Possible Explanations for the Genesis of Operation Lifeline

On the Genesis of Operation Lifeline:

PART II – Possible Explanations




Howard Adelman


for delivery at the conference

Indochinese Refugee Movement and the Private Sponsorship Program 1975-80″

22 November 2013.


II Possible Explanations for the Canadian Response

The media coverage around the world of Vietnamese refugees suffering was credited with generating an unprecedented level of compassion and creating a desire to help those refugees. Empathy, in this interpretation, was the impetus behind the resettlement of the Indochinese refugees on an unprecedented scale. However, bleeding hearts do not automatically produce practical programs of assistance.

In a second, but complementary theory, credit is given not to the compassion itself but to an additional factor, the translation of that compassion into a willingness to act and sacrifice time and money by private citizens in civil society: “private sponsorships for the refugees indicated the existence also of a pro-refugee public response, which may have encouraged the Canadian government to raise its quota in June 1979 to 8,000.” (Felicity Somerset (1982) “Indochinese refugees in Canada: Government policy and public response,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 10.1: 106-114, p. 110.) Public support was evidently a factor in the expansion of the intake from 5,000 to 8,000 with 4,000 more anticipated as coming from private sponsorships when the Canadian government first expanded the program in late June of 1989. However, as depicted above, at the time of the Hai Hong initiative, widespread public sector support was not evident until and after the Canadian government upped its intake from 200 to 600.

Further, in July 1979, when the government upped its intake from 8,000 government supported refugees and 4,000 sponsored by the private sector to 29,000 government refugees and 21,000 from the private sector based on a 1:1 matching formula for the increase over and above 12,000, a majority of Canadians opposed the increase and less than 40% supported it. Further, even when the original commitment to 5,000 was announced at the beginning of the year, a February 1979 Gallup Poll at that time showed that 52% of Canadians thought the figure of 5,000 was too high. In July,only 37% supported an intake of 50,000. Even in June when support went up and exceeded those who opposed, the number supporting an intake of 8,000 with 4,000 sponsored by the private sector never exceeded 50% and was neck and neck with those opposed. The opposition returned to a majority when the target of both government and private sponsorships went to 50,000. Further, in the end though 7900 sponsorships involving perhaps up to 100,000 persons may seem to be a great deal, at that time, these only involved about 3% of the population. How could support by such a relatively small number be credited with pressuring the government to bring about the target of 50,000 refugees?

Undoubtedly, public support, not the same as public pressure, played a part, as did compassion, but given the low overall figure of private supporters, support from the private sector can hardly be considered the decisive factor. Even if one counts the whole of a religious congregation and not just the active donors and time givers as supporters, we still do not approach even a majority of Canadians. Compassion and active self-sacrifice and involvement undoubtedly enabled the generosity of the policy but not its formulation. Which, if any, of the factors thus far cited was decisive?


Pat Marshall, who has written material for the Bulletin of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society (CIHS), one the two prime co-sponsors of this conference, credits media coverage of the Hai Hong for turning the tide of public opinion leading to the new and expanded program. “Constant media coverage brought the faces of the refugees into all our homes…By June, 1979…refugee sponsorships by private groups had been made possible.” (Pat Marshall  (2009) “From Friends to Hosts to Friends: Memories of the origin of the host

program,” CIHS Bulletin. The Canadian Immigration Historical Society, 55.) Compassion was not sufficient. Nor was civil society active involvement or public support let alone pressure. There had to be the stimulant for that compassion and involvement and that credit was given to the media. Pat Marshall’s thesis was supported by Felicity Somerset: “(E)xtensive media coverage of the plight of the ‘boat people’… may have helped to awaken a humanitarian response in the general public.” (Pat Marshall  (2009) “From Friends to Hosts to Friends: Memories of the origin of the host program,” CIHS Bulletin. The Canadian Immigration Historical Society, 55.)


Compassion, active self-sacrifice, public pressure, media stimulation – each was credited in turn as the decisive factor. In all these cases, the emphasis was placed on different elements in civil society. But other analyses give credit to individuals – Bud Cullen for one on the occasion of the Hai Hong. “The impetus provided by the Hai Hong resulted in Canada taking the largest number of Indochinese refugees per capita in the world.” (Dara Marcus (2013) 16.) But the liberals were defeated in June of 1959 and the Tories under the leadership of Joe Clark came to power. The Tories increased the intake form 5,000 to 8,000 government sponsored refugees and 4,000 from the private sector and Ron Atkey made his senior staff read a academic article by Irving Abella and Harold Troper that would become a chapter in their subsequent book, None Is Too Many that depicted the cold shoulder the Canadian government gave to Jewish refugees from Europe fleeing the Nazi regime. Atkey told his senior staff that he did not want to go down in history as the Frederick Blairs of forty years later.


Then in July, the Tory government upped that total to 29,000 government sponsored refugees and 21,000 from the private sector. Was Flora McDonald and/or Ron Atkey to be given the credit? Or were historical factors to be given primacy of place – such as the memories of being a refugee or inability to assist refugees in an earlier time (See Howard Adelman (ed.) (1980)  The Indochinese Refugee Movement: The Canadian Experience, Toronto: Operation Lifeline; (1982) Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, Regina: L.A. Weigl Education Associates Ltd.) – or ideological factors such as the state of the Cold War at the time, or, demographic pressures such as shifts in the Canadian population and the decline in the birth rate, particularly among French-Canadians (Somerset 111), or, looking more into the future than the past, evolving ideas about global responsibilities and obligations that resulted in the Canadian-initiated doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) by the end of the century. Or was the response simply a catalytic reaction to a unique combination of circumstances at the time?


Different national narratives emphasized different factors – in Australia, foreign policy and the antagonism of the Australian government to the Vietnamese communist government. (Nancy Viviani (1982) Australian Government Policies on the Entry of Vietnamese: Record and Responsibility, Griffith University: Centre for the Study of Australian – Asian Relations; (1984) The long journey: Vietnamese migration and settlement in Australia, Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.) In the case of New Zealand, racism was used to explain that country’s initial late and eventual relatively tepid and ambivalent response at the time (Robin Galienne (1988) The Whole Thing Was Orchestrated, PhD Thesis, University of Auckland.) that was more akin to the response of Hong Kong rather than Canada. (Chan Kwok Bun (1990) “Hong Kong’s Response to the Vietnamese Refugees: A Study in Humanitarianism, Ambivalence and Hostility,” Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 18:1, 94-110)  Yet the outstanding performance of Canada called for some explanation since between 1978 and 1981, Indochinese refugees constituted a quarter of the immigrants to Canada compared to a usual figure of 10% of a worldwide response and 10% of the domestic gross intake of immigrants.



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