On being Canadian


A new Canadian Immigration Act came into effect in 1978 which finally recognized the status of refugees and more importantly determined that the the number of refugees accepted into Canada would be dependent on public support. Churches, corporations or groups of five or more Canadian citizens could now sponsor a refugee directly. Even better, in July of the following year the government introduced a matching formula. The government would sponsor a refugee for each privately sponsored one. By this time there were full planes of refugees arriving in Canada every couple of days. I was one of these people.

My father had been a high ranking intelligence officer for the South Vietnamese army – the losing side. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the threat of re-education camps, my father fled and hid in the jungles around the Mekong Delta where our family had resettled after fleeing Saigon. For the next four years our family would attempt to flee by boat over a dozen times.  On the fourteenth try we finally left the marshes of the delta from behind my great aunt’s house in the dead of night. On this small fishing boat were my parents, my older sister who was 7, my baby brother only a few months old and I, who had just turned two. Also included were my dad’s brother and cousin and my mom’s brother – all teenage boys.

Our family spent days on the water looking for land and refuge. One night we were spotted by a huge Russian ship which gave chase for a little while but then turned around and let us go. Eventually we landed in Malaysia and ended up on the Pulau Bidong refugee camp, one of the most crowded places on Earth. During the months we were there it was estimated that there were over 40,000 refugees in a space just a little larger than a football field. Because my father had served in the military, we were accepted by the Americans within weeks of landing in Malaysia. However they would not accept my mother’s brother as he was not a blood relative to my father. Since there was no way that my mom was abandoning her 13 year old brother, we stayed on for another two weeks when the Canadians accepted us.  Bullet dodged. I was almost an American.  

More seriously though, we were one of the lucky ones, there are stories of people spending years or decades in this hell hole. My parents told me that they thought they would have to bury me there. I was a small and sickly child and the travels and hardships of the refugee camp were taking their toll. There was never enough food and I had severe dysentry so what food there was was given to me to so I could get as much nutrition as possible. Could you imagine the decision they were faced with? Leave behind a 13 year old boy to ensure the survival of their 2 year old daughter or risk losing her in the hopes that there was another country willing to take on a family of 8 – mostly young men. What do you think are the chances of that family receiving sanctuary today? These are the moments and decisions that are rarely talked about. I had two uncles who tried to make the same trip only to disappear, never to be heard from again. We will never know their stories.

Assimilation in Canada was not easy but also not without humour. My parents do not often talk about the hardships and horrors but there are many funny stories of trying to survive our first Canadian summer.  We landed in Campbell River in June of 1980 and there surely was never a colder place on Earth. We were delivered to the Tyee Plaza Inn in Campbell River with a few garbage bags of clothes which had been donated. The beds were made up in the Western style of sheets being tucked tightly under the mattress. The next morning the cleaning staff came to see the whole family snuggled together on one bed with all the second hand clothes on top of us trying to stay warm. No one could find the blanket that should have been folded at the bottom of the bed according to the Vietnamese way. It had never occurred to anyone to disturb the immaculately made bed to crawl under the sheets.

I’ve always wanted to write down the story of my parents and one day I hope I still can. My father’s journey from rich kid to soldier to destitute refugee trying to feed a small army. Since he was the only one in our family to get out he was also responsible for sending money back to Vietnam. Originally, my young cousin was on the boat with us. At the last minute my dad decided that he should stay in Vietnam. Given the dangers of what we were facing, my father didn’t want to risk every child from the next generation. He figured if we made it then he could sponsor my cousin from where we ended up. This decision would haunt my father for the rest of his life. My mother coming from a  small village with no electricity to a foreign land where she did not speak the language, could not get around and had to figure out how to make a home. My first memories of Christmas and a donated food hamper with a huge turkey that my mom chopped up and fried with vegetables.

I recently met another Vietnamese refugee who did write down her family’s story. An excerpt can be found here. Her story is slightly different and she grew up in Australia but I could identify with so much of what she wrote.

If there’s one unifying  thing that is truly “Canadian”, it is our multiculturalism. Our acceptance and celebration of that very trait that is so feared in today’s world – diversity.  Canada is one of the very few countries that allows for private sponsorship of refugees, even without a family connection. Because of this I have been able to live a life full of choices. As my mom has often reminded me, I could easily be rice farming and raising ten kids in a small Vietnamese village instead of happily single and pursuing my dreams in Myanmar.

This morning I read a powerful article on the New York Times about the Syrian refugees who are landing in Canada. Definitely worth a read.  

Happy Canada Day!