made so far—humanely as well as politically— was to invite Canadians individually to share with the government in sponsoring these newest refugees. If even half of 50,000 Vietnamese find half a dozen friendly sponsors, all this bonding should go a long way to offset ignorance and bias as the newcomers settle