Canada a Peaceable Kingdom in a World of Dramatic Change: Refugees 1979

Canada a Peaceable Kingdom in a World of Dramatic Change: Refugees 1979

Part 1V on The Indo-Chinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program

by

Howard Adelman

In one sense, 1979 was very much like 2015, most noticeably in the number of spectacular airline crashes that took place: the American Airlines DC-10 that crashed on takeoff from O’hare Airport in Chicago killing 273 in May 1979, the collision of two Russian airliners in August killing 173, the crash of a DC-10 at the end of October in Mexico City that killed 74 and the Air New Zealand DC-10 that crashed at the end of November into Mt Erebus on Antarctica killing all 257 on board. 2015 also resemble 1979 in the number of stories of migrants fleeing on boats from Africa and drowning at sea. Otherwise, 1979 belonged to a very different world, especially in Canada, which seemed to occupy a privileged and happy Eden of its own with some exceptions, such as the train derailment in Mississauga near the end of 1979 that forced the evacuation of 200,000.

The private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees took off like a rocket in the summer of 1979. The Liberal government had committed itself to bringing in 5,000 Indochinese refugees into Canada during 1979. On 22 May of that year the government of Canada was defeated in a national election and a very young and eager Progressive Conservative Party led by Joe Clark won the election and formed a new minority government. Joe Clark at the age of 39 became Canada’s youngest Prime Minister on 4 June.

No sooner had the Conservatives come to power than they faced the question of what action to take in response to the dramatic increase in refugees fleeing Vietnam in rickety boats that were often attacked by pirates. Ron Atkey had been briefed in detail by Bud Cullen, the previous Minister of Immigration in the Liberal government, on the need to take further action. Atkey, named by Joe Clark as the Minister of Immigration, had obtained government approval to increase the total intake for 1979 to 12,000, 8,000 to be sponsored by the government and 4,000 allocated for sponsorship by the private sector. By July, the government had increased the target to 50,000, including 8,000 sponsored by the government, 21,000 additional government sponsorships on a matching basis with 21,000 to be sponsored by the private sector.

What was happening in Canada, in its cultural and political life that led the population of Canada to become so active and involved in the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees? Before the end of the year, the Canadian private sector had surpassed the target of 21,000 sponsorships with almost 30,000. Further, the success was not only in quantity but in the successful adaptation of the refugees to Canadian life. Though Canada was a cold country, the welcome and outreach by Canadians involved in the refugee sponsorship movement was anything but.

That period in Canada was a time of dramatic political change yet unusual continuity. On 16 August 1979, former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker died but he had left a legacy of rights that infused all political parties in Canada at the time. When the short-lived Clark government was defeated in February 1980, the Liberals returned to power and they increased the total targeted intake of Indochinese refugees from 50,000 to 60,000 to ensure that the government kept its previous matching pledge.

The superficial shifting of political power did not threaten the progressive unity underneath these political changes epitomized by Bud Cullen briefing Ron Atkey in detail on the Indochinese refugee problem and the need to enhance Canada’s role. Canada was a place of calm and confidence, whatever the political shenanigans. Humanitarianism seemed to captivate the political imagination.

However, much deeper and more profound changes were underway in Southeast Asia. Following the initial Nixon initiative, the U.S. and China had exchanged diplomatic missions. On 29 January 1979, Chinese vice-premier Deng Xiaoping visited Washington.   Deng would emerge subsequently as President to initiate the most substantial changes in China to move the country from a peasant economy to an industrial and trading economic power based on private ownership and entrepreneurship while the Communist Party retained a monopoly on power.

At the same time, America had begun to deal with its own failure in Vietnam. Two anti-Vietnam war movies won top honours at the 51st Academy Awards, Deer Hunter nominated nine times and winning the award for best picture, best director (Michael Cimino) and best supporting actor for Christopher Walkem, while Coming Home nominated eight times won awards for John Voigt as the best actor and Jane Fonda as the best actress as well as the award for the best original screenplay. Shortly after the awards ceremony the world experienced the release of  Apocalypse Now with Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen.

During this very same period, Vietnam invaded another communist state, Cambodia, and captured Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia was an ally of China and China invaded Vietnam setting off the Sino-Vietnamese War. The People’s Republic of China withdrew its troops from Vietnam a month later, but not without eventually extracting severe concessions re the ownership of disputed islands and other border areas. China was just beginning to stretch its wings and joined the IOC in April. By November, China was re-admitted to the Olympics.

At the same time, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were on a long decline with some brief intermissions, the latter on a steep economic and political one and the former on a very gradual hardly noticeable retreat restricted to the international political arena. The year was an auspicious one for the United States, beginning with the major nuclear accident and partial meltdown at 3 Mile Island in Middletown Pennsylvania. America’s protectorates in the South Pacific were achieving independence, though they remained satraps of America under American tutelage and protection. On 1 October, the U.S. would return the Panama Canal to Panama. But the United States was also undergoing a major cultural revolution as the period of LGBT rights began, ironically, with the murder of Mayor Moscone of San Francisco and the passing of the first gay rights bill in Los Angeles. The beginning of the retreat from its self-perception as the world’s policeman went hand-in-hand with the beginning of a surrender of a macho culture that had built into it the repression not only of non-macho men who come out as gay or transsexual, but the oppression of women, especially lesbians.

While all this turmoil was underway abroad and nearby, Canada was going through very peaceful elections that produced an upset and the displacement of the long ruling Liberals with the conservatives in power. In South East Asia, Vietnam, in part in order to pay the large costs of its war, began to confiscate the wealth of its ethnic Chinese and South Vietnamese entrepreneurs, encouraging their flight while charging them a “tax” to take leaky and unseaworthy boats to escape. The North Vietnamese had evolved into a regime that stole from the rich in multiple ways and pushed the ethnic Chinese minority and subsequently Vietnamese businessmen out of the country.

In the meanwhile, though U.S. turmoil had ended in Southeast Asia, in the near east, events were not as tranquil. The year had begun with the flight of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to Egypt and the interim Bakhtiar government was soon displaced by the return of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini from Paris, who declared an Islamic Republic on 1 April. Iran was in turmoil and that turmoil allowed OPEC over a period of three months to raise the price of oil by 30%. The Iranian government was at war with its Kurdish population; a virulent pogrom was launched against Iranian Kurds and its own non-Kurdish population as book burnings and mass executions took place over the next six months.  On 4 November, 400 radical young Islamists raided and occupied the American embassy in Tehran taking many of the diplomatic personnel hostage, though some escaped to Canadian facilities. Female and black employees were soon released. Khomeini assumed absolute control and declared America to be the “Great Satan.” The U.S. responded to the provocation, not by bombing Iran to smithereens for such a provocative action, but by freezing Iranian assets and stopping the import of Iranian oil and gas. Iran reciprocated by cancelling all American contracts.

While Iran was a bubbling volcano and while a war had broken out between North and South Yemen that would continue with periodic eruptions to the present day, Israel and Egypt were forging a peace agreement that took effect on 25 April. The oil fields that Israel had seized in 1967 were returned in November and Israel transferred back the Sinai, or almost all of it. The unbelievable had happened. The most powerful state by far in the Arab world, the centre of Arab filmmaking, book publishing and intellectual creativity, had given up on its ambition of becoming the regional hegemon. Who knew then that Iran and, to some extent Turkey, would attempt to move into the vacuum left in the wake of the Egyptian retreat.

In the meanwhile, Latin American dominoes seemed to be falling into communist or fascist hands. The New Jewel Movement overthrew the Gairy dictatorship in Grenada and the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua as dictator Anastasio Somoza fled to Miami. In El Salvador, it was another story as a military coup forced President and General Carlos Romero to flee. In contrast, in Africa things seemed to be looking up, with the emphasis on “seems”. Tanzania invaded Uganda and the mad man of Africa, President Idi Amin, fled the country. In Rhodesia, finally a black government replaced the repressive white minority and Bishop Muzorewa assumed power. Even the Congo adopted a constitution, but it, like many reforms in Africa, would prove to be mirages though everyone was pleased to see the last of Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa in the Central African Republic, overthrown in a coup. Perhaps after Rhodesia, the most hailed event was the accession to power in Angola of José Eduardo dos Santos.

While the United States was in turmoil overseas, Britain was in lock-down mode at home. 10,000 public sector workers went on strike. The IRA violence was rising and Richard Sykes, the British ambassador to the Netherlands, was assassinated in The Hague. In late March, Airey Neave, a British parliamentarian, was killed by a car bomb outside of Westminster. As bombs were going off all across Northern Ireland, as members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary were being murdered and British soldiers were being ambushed, as the violence culminated in the assassination of Earl Mountbatten in September, Margaret Thatcher had become the first female Prime Minister of Britain after the James Callaghan government had collapsed in May. She would set off a political revolution that Britain had not seen for a century, providing a preview of what would happen when Ronald Reagan won over the incumbent Jimmy Carter who had so bungled the Iran file. To top the humiliating period the UK was going through, Sir Anthony Blunt, art advisor to the Queen, was outed as the fourth member of the Soviet spy ring. Is it any wonder that, compared to Canada’s success, Britain’s program of resettling Indochinese refugees went so badly, quite aside from the foolish decision to resettle the refugees in vacant public housing, that is, precisely in areas with very high unemployment levels.

Even though the Red Army hockey team beat the New York Rangers, the runner-up in the Stanley Cup contest, by a score of 5-2 in Madison Square Garden, by year’s end, the U.S.S.R. had made the fatal mistake that would doom the Soviet empire when at the end of the year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, overthrew President Hafizullah Amin and seized the presidential palace in Kabul. The fall of the Soviet empire had probably already been triggered by the visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland in June. At the height of all this publicity in Canada about the Boat People and as Canada was in transition from a Liberal to a Tory government, the world seemed to be going through hell as well as growing seeds for a new future.

All that is to say is that Canada was a peaceable kingdom engaged in peripheral and irrelevant debates over whether to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as the U.S., U.S.S.R., China and France seemed to be racing each other before the Salt II test ban treaty took effect to test and explode as many nuclear weapons as each could, weapons that were useless if ever used and only of use in deterrence if they were never used. It was indeed a mad mad world and Canada seemed an island of tranquility in a global epidemic of insanity. The sign – sports. The NHL was expanding to absorb the four teams in the World Hockey Association – the Oilers, Jets, Nordiques and Whalers. On 21 May when the news o the boat people was reaching a fever pitch just two weeks before the Tories were to take power, the Montreal Canadiens beat the New York Rangers 4 games to 1 to clinch the Stanley Cup. It was great time to be a Canadian and a relatively easy time for a Canadian to be a humanitarian.

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