Operation Lifeline

Operation Lifeline

Part 6 (Final) on The Indo-Chinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program


Howard Adelman

The generation of the sixties led by New Leftists, who went on to have careers of their own and who married and settled down, became the core of the Indochinese Refugee Movement even if the forerunners were Mennonites and members of the Christian Reformed Church steeped in a strong Christian tradition of giving of oneself for another in need. In 1979-80, 499 groups were sponsored through the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Of those, 99 were non-Mennonite churches and 85 were “non-church” groups; MCC was a hospitable flag of convenience. The sixties generation made that inherited culture part of the cosmopolitan present by using their faith in themselves, their trust of others and their belief that if you just will it, whatever you will can become reality. Most of all, they used the art of networking that they had mastered in the sixties.

How else does one explain the growth of an organization within eight days, before cell phones and the internet, into a trans-Canada phenomenon with sixty-six chapters across the country? Operation Lifeline was but the most notable expression of this phenomenon. Project 4000 in Ottawa, for example, was an expression of the same phenomenon. The private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees into Canada in partnership with government initiatives is correctly viewed as the pinnacle of a humanitarian response to refugees into Canada unequalled before or since.

After the Canadian government announced its program to welcome the entry of 50,000 Indochinese refugees into Canada, the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) published two full page ads opposing the new policy. NCC is a Canadian conservative lobby group that campaigns against public services, trade unions, and favours smaller government; Canada’s current Prime Minister of Canada was once president. It is not a membership organization. It was founded in 1967 by Colin Brown backed by a small group of economic conservatives. However, in 1979 it ventured into opposing Canadian refugee policy.

The first full page ad declared that for every one refugee allowed entry, 16 more would follow sponsored by those already here. Thus, the 50,000 figure would mean 800,000 Indochinese immigrants would be moving to Canada within a few short years. The projections were a gross exaggeration stemming, in part, from using outdated and inapplicable immigration rules about family sponsorship in force after WWII. However, behind the ad were racist beliefs that an influx of a large group of Asians was unwanted based on the fear of “The Yellow Peril,” an interpretation reinforced when Colin Brown and a few others with whom he was associated were interviewed in the media and appeared on TV and radio shows to debate Ron Atkey, the Minister of Immigration.

Operation Lifeline and a large swath of the public, especially the segment involved in private sponsorship, saw nothing wrong with a significant increase in Canadians who could trace their origins to Asia. Nevertheless, this initiative, stoked by further falsehoods rooted in racial fears in Canada, could be bad for the movement and would discomfort the refugees after they arrived. The ad was disturbing both in its challenge to refugee policy and in undercutting a positive integration for newcomers. The opposition to the new Canadian Indochinese refugee policy had its first organized leadership.

At the end of the summer of 1979, the NCC sponsored a second full page ad in a number of Canadian newspapers claiming, based on a survey it had conducted and which it published, that a majority of Canadians were opposed to the policy permitting the entry of 50,000 Indochinese refugees. The survey questions were both leading and misleading and did not at all follow scientific protocols for opinion surveys. The leadership of the private sponsorship movement viewed this initiative as a real threat to the successful sponsorship and integration of the Indochinese refugees. As it turned out, although the questions were misleading and significantly exaggerated the totals opposed to the policy, a fairer secret survey, to which Operation Lifeline did not have access at the time, did indicate that a majority of Canadians opposed the Indochinese refugee program, in good part because of a latent racism in Canada.

Yet the leading sectors in Canada – professional organizations, business associations, municipal leaders, political parties without exception, most Tory cabinet members – all strongly favoured the policy, not just as policy, but as active participants in making the sponsorship program a success. Nevertheless, the private sponsorship movement saw an enormous potential for causing significant damage. Racism and anti-immigration is always a potent danger for a democracy. It stirs passions and fears and does not enhance rational debate. It is also very hard to combat, for entering the fray in public just exacerbates the fears and enhances the credibility of those stirring up those fears.

Dr. Joseph Wong, a leading figure in the private sponsorship program, who would go on to become chair of Operation Lifeline, chair of the United Way in Toronto, leader of a number of important social causes and a recipient of the Order of Canada, met with me to discuss this new challenge. We decided that we could not just fight the NCC by appearing in debates against proponents of the NCC position on the Indochinese refugee program. Nor would quiet diplomacy work behind the scenes. We needed leverage to cut off NCC support given our conviction that the financial sector, though opposed to big government, was not generally racist. In fact, given the amount of support we had received from that sector, we were convinced that generally they would be opposed to the NCC challenge to the policy. Hence, we launched what we called “Operation Intellectual Kneecapping” to cut off NCC financial support. (Why we called it “intellectual” kneecapping, I cannot recall, but it had something to do with sending a message that the effort was non-violent.)

As it turned out, Joseph Wong knew a prominent supporter and contributor to the NCC. He also knew that this individual was not a racist, but did not know whether he supported the intake of Indochinese refugees. Joseph phoned him and he agreed to meet us for breakfast at a downtown Toronto hotel at 7:00 a.m. the next day. At that breakfast, we outlined the problem. He indicated that he actively supported the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees and was appalled that an organization that he supported financially would engage in such racist-baiting. He asked us to give him a bit of time and he would get back to us. The breakfast ended before 8:00 a.m.

At noon he phoned Joseph and informed him that he had taken care of the problem. He had called a number of his friends who helped finance the NCC and asked for permission to speak on their behalf to Colin Brown. They unanimously agreed. He then phoned Colin to say that he was calling, not only in a personal capacity, but representing the group that he had called. He told Colin that if he or the NCC published or said another thing on behalf of the NCC opposing the sponsorship of Indochinese refugees, he and his friends would not only withdraw their financial support, but he would personally phone additional financial contributors of the NCC to withdraw their support. The NCC would be destroyed.

He assured us that we would hear nothing further from the NCC on the subject. He was true to his word. Operation Intellectual Kneecapping had been a success with relatively little effort on our part. The credit goes to enlightened leadership in the business community. However, it was an example of the new reliance on networking to get things done, a method developed in the activities of the sixties.

Can we replicate what the sixties generation and others did in 1979? Are the Millennials either in a position or capable of launching a campaign to deal with over three million Syrian refugees, just to take one example?

In 2015, the Millennials (Generation Y, Generation 9/11, the Echo Boomers) are in the same position as the Sixties Generation in 1979. If the Sixties Generation matured as an influential force by 1979, when they made their distinct mark in the seventies, particularly 1979, the Millennials were born after that date. Just as the Sixties Generation included those born before the end of WWII, they were a small cohort to be followed by the largest cohort ever, Generation X, the Baby Boomers who, in turn, gave way to the Millennials.

The Millennials were predicted by the authors who coined their name to be like the GI generation that preceded the Sixties Generation, that is, civic-minded with a strong sense of responsibility both to the local and global community. And they are that as evidenced both from a few small focus groups I conducted as well as from more extensive studies, even though Jean Twenge dubbed them the Me Generation. The term only applies generally to the children of parents born here and not necessarily to the children of immigrants.

If the Sixties pioneered in breaking away from established institutions, they were rebelling; they were not, like the Millennials, detached and indifferent to parental values. On the surface, they appear to be surprisingly upbeat and hopeful in facing the future though any in-depth probing reveals them to be haunted by the impending ecological crisis that is expected to result from climate change. The shifts in employment depicted earlier where they suffer from higher levels of unemployment and far more “voluntary” and part-time and under-employment that began to emerge in the eighties has struck them with full force. In contrast, the Sixties Generation knew there were job offers around every corner. Further, the Millennials graduate with high levels of student debt – the Sixties Generation had virtually none. On top of that, the Millennials carry a far higher proportion of public debt than the Sixties Generation carried in 1979.  While the Sixties Generation was characterized by their disparagement of living a life devoted to wealth accumulation, while almost half of all Baby Boomers switched that around and held wealth in high esteem, three-quarters of Millennials have turned wealth accumulation into a lofty virtue.

The most noted characteristic of Millennials is the general disinterest in politics, an activity that consumed the minds and imagination of the political leaders of the Sixties Generation. However, one of the ironies of this cohort is that while probes indicate that they are fatalistic about the world that they were born into ending in climate catastrophe, unlike the Sixties Generation, which made its prime goal ridding the world of nuclear testing and racial injustice, the Millennials despair about correcting the momentum moving the world towards disaster even while they make sporadic efforts to halt the momentum. However, in practice, most evince far less interest in engaging in environmental cleanup programs. So the small focus group I held in Victoria saw themselves as exceptions, committed to the environment, but somehow, though very sympathetic and empathetic, not committed to doing anything about the refugee crisis. Not one person in the three focus groups I ran seemed to be caught up in the current refugee crisis while showing every evidence of sympathy towards the refugees.

They were not selfish, hence I dislike the term Me Generation. They were very loyal and committed to helping members of their own cohort of friends. In some sense, they were more like a clan than individuals who populated the Sixties who were so busy breaking away from what they experienced as clannish suffocation that they had no time and interest in forming new ones. By contrast, Millennials love and remain far more attached to their helicopter parents who hovered overhead and overprotected them as they grew up. Further, instead of throwing off the social and cultural capital they inherited as the Sixties Generation did, treating most of the sophisticated artistic production esteemed by the older generation like the cargo of tea in Boston Harbour in 1774, the Millennials sometimes seem to love the cultural capital they inherited even more than their contemporary music and art.

However, they have thin skins. Criticism is regarded as negativity when they want and expect positive vibes. Further, while they carry far greater economic burdens, they do so with a sense of entitlement while the Sixties Generation experienced that beneficence but without any expectations. However, on other measures the generations are remarkably similar – wanting status and recognition, security and pleasure in their lives. Millennials have come to take for granted as givens the liberal values for which the Sixties Generation fought.

While the Sixties Generation never experienced a single major depression until they were mature adults, Millennials began with the very serious recession that contaminated the early eighties. They directly experienced the much more serious recession from 1989-1994 that struck Canada so unusually hard, but escaped the worst of the 2007 Great Recession which only sideswiped Canada.  But the astronomical cost of housing and the debt they carried when they graduated has meant most cannot expect to purchase a home without parental assistance. The dream of their generation being better off than the one before has disappeared into thin air. Thus, they live with their parents for a longer period and generally have postponed the rites of passage into maturity and responsibility much longer – marriage and children for example. For they are determined to succeed in those areas and avoid the large divorce rate of the previous two generations. After all, the Sixties entered adulthood in which divorce in their parents’ generation was a rarity.

So with all these overhangs and anxieties, why would and how could anyone expect the Millennials to launch an Operation Lifeline for Syrian refugees. They bleed no less for them than the Sixties Generation, but do not feel they can afford to donate a pint of blood to the cause. Further, since far fewer attend and have affiliations with religious institutions, they lack the regularity of their churches and synagogues guiding them in their humanitarian work. Yet they volunteer more and dedicate more personal time to areas of their concern.

That is why a sponsorship model that largely removes the economic burden is preferable. When economic costs are covered by employers ready to help, this can provide a boost and enhancement so essential to a new private sponsorship model. Further, if the Sixties generation pioneered networking as a form of organization, the Millennials have mastered the techniques in their teens. They are all digital kids wired to each other through cell phones and computers like no cohort that preceded them. They are the Facebook and Twitter generation.

For a generation that feels so comfortable with the idea and expectation of responsible government, that expects as a matter of course a society governed by the rule of law rather than the rule of men, that believes that no matter how rich you are or even how poor, the middle class is the proper norm for all, for a generation that believes in pragmatism, but without a built-in set of charitable institutional practices – after all, the founders of Operation Lifeline refused by and large to institutionalize what they had created – the Millennials respond to the immediate rather than inherit deeply inculcated institutional practices. While the news of the waves of refugees in leaky boats assaulted the sensibilities of the Sixties Generation so unacquainted with an immediate connection to disasters, the Millennials are assaulted from all sides from diverse areas of the world with disaster after disaster, natural and created by humans. They accept it as an inevitable part of life rather than an exception while they get on with carrying their debts, fearing they will never have a home of their own, burdened, not just by their own personal insecurities, but by a very deep sense that climate change will destroy the world which they have inherited. More importantly, the little they do – sorting garbage or cleaning up beaches and ravines – is just far too little and far too late. Outwardly positive, inwardly they are very profound existential pessimists.

As much as I will try, as much as I may pray for it to happen, Operation Lifeline was an experience of giving belonging to its place and time and unlikely to be repeated any time soon in the same manner. But variations may. Who knows? Perhaps I am the existential pessimist, not the Millennials. In any case, the chance may only be 10%, but the effort is both necessary and beneficial.


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