Carl Bessai, director of Brothers
from Vietnam, remembers as a kid hearing about the
In April, 1975, as the Saigon regime in South Vietnam came to an end, it was estimated that more than a million people left Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam -- the three countries that constituted the former Indochina. Half of these refugees were Vietnamese, and of these, half again were classified as "boat people."(2)
The exodus of refugees by sea began as only a trickle. But by 1977, there was a steady stream of 21,000 refugees leaving per year. And by 1978 it was a flood of more than 100,000, rising to 160,000 in 1979.(3)
The term "boat people" became popular mid-way through 1979. Media coverage was non-stop, powered by vivid descriptions and dramatic film clips of rickety boats and thousands of people floundering in the South China Sea. The reports exposed the hopelessness of the situation -- large numbers of people with no place to go, people who had already suffered oppression and now the trials of life and death at sea. Comparisons were made between their situation and that of the victims of the Holocaust (Go To: Season I, Something From Nothing). These reports shocked the world and set off pleas for help from potential resettlement countries such as Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and France.(4)
Passing ships in the region often picked up struggling refugees who were in trouble at sea. They unloaded their human cargo at the nearby ports of Singapore and Hong Kong. Welcome was often cold. Singapore, Taiwan and Japan would not allow these refugees to land unless they secured guarantees that western countries would eventually offer permanent resettlement. Malaysia declared that Vietnamese landing on its beaches would be shot to assure the country wouldn't be swamped with unwanted refugees.(5) The results were devastating. Many humanitarian crews, unable to unload the refugees, refused to pick them out of the sea. Boat people starved and drowned in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Another shocking event aroused international outrage. A boatload of 93 refugees was overtaken by bad weather and driven aground on a reef in the Spratly Islands, which were controlled by Vietnamese forces. Nearby ships reported hearing the artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire that were used to shoot the refugees. Only eight escaped alive.(6)
Public sympathy for the boat people grew. The international community was moved to respond.(7)
Canada responded generously, true to its reputation for accepting and providing a "haven for the homeless." Since the end of WWII, Canada has accepted some 400,000 refugees for resettlement. The Indochinese refugee movement that started in 1975, and culminated with the boat people's exodus of 1979, was one of the largest. Prior to the 1970s, Canada's approach to resettling refugees had been somewhat piecemeal, with no clearly formulated policy. It wasn't until the 1976 Immigration Act came into force in 1978 that a policy of accepting refugees was given formal recognition: in order to "fulfill Canada's international legal obligation with respect to refugees and to uphold its humanitarian tradition with respect to the displaced and persecuted." The entry of the boat people was possible under the provision of the new Immigration Act. Their acceptance by the federal government was regarded as courageous since it was made against considerable resistance both internationally and domestically.(8)
The new Immigration Act allowed the government the necessary flexibility to respond to refugee movements as they unfolded. They could decide, for example, that a whole class of persons could be defined as refugees. The "Indochinese Designated Class" was proclaimed and any person who met the following conditions was eligible for resettlement in Canada.
Any persons who:
The Canadian refugee resettlement program was unique because it encouraged not only the participation of government, but also of private citizens. Any church, group (of five or more adult Canadian citizens or permanent residents) or corporation could become sponsors of refugees. This had an important impact on the resettlement of the boat people and on the numbers allowed into the country. Private sponsorship of the refugees cut down on the perceived government costs.(10)
For 1979, the Canadian government allowed a quota of 4,000 refugees to be resettled by the private sponsorship program; over and above the governments quota of 8,000 Indochinese refugees for that year. The response from the private sector was a great success. Thousand of individual Canadians provided financial and material support, while others opened up their homes. Carl Bessai's family in Edmonton, Alberta, was one of the family sponsors. They took in the Lai family, a mother and father and two sons, and helped them get their start in Canada. Similar acts of goodwill were occurring all over the country. In Ontario, within two weeks of the June 24, 1979 inception of Ontario's Operation Lifeline in Toronto, 60 chapters had sprung up all over the province to coordinate the sponsorship programs.(11)
The government was urged to increase the quota and began an innovative resettlement measure, promising to take an additional 21,000 Vietnamese refugees if the same numbers could be matched by private sponsorship -- one refugee for every refugee sponsored by privately. By 1980 Canada had surpassed its 50,000 quota for Vietnamese refugees. With the change of government that same year, an additional 10,000 refugees were added. By December 1980, a total of 60,000 Indochinese refugees had arrived in Canada.(12)