Binh Lao arrived in Canada when he was 17-years old. He came with his mother and father and brother, Bao. The Lai family was part of the 1978 exodus of "boat people" from Vietnam. It was two years after the end of the Vietnam war, and 250,000 Vietnamese of ethnic Chinese background were forced to flee their adopted homeland which had been ravaged by 20 years of civil war and famine. Approximately 40,000 of those who left perished at sea. Over 60,000 Vietnamese refugees flooded into Canada.
People from Indochina (including the countries of Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea) have only been settling in Canada in any number since the 1978 exodus. A small wave of Indochinese to Canada occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s. Many of these first immigrants were students. By 1970 the Vietnamese population in Canada was a measly 1,200, centred mostly in Québec. In 1977, the population numbered only 6,000.(1)
It was the American defeat in Vietnam and the fall of the Thieu regime in early 1975 that produced a mass flight of Vietnamese. At the time, Canada immediately granted permanent residence status to about 4,000 Vietnamese already in the country. Additionally, the Canadian government compiled a list of 14,000 relatives of both citizens and landed immigrants of Vietnamese origin who were still in their native Vietnam. A letter was sent to these people informing them that the letter alone constituted sufficient clearance to enter Canada. In 1977, with thousands of refugees awaiting resettlement, Canada promised to take on 50 families per month. This quota was increased to 70 families for 1978. When the situation grew worse in the fall of 1978, the Canadian government came under increasing pressure to take more refugees. Canada agreed to take 608 of the 2,5000 refugees from the Hai Haong freighter. (2)
By the end of 1978 there were 10,000 Indochinese in Canada, mostly in Montréal, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. During the next two years, the situation in Vietnam grew increasingly severe and Canada admitted 59,970 refugee and designated-class immigrants of Vietnamese Chinese background.(3)
Over 32,000 Vietnamese were sponsored by private Canadian groups -- 6,887 in all -- who wanted to do something to help. More than half of the sponsorship groups were organized through churches and religious organizations. Catholic, Mennonite, Christian Reformed and United Church groups together supported 48 percent of all privately sponsored refugees.(4)
That's how the Lais got their start in Canada. The Bessai family of Edmonton, Alberta, had heard about the plight of the Vietnamese boat people through a movement at their church to give support to the refugees. The Bessais sponsored a family believing it was an important thing to do.
The sponsorship programs scattered the Indochinese refugees across Canada, with the majority putting down roots in the major urban areas. After the massive influx of Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s, many Indochinese continued to come to Canada as refugees and designated class immigrants: 24,000 from Vietnam, and over 12,000 from other parts of Southeast Asia such as Laos and Kampuchea. An increasing number of Vietnamese also came to Canada through the normal immigration channels. The Vietnamese immigrant population continued to grow during the 1980s. Over the last decade, Southeast Asians in Canada have tried to reunite their families. Recent immigrants settle most often in Ontario; a smaller number have made homes in Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia.(5)