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.

 


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