“We won't be making a big deal. To celebrate their first anniversary here is to keep saying how special they are—whereas they just want to fit in" — Margie Delaney, Boat People sponsor in Nipigon, Ont.
Nipigon, Ont., is a dot on the Trans-Canada Highway, almost equidistant from St. John’s, Nfld., and Victoria, B.C. “It’s a quiet town,” says Teresa Wiebe, a young Mennonite mother. “We keep to ourselves.” But it is also a town of Finnish immigrants, Polish refugees, dispossessed Métis— people who responded instinctively when the Anglican minister, Rev. Tim Delaney, first suggested that Nipigon do something about the “Boat People.” A year ago this month, the town welcomed four adults from Vietnam into the heart of Canada. “Welcome” was probably not the word that leapt to the newcomers’ minds as they were driven past the town’s one-storey temporary-looking buildings perched insecurely on the vast grey granite of the Canadian Shield; or when they first sniffed the sour wind from the pulp mill; or turned their flimsy collars against the probes of approaching winter. Yet Nipigon’s welcome has been warm. At the end of her first year, Moui Luu, 23, assures anxiously, “I like it here.” Her husband, Phuoc, 25, has found work at the local Canadian Tire store. There is almost $1,500 in their savings account, and son Andrew, born this spring, is a native Nipigonian. Their widening circle of friends includes other refugees (four more arrived a month later)—though in truth, one of them, 29-year-old Tran Truong, who is single, already seems to have more in common with the Canadian regulars down at the pool hall than he has with the Vietnamese.
For Nipigon, as for the whole of Canada, the year’s grand experiment in sponsorship of refugees is winding up satisfactorily, or so it seems. Bank accounts set up by sponsors to ease the refugees’ entry are quietly being closed; committees are disbanding; the energies of Canadian communities are finding new challenges. When a one-legged runner collapsed on the Trans-Canada Highway just beyond town, the good people raised $7,000 for cancer research. Nipigon was Terry Fox’s last town; he was their next cause. Canada’s Boat People, presumably absorbed and accepted, are already being forgotten. But the impact of their coming is just beginning to be felt. A welter of emotions accompanied their arrival—pity, compassion, disillusionment and delight. For refugees and sponsors alike it has been an experiment in painful commitment, of culture clashes, of almost equal portions of joy and pain. The emotionalism has subsided. A final judgement of how willing Canadians have been to make room for the refugees in their midst—and their motives for doing so—is at last becoming possible.
It’s been just a year and a half since those haunting images first crossed the horizon of the world’s consciousness: a thousand pairs of eyes, Chinese and Vietnamese, staring up at the camera from a ship’s squalid hold bobbing in open sea; on the semi-hostile shores of Malaysia, shipwreck victims struggling through surf that threatens to swamp the old and the small; in DP camps in Thailand, rag-remnants of Laotian and Cambodian families waiting passively. These were the ravaged faces that galvanized the West to action. Ottawa first authorized the admission of refugees in significant numbers in December, 1978—and suddenly the horrifying images from TV news programs stepped into Canadian living rooms. Since then, 51,677 refugees from three Indo-Chinese countries have been spread like seeds across the expanse of Canada. There are even three refugee families in a Newfoundland outport, Mary’s Town, and four Vietnamese in Inuvik, where new Canadian Millie Vong expresses a very unCanadian enthusiasm: “I like snow. It is very beautiful.”Per capita,Canadians have admitted more Indo-Chinese refugees in the past year and a half than any other country, except for Australia. In doing so, they have carved a new international image. The domestic portrait is affected too: today, one Canadian in 10 is a refugee. Arriving here at the rate of 100 people a day, the Indo-Chinese represent the most massive influx of peoples since just after the Second World War.
But it’s not numbers that make this migration unique. It is the grand experiment in volunteerism: the “folks next door” privately sponsored two-thirds of the newcomers. If each of the country’s approximately 7,500 sponsorship groups contain only the requisite minimum of five members, that’s almost 40,000 Canadians who have taken the responsibility for providing monthly support payments for refugees plus their time and emotional involvement. But many more, perhaps 200,000, have contributed pots, pans, pennies in the collection plate. Never in this country’s history have the hosts been so involved; no other immigrants have been propelled to the middle of such a spotlight of warmth, celebrity, glaring attention. In Saint John, N.B., different members from a church congregation that gave almost unanimous support to a Vietnamese family have dropped in on the startled newcomers every day for the past six months. Sponsor and translator Alex Chan worries about lack of privacy, but sighs, “The congregation all want to see ‘their’ Boat People.”
The majority of refugees have gone to Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta, 75 per cent to the major cities. Yet amazingly, a proportionately greater response has come from hamlets, outports, farming towns. “What incredible proof of the small-town virtues,” says Robert Hunter, co-ordinator of Indo-Chinese refugee settlement projects for Ontario’s ministry of education, as he scrambles to locate Okotoks, Alta., and Monetville, Ont., on a map. Some refugees are moving to larger cities but immigration officials in Ottawa are confident that private sponsorship has brought newcomers to smaller communities as never before.
One reason is that for the first time churches and synagogues have extended a wholehearted welcome to new arrivals not of their own kind—and they have been revitalized in the process. Jews, just over one per cent of the population, account for nearly 10 per cent of the sponsorships. Canada’s 100,000-strong Mennonite community, descendants of people driven from Russia for their religious beliefs, and its 80,000-member Christian Reform Church have also given support utterly disproportionate to their size. The Boat People brought together fundamentalist, conservative churches and left-wing social activists—a minor miracle of ecumenism. For example, when Catholic sponsors in Newcastle, N.B., learned that their sponsored Laotian family still had relatives in a Thai camp, they enlisted the aid of Fredericton’s Nashwaaksis Baptist Church, which sponsored the rest.
For Canadian communities and for refugee immigrants, the experience has been unique. Mike Molloy, senior coordinator of the department of employment and immigration refugee task force, says: “We’ve built choice into the immigrant ghettos, the knowledge of contacts beyond one’s own group.” The new immigrants have, more swiftly than ever before, penetrated the ranks of the urban middle class, the conservative small towns, the closeness of traditional churches and farming communities. As Bonnie Greene, the United Church of Canada’s staff officer for human rights and international affairs, puts it: “For the first time, newcomers to Canada are not experiencing a mosaic but a melting pot.”
The unique private participation experiment was made possible by the revised 1976 Immigration Act which created a special category of sponsored refugee and by the 1979 election of a Tory government committed to private sector volunteerism. Joe Clark’s government devised a formula whereby the government would match one for one each refugee that private individuals and church groups agreed to support, to a total of 50,000. Last December, facing another federal election and some nasty backlash, the Conservatives abandoned their matching promise; and although the new Liberal government announced last April that it would allow in another 10,000, Ottawa preferred to sponsor them rather than involve the public.
But personal sponsorship has touched the majority of refugees and that involvement has cost Canadians more than just a few minutes to show newcomers how to use the thermostat, the flush toilet, the newspaper want ads. Involvement has meant adjusting to culture shock as palpable as the bizarre smell of Vietnamese fish sauce emanating from one’s own kitchen. In Orillia, Ont., it has meant the granting of the town’s first ever funeral parade permit, so that one family could bury its mother in the traditional Vietnamese manner. For sponsors in Saint John, the cultural contact has meant the joy of attending the New Brunswick Museum’s exhibition of brush paintings by a remarkable artist, 15-year-old refugee Robert Tchan. For a church-based sponsorship group in Edmonton, the cultural adjustment demanded a rethinking of their basic notions of child-rearing. Doreen Indra, director of Edmonton Immigrant Services, was called by a frantic Vietnamese who had been separated from his two nephews. He had been trying to maintain family authority over his nephews with his belt—as the boys’ only relative in North America he felt it his duty to do so. The outraged sponsors felt otherwise and had him evicted. Indra pointed out that “mild corporal punishment isn’t regarded as an aberration in much of Indochina,” and after some mediation the refugee family was reunited.
For Maire-Mae Chevalier of Pointe-aux-Roches, Ont., the involvement meant mediating a minor brawl. She was awakened one night by shouts to discover that her refugee family had come to blows when one member demanded repayment of the money used to buy the passage from Vietnam. “He was waving garden shears and threatening to evict his cousin,” she recalls. The creditor has departed for the West, and the other side of the family remains chez Chevalier. “I love them, I adopt them,” states Chevalier. “They have cooked marvelous dinners for me, a lot of garlic, I don’t mind. But I would be afraid to sponsor again. I am a charitable person. I hate to see suffering. But how I have aged in the last year....”
Some Canadians have regarded the formidable challenge of sponsorship as a sort of moral balance sheet—with a dollar sign on compassion and a bottom line on commitment. A well-meaning group of sponsors boasted to Vancouver refugee co-ordinator David Cox that despite the city’s chronic housing shortage it had found a luxury townhouse for its Vietnamese family. “And since we won’t have time to show them around, we’re going to hire a maid,” the sponsors added. Cox warned the enthusiasts not to accustom their refugees to a life they could not afford later. So with regret, the group cancelled the maid, townhouse and rented car, and located a modest walk-up flat in Chinatown. Their generosity, however, would not be quenched. When Cox saw them next, he happened to inquire how the refugees’ new landlord was working out. “We didn’t like his attitude,” one sponsor confided, “so we bought his building.”
For every group eager to expand its good works, there have been others alarmed to discover how much the project cost. Teresa Wiebe of Nipigon who, along with her husband is putting 18-year-old Van Truong through high school, confesses, “We are a little bitter. Everyone was full of good intentions and money at the beginning, but the way it has turned out a few of us have done most of the work.” Adds Bounchanh Phiphat of Toronto’s Laotian Association, “It has been easier for some Canadians to spend money than time.”
So far the refugees themselves are circumspect in their evaluation of the sponsorship experiment. For one thing, most still speak through translators, sponsors and social workers. As well, they are positively boosterish, perhaps out of politeness as much as gratitude. Sentiments such as “Sponsors are very good people, good friends” gladden the hearts of their hosts, but do not reveal relationships that at times have been difficult if not incomprehensible. Added to this social minefield is the refugees’ desire to please their sponsors—a desire that comes from personal obligation no cold government program ever engendered. In Thunder Bay, the St. John’s Anglican Church group asked Minh Truong and his wife, Nho Duong, if they would mind being called “Mike” and “Nora”—it was suggested that potential employers might find the names easier to pronounce. The Truongs insisted that they didn’t mind a bit. But a United Church group that had sponsored another branch of the Truong family did mind. “They may be penniless refugees,” storms the second group’s Marilyn Warf, “but to take away their identities is smothering paternalism!” No wonder the hapless Truongs, afraid to offend either side, are now mum.
So the refugees are communicating their adjustment problems in other ways than words. Cases of depression, anxiety and psychosomatic illness are beginning to turn up. It was inevitable that among the meagre pieces of luggage these people hauled off the transport planes, there would be nightmares, traumas and traditional attitudes that defied transplantation. Dr. San Duy Nguyen, former chief psychiatric consultant to the surgeon general of South Vietnam and now a unit director with Homewood Sanitarium in Guelph, Ont., estimates that he has seen 20 cases of attempted suicide among the refugees with no numerical difference between government-sponsored and privately sponsored groups.
One case involved a 50-year-old former machinist of traditional ethnic Chinese background. In Canada he was unable to find work related to his previous career; for the first time his wife was job-hunting, and his children, learning English much faster than he, began to correct him. The man had only been in Canada three months when he tried to hang himself.
A more common legacy of the refugees’ past is what Kalman Green, coordinator of Toronto’s Operation Lifeline, a nongovernmental refugee aid group, calls “a refugee camp mentality-passivity, suspicion, mistrust of officialdom.” For example, in spite of rumors of violent confrontations between different Indo-Chinese groups, police are rarely called in; the law is more safely administered by one’s own hands. Anne Falk, a Mennonite who works with Edmonton Immigrant services, observes, “The refugees don’t try to solve problems; survival is still their priority. When appointments to see a doctor or pick up a cheque conflict, they will simply stand up the doctor. The cheque means food.” The trouble is that no matter how well briefed by immigration workers, few sponsors have anticipated their reaction to some refugees’ listless house-hunting, fatalism or habitual lateness. Toronto sponsor Jack Hay dropped by his refugees’ flat on the day of their departure for Alberta to join friends. He was horrified to see that they had not even packed. “The sponsors cleaned the apartment when we moved them in,” he sighs, “and we cleaned and helped pack when they moved out.”
It is crucial for an immigrant to find a job close to the status and position he held in his native country. Yet so far few refugees have been able to do so. Whatever their future luck in job-hunting, however, the refugees have already proved their hunger for survival. That’s being transformed into the craving for success in the new world. Chuyen Nguyen, an engineer with the Alberta government, advises, “We must be ten times as successful as people with blonde hair and white skins in order to compete.” As with all immigrants, the refugees face a classic double bind: if they fail to do well they suffer, but if they succeed too well they threaten the jobs of their hosts. The sponsorship experiment may just break that bind. As Howard Adelman, the philosophy professor who founded Operation Lifeline, put it: “To knock a refugee is to knock the Canadian who sponsored him.”
Whatever the future holds for the refugees, this brief experiment has made its mark on public policy. Immigration’s Mike Molloy detects a change throughout the immigration process that he calls “a streamlining of processes, a new willingness to experiment with different techniques and a strengthening of community support programs.” Meanwhile, NDPer Howard Adelman asks in mock alarm, “Am I becoming a red Tory? Sponsorship has proved that the private sector can carry out some programs with more warmth and effectiveness than the public.”
At bottom, possibly the biggest impact of the experiment is on the selfawareness of Canadians. It’s tempting to regard the dollars and the sudden public display of compassion as the buying of an indulgence, an attempt to absolve the country for years of indifference to newcomers. When sponsors in Orillia launched an English as a second language class for their Boat People last fall, three Orillian citizens of Chinese background whom the community had never before bothered to aid, let alone get to know, turned up in class. Something made Canadians behave more charitably toward Boat People than these others. One explanation put forth by McGill University political science Professor Sam Noumoff is that Canadians feel more politically in tune with anti-Communist refugees than those fleeing right-wing governments. For example, although Canada made a commitment a year ago to provide sanctuary to around 100 Argentine political prisoners, so far only four have been admitted.
Howard Adelman discounts the notion that political ideology was the major reason for Canada’s surprising welcome. History is not just the events that occur in time, but the human perception and interpretation of those events. If not for Vietnam’s high profile in books, films, news broadcasts and campus upheaval, he says that that country’s problems would not have presented a concrete challenge to the West, nor would the plight of its people have seemed any more real than the suffering of the displaced millions in the Sudan and Ethiopia. And for Canadians, the image of the homeless at sea called up particular ghosts. In 1939, the MacKenzie King government refused haven for the German liner St. Louis with its cargo of Jews. The passengers returned to Germany where most perished in Nazi death camps.
There is a certain illusion in Canada’s response to these ghosts. There are now 13 million refugees like them, in ramshackle camps from Eritrea to Pakistan. Because Canada’s action with one group was a one-shot voluntary affair, the country still has no policy regarding the crisis. The Boat People sponsorship experiment is, however, a proof and a precedent in the hearts and minds of those who became involved. As Bonnie Greene of the United Church notes, “Our congregations are now asking, ‘What about other refugees?’ and ‘Where do we go from here?’ ”
Canada’s response to events in Indochina has made history and a new group of people now participate in the shaping of the future. Huynh Huu Tho, who does refugee liaison work for the Ontario ministry of education, wants to continue reminding his people of “their mission. We must help more Vietnamese to Canada so that families will be reunited. We must help those who stay, and we must work for Canada.” The future plans of Nipigon’s Trang Truong include “buying a car, making money and helping the Americans fight communism.” For Edmonton’s Chuyen Nguyen, the future is illuminated by his conviction: “We must commit to this land. It is great, it is good.” It remains to be seen if Canada will continue its commitment to them.
Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.