Public response to Southeast Asian refugees in Canada (1979-1980): the legacy of private sponsorship and lessons for refugee health care

Ruth Chiu is a medical student in the Class of 2018 at McMaster University

 

From 1975 to 1980, over two million Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees fled from Communist states to refugee camps across Asia and became known internationally as ‘Boat People.’1,2 In response to this crisis and under significant public pressure, the Canadian government accepted 60 000 Southeast Asians as government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees between 1979 and 1980.3

The exodus of Southeast Asian refugees was by no means the first of its kind in history. However, Canada’s response to this refugee crisis was unique in its magnitude from both a national and international perspective. Political drivers, such as the adoption of the more inclusive Immigration Act of 1976 and the recent election of Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark after 16 years of Liberal rule, contributed to the unprecedented settlement of Southeast Asian refugees in Canada.4,5 Public interest in the crisis, heavily piqued by international news media, allowed for the success of the newly formalized private sponsorship program which supported two-thirds of the Boat People who settled in Canada.6,7

Adoption of the private sponsorship program

Analysis of news media and publications from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) reveal that sponsorship was perceived and ‘sold’ as a way to rescue innocent families from perilous conditions.12-14 Many calls for sponsorship applied a strong tone of urgency, with one NGO dubbing the refugee crisis ‘The Holocaust of 1979’ in newspaper advertisements.15,16 The somewhat skewed imagery of drowning ‘Boat People’ was often utilized; it should be noted that many refugees actually escaped over land.17-19

In Ottawa, the suffering of refugees was emphasized in sermon notes provided by an NGO to local churches in 1979 for the purpose of motivating potential sponsors.20 Sponsorship agency Operation Lifeline employed a similar approach, including in their fundraising materials sketches of sullen-faced refugees being attacked by pirates.21 One caption notes:

But in the face of such misery and desperation there are things that we can do, ways that we can respond to and help these people.22

In the end, many Canadians engaged in private sponsorship under large umbrella agreements signed by religious and other non-governmental organizations.23

Public expectations of refugees

NGO-produced guides for Canadian sponsors demonstrate what some expected of arriving refugees.24,25 According to Employment and Immigration Commission guidelines, private sponsorship required that sponsors provided material assistance, including accommodations, food, clothing, and incidentals, “until such time within the first year that refugee families [could] support themselves.”26 However, an agency in Calgary suggested a less forgiving timeline:

Financially, [a refugee] will need help for two months, then the budget help should be gradually diminished so he can be independent as soon as possible... Vietnamese will need 7-10 days to overcome jet lag and dizziness from altitude change. By the end of 10 days they should be able to begin work. It will help their morale and encourage independence.27

Additionally, one sponsor in Hamilton viewed the refugees’ willingness to work hard as “proof that they appreciated the opportunity to begin a new life, afforded by sponsorship.”28

Government publications reinforced the concept of the model Asian migrant.29,30 For example, an Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation Citizenship Division pamphlet on Southeast Asian refugees describes “the average Vietnamese” as “very loyal, very grateful, very devoted to his or her family and very hardworking.”31

Public attitudes toward cultural integration

Several Canadian groups organized programs to help refugees understand North American culture and share their own native cultures.32-37 Some of these initiatives were led by Southeast Asians themselves; for example, Anita Nguyen of the Kamloops Vietnamese and Immigrants Committee applied for government funding “to retain, preserve and promote Vietnamese and other Indochinese cultures.”38

In contrast, an orientation kit for newly arrived refugees developed by the Vietnamese Voluntary Group of Hamilton provided the following advice:

Things that are alright at home might not be so here. Sometimes, cultural differences might cause embarrassment and disasters. Try to find out yourself the differences and try not to emphasize them if possible.39

Meanwhile, sponsors in Calgary were given a list of “things Indo-Chinese need to be taught;” amongst them, “how to answer the telephone” and “the value of honesty.”40

Settlement and mental health

Literature for Canadian sponsors encouraged sensitivity toward refugees’ mental health concerns and emphasized the need for “friendship and moral support.”41-43 In a guide published by Operation Lifeline, sponsors were cautioned that “South-East Asians, more so than other cultures[,] are shy and inhibited from admitting mental health problems.”44 Similarly, a government-produced pamphlet characterized Vietnamese individuals as “shy and very restrained in expressing feelings and emotions.”45

From a health care perspective, a 1980 Canadian Family Physician article informed physicians about potential “psychological problems” that refugees might experience, such as reactive depression and psychosomatic complaints.46 The authors noted the potential benefits of emotional support through “interaction with the local Vietnamese and Chinese,” as well as “recreational and occupational activities… to create physical outlet channels and an increased sense of sense worth.”47

Research from Beiser’s Refugee Resettlement Project confirmed that Southeast Asian refugees experienced a relatively high incidence of depression, with outcomes being most significantly modified by post-migration factors including employment status and discrimination.48 Surprising to some Canadians, the mental health outcomes of privately sponsored refugees were found to be no different than those of government assisted refugees.49 In fact, privately sponsored refugees who subscribed to different religions than their sponsors — particularly non-Christians matched to Christian sponsors — experienced higher rates of depression than other groups.50

Discussion

Reflecting on these themes, we ought to consider the legacy of the private sponsorship program that still accounts for a significant proportion of refugee settlement in Canada.51 While the program has had an undoubtedly positive effect on the lives of many Southeast Asian refugees and on Canadian identity as a whole, one must consider the potential for sponsorship to act as a vehicle of oppression and even assimilation. Specifically, the notion that sponsorship and refugee assistance in general are acts of charity (rather than obligations) may provide grounds for our government, society, and even medical culture to expect appreciation from refugee populations in the form of economic contribution, cultural integration, and ‘success’ as we define it.

Furthermore, given the proven effect that post-migration events can have on refugee mental health,52 this analysis should prompt us to consider the impact of social factors — such as the actions of host populations — on the health of newcomers. Moving forward, we should continue to evaluate the experiences of refugees, the ways in which we relate to immigrant groups, and how these are influenced by immigration policies and society’s ever-changing perceptions.

 

References

  1. Morton Beiser, Strangers At The Gate: The 'Boat People's' First Ten Years In Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1999), 10-20.
  2. “Canadian Response to the ‘Boat People’ Refugee Crisis,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada, May 23, 2017, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/canadian-response-to-boat-people-refugee-crisis.
  3. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate, 42-43.
  4. Michael J. Molloy et al., Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975-1980 (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), 63-70, 115-120.
  5. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate, 40-43.
  6. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate, 41-43.
  7. Molloy et al., Running on Empty, 70, 115-117.
  8. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate.
  9. Molloy et al., Running on Empty.
  10. Brian Buckley, Gift of Freedom: How Ottawa Welcomed the Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees (Renfrew: General Store Publishing House, 2008).
  11. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate.
  12. Newspaper clipping of article entitled “Mtn. Fund Shows Compassion for Tragic Boat People,” 1982, Mountain Fund to Help the Boat People, Box 01032, Hamilton Public Library Local History & Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  13. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate, 41.
  14. Typed description of Mountain Fund to Help the Boat People activities, 1989, Mountain Fund to Help the Boat People, Box 01032, Hamilton Public Library Local History & Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  15. Typed letter from Project 4000 to “Churches, Service Clubs and Others,” 1979, Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  16. Newspaper clippings of Project 4000 calls for donations and sponsorship, 1979, Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  17. Newspaper clipping of a Canadian Red Cross Society, Operation Lifeline and Inasmuch call for donations, 1979, Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  18. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate, 41.
  19. Typed description of Mountain Fund to Help the Boat People activities.
  20. Typed statement for sermons sent to churches in Ottawa by Alan Breakspear (Coordinator of Project 4000), 1979, Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  21. Operation Lifeline comic book entitled “The Story of the Boat People” with attached fundraising materials, n.d., Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Molloy et al., Running on Empty, 75-80.
  24. Statement for sermons sent to churches in Ottawa.
  25. Typed pamphlet entitled “An Introduction to Southeast Asian Refugees” by Someone Cares (Calgary), 1979, Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  26. Typed pamphlet entitled “Sponsoring Refugees: Facts for Canadian Groups and Organizations” by Employment and Immigration Canada, 1979, Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  27. Typed pamphlet entitled “An Introduction to Southeast Asian Refugees.”
  28. Programme for “International Brotherhood Week Celebration of Life Tribute Dinner” for John Smith (Founder of the Mountain Fund to Help the Boat People), 1988, Mountain Fund to Help the Boat People, Box 01032, Hamilton Public Library Local History & Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  29. Typed pamphlet entitled “Sponsoring Refugees: Facts for Canadian Groups and Organizations.”
  30. Typed pamphlet entitled “Refugees from Indo-China: Their Background” by the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation Citizenship Division, 1979, Mountain Fund to Help the Boat People, Box 01032, Hamilton Public Library Local History & Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Typed workshop materials for private sponsors of Southeast Asian refugees, n.d., Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  33. Typed description of Catholic Immigration Services activities by Tim Kehoe, n.d., Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  34. Typed description of the “Project 4000 Friends for New Canadians” program by L.A. Hulse, n.d., Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  35. Grant application from the Vietnamese Cultural Society of London to the Canadian Secretary of State, n.d., Box RG6 1989-90/157, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
  36. Grant application from the Indo-Chinese Refugee Aid Group (Regina) to the Canadian Secretary of State, 1980, Box RG6 1989-90/157, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
  37. Grant application from the Kamloops Vietnamese and Immigrants Committee to the Canadian Secretary of State, 1980, Box RG6 1989-90/157, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Hand-translated pamphlet entitled “An Orientation Kit” by the Vietnamese Voluntary Group of Hamilton, n.d., Document R362.849592 ORI, Hamilton Public Library Local History & Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  40. Typed pamphlet entitled “An Introduction to Southeast Asian Refugees.”
  41. Typed workshop materials for private sponsors of Southeast Asian refugees.
  42. Typed statement for sermons sent to churches in Ottawa.
  43. Typed pamphlet entitled “Sponsor Orientation Guide” by Operation Lifeline, n.d., Project 4000, Box MG013-02, City of Ottawa Archives, Ontario, Canada.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Typed pamphlet entitled “Refugees from Indo-China: Their Background.”
  46. Joanna Tan and Kenneth Tan, “Health Problems of Vietnamese Refugees,” Canadian Family Physician 26 (1980): 404, 407.
  47. Tan and Tan, 407.
  48. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate, 96-97.
  49. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate, 120-122.
  50. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate, 122.
  51. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Admissions of Resettled Refugees by Province/Territory and Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) of Intended Destination and Immigration Category, January 2015 - December 2017 (2017), www.open.canada.ca/data/en/dataset/4a1b260a-7ac4-4985-80a0-603bfe4aec11?_ga=2.212390484.1373718725.1518709603-1162118674.1488680245.
  52. Beiser, Strangers At The Gate, 96-97.

 


Project supervised by Dr. Ellen Amster.

7 thoughts on “Public response to Southeast Asian refugees in Canada (1979-1980): the legacy of private sponsorship and lessons for refugee health care

  1. Gordon Friesen

    Dear Editor, please delete the first two versions
    Dear Ruth

    I must admit that I was absolutely flabbergasted at reading the conclusion to your post.

    “While the program has had an undoubtedly positive effect on the lives of many Southeast Asian refugees and on Canadian identity as a whole, one must consider the potential for sponsorship to act as a vehicle of oppression and even assimilation.”

    So much to unpack here !

    “an undoubtedly positive effect” you mean like survival ? And then relocation in what is arguably the best human environment actually existing on the planet ? I should think so !

    “on the lives of many … refugees” Only “many” ? Is it possible you are suggesting that there are true refugees for whom there has been no positive effect ? as in, they would have been better off left to perish ?

    “one must consider the potential for sponsorship to act as a vehicle of oppression”

    Again, let me pinch myself ! The generosity of providing the funds and personal involvement that are required to save one or more people from imminent peril, and then enable that person or persons to establish themselves — and thus their descendants — in such a positive environment as Canadian society, cannot in any way be termed a vehicle of oppression. Period. Not in the real world. Not in comparison with the real alternatives.

    “and even assimilation.” as though that were a bad thing ! When in Rome, obviously, we “do as the Romans do”. Over time, there is a give and take between all of the people who make up a collectivity, in which each will eventually influence the attitudes of all. However, the readiness to change and adapt is a requirement on the part of all concerned ; and in the initial stages of this interaction, considering the numbers involved on each side – the overwhelming preponderance of the existing status quo – it is only natural that it should be the newcomers who will make the greatest efforts of adaptation. And rationally speaking, that willingness to adapt can only be described as a very small price to pay for the enormous benefit gained.

    “Specifically, the notion that sponsorship and refugee assistance in general are acts of charity (rather than obligations) may provide grounds for our government, society, and even medical culture to expect appreciation from refugee populations in the form of economic contribution, cultural integration, and ‘success’ as we define it.”

    Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And that expectation is entirely justified !
    “sponsorship and refugee assistance in general are acts of charity (rather than obligations)” Of course they are acts of charity. That is a simple fact of definition. However, we are dealing with a society (advanced western judeo-christian) which is so thoroughly imbued with the ideal of charity that we not only attend to the succor of our own poor and disadvantaged brothers and sisters, within our own population units, but also, in many cases, even those from far away.

    What an amazing fact ! And although such attitudes and actions, are virtually unprecedented — in any other culture, place or time – (much more characteristic of historical reality would be the famous enslavement, by imperial Egypt of the pre-mosaic Jewish refugee population) these charitable motivations are so prevalent among us, here and now, that we have even begun to represent them, to ourselves, as the obligations of any decent person. But let there be no mistake : If obligation there be, it is an obligation of choice, both personal and collective ; unique constructs arising from a culture whose dominance you unfortunately appear to fear more than you credit its benevolent influence in the world.

    As for the specific principle of private sponsorship, it takes great financial resources, and therefore great financial sacrifice to relocate and establish refugee populations in Canada. That sacrifice can be undertaken in two ways : first, private individuals can be drawn to empathize with the plight of vulnerable people to the extent that they become personally motivated to freely give of their own (often scanty) resources ; and as a result, the nobility of this example creates a sense of larger solidarity such that the government can provide matching, and even greater funding, with general public support. That is the sponsorship model.

    Alternatively, with the “obligation” model (which you seem to favor), government simply confiscates the required funds, with no prior grass-roots support, but with all the risks of almost inevitable public resentment, resulting finally, in a much smaller degree of aid furnished. In this regard, we have only to compare the trivial level of charitable foreign contributions produced by the public system of the Chinese economic behemoth (or the autocratic system of cash rich Saudi Arabia), with those contributions freely made here, in the USA and in Western Europe. In all cases : the greater the share of personal charitable contribution, the greater the contribution of the state.

    “to expect appreciation from refugee populations in the form of economic contribution, cultural integration, and ‘success’ as we define it.”

    It would be a strange world, indeed, in which we would not “expect” those things ! How else could we possibly hope to maintain and expand the economic basis of the only society presently capable (or willing) to provide such benefits within, and without, its own geographical limits ? How could we possibly hope to embrace future waves of refugees, if those of the present wave do NOT succeed, integrate and contribute (“as we define it”) ?

    “consider the impact of social factors — such as the actions of host populations — on the health of newcomers.”

    Absolutely ! And, in the case of true refugees, the first consideration should be, that thanks to the “actions of host populations” those refugees are still alive, free, unexploited, and able to correctly show their very natural appreciation by contributing to the amazing social and cultural construct which made that survival possible.

    In conclusion, I must simply say that the infantile nature of mainstream intellectual discourse, in this generation, has finally crossed the boundaries of any sort of common sense. Our natural leaders have apparently abandoned us, turning off into some artificial Land of Stupid which no amount of lemming-like conformity in the arrogance of ignorance could possibly justify. It is not your fault Ruth.

    Very clever, and yet very silly, people have been abusing your innocence and sincerity for a very long time. People of my generation. Often the best and the brightest among us.
    But faced with such an extreme level of anti-rationality emanating from our elite minds, it becomes the duty of the Common Man, that is, of lessor specimens such as myself, to provide some determined push back, hopefully, before that beautiful historical creation of our traditional culture finally succumbs to the repeated Lilliputian assaults of continual self-loathing.

    For it is a fact that established power and stability are not nearly as strong as people might assume ; it really is possible to kill the “goose” that lays the “golden eggs”. And should that truly come about, even in part, the very first effect would be to render future refugee rescues, such as that of the famous Canadian-Vietnamese Boat-People, simply impossible. For there would no longer be any “oppressive” and “assimilating” sponsors to save them ; human beings in Canada having finally reverted to that historically normal default setting of complete indifference to suffering beyond one’s immediate family or village.

    Feel the Love,

    Gordon from Montreal

    Reply
  2. Dr R Ramchandar

    Excellent article! Well researched, well annotated, well written. Plaudits and commendations to the author for undertaking this expose’.
    Rudy Ramchandar MD, FCFP (retired).

    Reply
  3. Rudy Ramchandar

    I appreciate your response, Gordon-from-Montreal. I believe Ruth was expressing a point of view, based on her research, personal encounters and experience. Your arguments are well taken and smacks of debate. But don’t you think you were a bit heavy-handed, overpowering and uncharitable?

    I love you both.

    Rudy from Winnipeg, MB

    Reply
    1. Gordon Friesen

      Dear Rudy,

      Thank you for the kind words.

      Ruth’s article is indeed “Well researched, well annotated, well written” but that was my point : An article can be all of those things and essentially nonsense at the same time. Personal experience ? I don’t think so. Too young. At least she avoided any mention. Which I believe is to her credit. (It is very bad form to try and beg general questions with personal anecdotes.)

      To be clear : I do not believe that anything is perfect. However, some things are better than others. And for the Vietnamese who ended up in Canada, during that most difficult period, such an outcome, scores about 99.8 % on any honest scale of evaluation (in comparison, not with theory, but with treal alternatives)

      In such a context, the use of words like “oppression” is nothing less than grotesque.

      Feel the Love,

      Gordon from Montreal

      Reply
  4. judy smith

    Thank you Ruth for this interesting paper and for your research.
    The people of Hamilton Ontario opened their arms. They were not looking for ‘returns’
    on their sponsorships, but reacted to the plight of human circumstances out of empathy.
    “It could be our own children someday, seeking refuge” was a factor that crossed many people’s minds.
    ‘Charity’ is not a negative unless it becomes a “they owe us” ideation. Canadians, I believe, during that period, responded to an enormous and shocking human crisis. The choice was to either ignore those who were suffering and leave them in the camps or to try to do what many felt called to do. And then there was no turning back.
    The Vietnamese-Canadian community has made this a better country over and over in a myriad of ways. None of it had anything to do with feeling oppressed. Freedom, in fact the opposite of oppression, was their greatest tool in moving ahead. It was their fear of oppression that drove them into those fishing boats in the first place.
    Oppression comes about as a result of sponsors with criminal/cruel intent who use those sponsored to their own ends, i.e., slavery of various forms. We have seen examples of that abuse in Canada with some sponsored Hungarian Roma cases in Hamilton Ontario (indentured slavery ) within the past ten years. I have not heard evidence of that abuse within the Vietnamese situation at the time of the crisis but it is possible given skewed motive.
    Appreciation should not be seen as a negative unless it is an expectation to benefit the sponsorees.It is a natural human response to being helped.
    The Vietnamese immigration was by and large a success story. It’s a story of people who were driven to save their families and provide futures by hard work, education, and loving the country that put its arms around them; a purely human response to feeling loved.
    As so often happens in life when we enter into other people’s circumstances, rather than being ‘the helper we become ‘the helped’.
    John Smith and Judy Pollard Smith
    (The Mountain Fund To Help The Boat People)

    Reply
  5. Huyen Dam

    I too found this piece interesting to read and agree with Gordon’s comments. You brought up some valid arguments, Ruth but I was surprised to see the conclusions drawn. Perhaps this was a condensed version of deeper investigation? At face value, I would agree that you may have jumped the gun here.

    As a 1.5 generation Vietnamese-Canadian Boat Person in Canada, and as a researcher in this exact topic (i.e. refugee studies, immigrant health, immigrant identity, place, and immigration policy) my MA research has drawn the opposite conclusion. See link below if you’re interested.

    MA Thesis (2009): http://hdl.handle.net/11375/9235
    Becoming-Vietnamese Canadian: The Story of the Vietnamese Boat People in Hamilton.

    And as a doctoral candidate studying mental health amongst immigrant youth, the topic of achieving health is much more complex than to start from the position of sponsorship as a vehicle for oppression. I agree that there are very real systemic issues link to appropriate care but culture works both ways and it’s important to examine the stigma and values of individuals and groups that prevent them from accessing health and health care.

    Sincerely,
    Huyen Dam

    Reply
  6. Ruth

    Thank you all for your comments! I appreciate everyone who has taken the time to read and discuss my piece.

    As you might guess, I was not around during the time of the “Boat People Crisis,” so I would never dare to assume the intentions of individual Canadian sponsors. As such, I will reinforce that when I use the phrase “potential for oppression,” I am not suggesting that private sponsorship in itself is (or was) a form of oppression. Rather, I am encouraging readers to reflect a bit deeper on 1. how we as citizens/sponsors/healthcare providers perceive the act of sponsorship and 2. our past and present expectations for Canadian refugees. I feel this reflection should naturally include considering if/how our attitudes might negatively affect the well-being of newcomer populations.

    I just wanted to clarify the above, as I feel my wording might have been slightly misinterpreted and I would hate for anyone to feel as though I am negating or overlooking the positive impact of wonderful individuals such as John and Judy Smith!

    Beyond this, I will not try to defend myself or the opinion I have shared in the “Discussion” section of my paper, and I will continue to welcome contrasting opinions on this complex topic (as you have welcomed mine). That being said, I can confirm that my analysis was very much influenced by relevant personal and professional experiences, which I would prefer not to share with the Internet 🙂

    Thank you again,
    Ruth C

    Reply

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