Canada’s Inhumanitarian Record Part 1 on The Indo-Chinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program

Canada’s Inhumanitarian Record

Part 1 on The Indochinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program


Howard Adelman

This is the first of a series of blogs on the Indochinese refugee movement in which private sponsorship became a major force and with which I had become deeply involved in the foundation and development of Operation Lifeline. On the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, I have been treated royally by the Vietnamese community and presented with awards. Many memories have been brought to the surface. In another time and place I will deal with those direct experiences and invite readers to share their memories and reflections with me. This series of blogs has another purpose and will form part of a published academic paper. Feedback, comments and criticisms of the blogs would be most welcome.

The series will focus on a description, analysis and explanation of the rise of the private sponsorship movement in the late seventies and early eighties that was so essential to both the numbers and success of the resettlement of Indochinese refugees in Canada. In the Private Sponsorship Refugee (PSP) program of the Canadian government, Canada Immigration and Citizenship (CIC) facilitates the arrival of the refugees into Canada while sponsors provide care, lodging, settlement assistance and financial support. In the first thirty years of the program, almost 200,000 refugees and persons in refugee-like situations were resettled in Canada of which the Indochinese refugee resettlement constituted by far the single largest portion of the PSP program. While at the height of the Indochinese refugee movement, 6,000 were being resettled per month, in the twenty-first century that number has ranged from 230-330 per month (2,800 to 4,000 annually).

The blogs are less concerned with formulation of the policies, their precise expression at different stages and the role the private sector played in the successful integration of those refugees, about which I have written before (see, for example, Howard Adelman (1982) Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, Regina: L.A. Weigl Associates), but rather about the social and political context. The paper will analyze the global situation and the spirit or “geist” of the times in Canada, how that was expressed through religious institutions, the government, media and at the grass roots of society, and how that spirit allowed all sectors to come together to produce such a unique and extraordinary outcome.

Since the purpose of these blogs is not to offer a historical account of the rise of the refugee sponsorship movement, but rather to paint an in-depth cultural, social and political portrait of the times, I will be writing history both forwards and backwards at the same time, but not much about the forward developments to the emergence of the sponsorship movement, but forward from that emergence to the present to examine how much has changed. Further, based on a few contemporary focus groups and a more extensive social survey, and in the face of the enormous current refugee crisis, especially that of the Syrian refugees, these blogs will attempt to analyze why there has not been (and there is highly unlikely to be), a recurrence of such a large private sponsorship movement (as distinct from a number of sponsorships) in the present. I wish it were not so and I will continue to try to make it not so, but the analysis leads to the conclusion that such efforts will largely be quixotic. I begin by setting the stage of traveling backwards in time with “Now,” with current Canadian attitudes and approaches, contemporary Canadian policy and the regional and global refugee crisis.

Though not as consistent or repetitious as in the Boat People crisis of 1979, the media in the spring of 2015 has been filled with stories of boat people. Though there have been no stories of pirates preying on the refugees or of a plethora of rapes, the narratives of unscrupulous human smugglers, of unseaworthy and overloaded boats and of large numbers of drowned refugees have filled the news wires and the internet. In one single weekend alone at the beginning of May, the Italian coast guard assisted by French vessels rescued more than 6,800 refugees. In seven small wooden boats and nine dinghies that normally hold a maximum of 20 persons each (maximum 320 in total), there were 3,690 refugees rescued in one day on 2 May.

In 2014, over 170,000 refugees who risked the crossing from Africa to Europe were rescued.  In the first three days of May this year, the numbers rescued are already half of the number rescued in the whole of May last year. In April, an estimated 1,200 drowned, 800 in one incident that received worldwide publicity. In November of 2014, Italy ended its Mare Nostrum Mission on the argument that rescues promoted increased smuggling. The result, far more migrants drowned and still the flow kept increasing. Risk at sea is not a sufficient deterrent. Europe then launched Triton to rescue the migrants.

Canada, unlike Europe, does not have wave after wave of migrants trying to reach Canadian shores by sea. Yet our record of resettlement of refugees recently has been dismal. An op-ed published this past spring by Geraldine Sadoway and Andrew Brouwer (S&B), two prominent immigration lawyers in Toronto, began with a depiction of Canadian self-perception as a generous and humanitarian people and noted how Canada in 1986 was the only country ever to have been awarded the Nansen Medal – actually the only people, for the award had been given not to the state but to the people of Canada as a whole. Though Canada’s work on behalf of resettling Indochinese refugees was undoubtedly a catalyst in winning the award, formally the award was presented to “The People of Canada, in recognition of their essential and constant contribution (my italics) to the cause of refugees within their country and around the world. Canada is a leading contributor to international humanitarian and refugee aid programmes. Canada has, from the beginning, supported international efforts on behalf of refugees. It has one of the best records for resettlement of refugees and is a leading UNHCR donor.”

S&B challenged the view that the humanitarian streak had been essential or constant in Canadian history. Rather, it has been sporadic and intermittent, with a strong history of bias against refugees. Humanitarianism had not been much in evidence at all in dealing with Jewish refugees prior to WW II, but even at the height of the Indochinese refugee movement, as S&B pointed out, the Canadian government imposed a visa requirement on Chileans fleeing the repressive regime of General Pinochet that had come to power in a coup in September 1973.

What S&B leave out, and what Eva Salinas documented in a Globe and Mail story forty years later on 8 September 2013, is how Canadian embassy officials in Santiago, particularly the First Secretary Marc Dolgin, with the assistance of his colleague David Adam, helped Chileans, one in particular, Claudio Duran, a colleague of mine hired into the philosophy department of Atkinson College at York University as soon as he arrived in Canada when I was chair. He had initially obtained sanctuary in the Canadian embassy. Canada relatively soon after the coup designated Chileans as a special class of designated immigrants who could enter Canada under very relaxed immigration criteria, the same criteria subsequently applied to the Indochinese refugees.

This was in spite of the fact that Andrew Ross, the Canadian ambassador, who was stuck abroad at the time of the coup and was not in Santiago, supported the new Pinochet regime and called Chilean leftists “riff-raff” and rationalized their killing as “abhorrent but understandable.” Perhaps that is one reason why Canada between 1973 and 1978 only took in 13,000 of the 200,000 Chilean refugees who fled the country. However, in that case, without the pressure of the mainline churches, without the pressure from opposition New Democrats like Andrew Brewin and another colleague, John Harney who was then an NDP member of parliament, without the November report of a highly respected External Affairs bureaucrat, Geoffrey Pearson, contradicting the views of Andrew Ross, without the leadership of the then Minister of Immigration, Bob Andras, without a Liberal Cabinet that quickly discredited the views of Ross, and without widespread support by the media, the Canadian program “Special Movement Chile” would never have achieved “lift-off”.

As John Foster and Bob Carty noted in their 12 September 2013 on-line article, the Canadian response to the Chilean crisis was “a contradictory mix of official resistance, personal courage and citizen activism energized by Canadian churches with a persistence that outpaced government refusals.” On the other hand, the government of the day became convinced of the need to act. They did so using the full range of tools at its disposal: the refugee program for those who got out of Chile, the oppressed minority policy for people still in Chile, and a special program for  political prisoners that managed to spring something like 200 political prisoners and their families and bring them to Canada. The  last two morphed into the Latina American Designated Class  as soon as the 1976 Immigration Act made that tool available. When the Indochinese refugee program began in 1978, some cabinet ministers expressed the fear that engagement with the Indochinese refugees might be at the cost of the Chileans.

This has been the record, inconsistency rather than constancy, contradictory rather than essential behaviour. Although the 1986 Nansen Award was for the people of Canada, and was presented to Governor General Sauvé by the High Commissioner of the United Nations, on the dais were the Honourable Flora MacDonald, then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Gerry Weiner, then Minister of State (Immigration) and Michael Schelew, then President of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) that had worked most assiduously primarily on the asylum side of the refugee issue, though his cousin, Wendy Schelew, became the senior official in charge of Operation Lifeline. There were no representatives of the Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church or Operation Lifeline that had led in the private sponsorship of refugees, though Michael Schelew personally had been active in private sponsorship and the CCR strongly supported refugee resettlement whatever the route into Canada.

What S&B highlighted was that, even during the height of the Indochinese humanitarian impulse, the Canadian government (along with its western allies) had begun to put in place a system of visa controls, penalties on carriers that transport undocumented foreigners, a system that pushed border controls to embarkation points and not just at entry points, eventually closed the Canadian-U.S. border to the entry of refugee claimants without family links under the Safe Third Country Agreement, put so many refugee claimants in holding centres, then, even if they gained refugee status, prevented them from sponsoring other members of their family because they used an “irregular” route to get to Canada, and even included among those subject to punishment not only or even primarily the people traffickers and smugglers, but those who help refugees reach and stay in Canada and do so for strictly humanitarian reasons.


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