Vietnam and Canada: Journey to Freedom Day

Vietnam and Canada: Journey to Freedom Day


Howard Adelman

(NOTE: as with all my blogs, receivers are free to circulate this blog. In this case, I hope they will circulate it, especially to other members of the Canadian Vietnamese community. I always welcome feedback.)

Last week I received an email forwarded to me from the Honourable Jason Kenney requesting my signature on a petition in support of Bill S-219, originally called Black April Day, and retitled Journey to Freedom Day (Journée du Parcours). An introduction to the bill, its historical context and the explanation of its purpose of the bill can be found at: The bill was very recently passed by the Senate of Canada and is currently before the House of Commons for its approval. (…) The bill is intended to officially recognize April 30th as Journey to Freedom Day in Canada in commemoration of the flight of tens of thousands of Vietnamese from Vietnam who found refuge in Canada after 1975.

Though Kenney is a senior minister in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, the bill is a private member’s bill rather than a government bill; members of each party are free to vote on the bill independent of the party of which they are a member. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine Conservative Party members voting against the bill when it is strongly supported by a high profile cabinet minister and was initially sponsored by an ethnic Vietnamese member of the Senate, Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, who was appointed to the Senate by Stephen Harper. Senator Mobina Jaffer, a Liberal, also strongly supported the bill.

Why the full press? The Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons and can easily pass the bill. Why has such a bill become controversial? Is it because the bill has led to a spat with the government of Vietnam as newspaper headline writers have suggested in reporting on the bill?;
When I open my laptop daily, including this morning, picture after picture of the beauty of Vietnam, taken by my friend Truc, pass before my eyes. Nancy’s long visit there reinforced a fondness for that country, a fondness that is only somewhat painful for personal reasons – because of the death of a friend of my son in a road accident when my son was traveling with him south of Hanoi. Nevertheless, I feel a great love for that country, even though I have never visited. So I am very bothered by a dispute between Canada and the Government of Vietnam.

Yesterday, on my first full day in San Pancho, Mexico, as I listened to the Pacific waves crashing on shore, I also opened the 5 December 2014 minutes received by email of the meeting of the Indochinese Refugee Movement Project Steering Committee Meeting of which I am a member. The Project is intended to provide an archive of documents on the Indochinese refugee resettlement, an oral history, a curriculum, a website, a docudrama and initiate commemoration efforts in 2015 on the 40th anniversary of the beginning of that movement. That meeting was coordinated by the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. I was unable to attend the meeting, even by Skype, as, at the time, I was en route to Marin County, CA heading for Mexico.

The minutes opened with a discussion of the controversy surrounding the bill with the suggested explanation that the media had framed the bill as an act that would cause a “diplomatic spat between Canada and Vietnam”. The minutes expressed a concern that the controversy might taint the efforts of the project to archive a documentary record of that refugee resettlement by entangling its aims with that of the supposedly “controversial” bill, even though the project had nothing to do with the bill. The concern of the committee seemed not to be the spat with Vietnam over the bill, but the effects of the bill on the other communities of Indochinese refugees (Cambodians, Laotians, ethnic Chinese from Indochina). The Project wanted to be clear that its focus was on all Indochinese Communities represented by our project.

I will give my explanation for the controversy after I discuss the contents and the context of the bill and also offer my evaluation of the bill itself. April 30th is commemorated by the Vietnamese community in Canada because, on 30 April 1975, Saigon fell to the combined forces of North Vietnam, officially called the People’s Army of Vietnam (not North Vietnam) and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam (the Viet Cong). (Ironically, Vietnam means southern Viet.) As the members of the sixties generation well recall, the Vietnam War was a defining issue in North America from 1964, when U.S. President Johnson used the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident to get Congressional approval for the USA to send military advisors to the South Vietnam government in 1964 and then intervene with ground troops in 1965. The controversy only ended in 1973. Henry Kissinger, as U.S. President Nixon’s Secretary of State, had worked out a face saving Paris Peace Accord (27 January 1973) to permit the American troops to withdraw from South Vietnam in what many regarded as the faint hope that South Vietnam could survive as a separate country, much as South Korea has.

It was not to be.

Bill S-219

The bill is described in its opening section as: “An Act respecting a national day of commemoration of the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and their acceptance in Canada after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.” In the Preamble, the following contextual items are mentioned:
• the role Canadian forces played in the UN supervising force;
• the bill refers to the military forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front invading (my italics) South Vietnam that led to the fall of Saigon, the end of the Vietnam War and the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Government;
• cites the UNHCR as blaming deteriorating economic conditions and abuses of human rights as contributing to the exodus of Vietnamese refugees – the Vietnamese “Boat People”
• the privately-sponsored refugee project assisted 34,000 Vietnamese refugees [NOTE: this phrase could mean ex-citizens of Vietnam or refugees from Vietnam who are ethnic Vietnamese not refugees from Vietnam] coming to Canada while the Canadian government resettled 26,000;
• notes the major and sustained contribution by the people of Canada to the Indochinese exodus was recognized by the UNHCR which awarded the Nansen Refugee Award to the “People of Canada” in 1986;
• members of the Vietnamese community refer to April 30 th as “Black April Day”, or “Journey to Freedom Day”
• April 30th should be designated as Journey to Freedom Day to remember and commemorate a) the lives lost,
b) the suffering experienced during the exodus,
c) the acceptance of Vietnamese refugees into Canada,
d) the gratitude of Vietnamese people in Canada to the Canadian people and the Government of Canada for accepting them,
e) contributions of Vietnamese-Canadian people — whose population is now approximately 300,000 — to Canadian society.

Some elaboration:
• Other than supplying military supervisors to observe the so-called peace provided in the Paris Peace Accords, the Government of Canada stayed out of that war and did not, as Australia did, contribute troops to the American-led effort to support the South Vietnamese government against the insurgents;
• The Socialist Republic of Vietnam Government was created on 2 July 1976 when North and South Vietnam were formally united, and though North Vietnam did invade South Vietnam, contrary to the terms of the Paris Peace Accord, and captured the province of Phuóc Long in December 1974 beginning a full scale offensive, reputable historians would not describe the National Liberation Army (the Viet Cong) in South Vietnam as “invading” South Vietnam for, though supported by Hanoi, the Viet Cong insurrection was a civil war begun in the late 1950s as a guerrilla campaign to overthrow the corrupt Diệm government;
• The UNHCR rarely enters into a political analysis of the causes of an exodus. It was not involved in dealing with the exodus of Vietnamese, largely Catholic, from the north in 1954 following the French withdrawal from Vietnam and its division into South and North. In Terms of Refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response, W. Courtland Robinson’s official history of the Vietnamese (and other Indochinese refugees), based on full and complete access to UNHCR documents, Robinson concluded that, in 1974, UNHCR became involved with Vietnamese refugees to assist in the return and reintegration of refugees (my italics) resulting from war. Hence, UNHCR opened an office in Hanoi. In 1975, for example, violence broke out in Guam as several hundred Vietnamese refugees demanded the right to return to Vietnam just as many others began to flee. After the fall of Saigon, UNHCR became involved with helping the refugees (35,000) who, according to UNHCR, primarily left Vietnam between 1975 and 1978 for ideological reasons because they were on the losing side in that war, a view which was strongly at odds with that of the USA, which insisted that it was an exodus of people fearing persecution by the Communist government. Only in 1978, when the renewed and much more massive outflow was the result of many factors, including intolerance of ethnic minorities (the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam), religious intolerance, government oppression and the dislocation caused by extensive economic “reforms”, did the refugees become the “Boat People”. I have only included this very condensed summary to indicate that the preamble in the bill with respect to UNHCR’s involvement really refers to the massive exodus after 1978;
• Though Canada took 5,608 Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 1978, 16% of the exodus, it only became a leader in resettling the refugees in 1978 with the arrival of the huge freighter, the Southern Cross, in the Philippines, and the arrival in December of another freighter, the Hai Hong, in Hong Kong; Canada’s involvement escalated to the role of a leader of Vietnamese “Boat People” resettlement;
• In 2006, the ethnic Vietnamese population in Canada was officially estimated at over 180,000 so it is difficult to reconcile this figure with the current estimated population of Canadians of Vietnamese origin of 300,000 or the figure of only 60,000 Vietnamese refugees brought to Canada since 5,608 came in the first wave (1975 to 1978), an estimated 50,000 in the second wave (1979-1980), and many more in the subsequent third wave;
• There is a confusion in Bill S-219 between refugees from Vietnam and Vietnamese refugees, who may either be ethnic Vietnamese or ethnic Chinese from Vietnam;
• The bill seems to be sensitive to the feelings of the Thai, Malaysian and other regional governments, which often pushed the refugee boats out to sea until Western countries pledged to resettle the refugees, for there is no mention of the role of these governments in Canada’s decision to resettle the refugees;
• The bill ignores the other Indochinese refugees and the different causes of their plight and subsequent exodus, including the pushback of 42,000 Cambodians from the Thai border in June 1979.

The controversy over the bill between the Government of Vietnam and the Canadian government is significant because the current Harper government is one that strongly supports international trade. Since 2000, following its economic reforms, Vietnam’s economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world. That may explain the extreme mildness when referring to the Hanoi government, for there is no mention of the almost 200,000 Vietnamese killed or executed by the Hanoi government after it came to power in 1954 or of the tens of thousands imprisoned.

What did the Vietnamese government say in its protest against the bill? Before I get into that, it is important to note that there were other objections to the bill, though very little about ignoring Canada’s other Indochinese communities. The bill, however, is supposedly controversial within the Vietnamese community; the Canada-Vietnam Friendship Association and the Canada-Vietnam Trade Council suggested the bill would create tension. They wanted cordial relations with Vietnam and also wanted to put the past behind them. In addition, Peter Tran, an old friend, opposed the bill because it had never been supported by a referendum within the Vietnamese community.

Note that the bill says very little, in fact, almost nothing about past causes and circumstances, in spite of the Vietnamese ambassador claiming that the bill provides a distorted view of his country’s history. The bill does ignore Canada’s positive bilateral relationship with Vietnam over the past 40 years, especially the economic relations as they have developed over the last fifteen years, but what relevance does that have to the purposes of the bill?

Some argue that we are on a slippery slope; is Canada to have a national day to celebrate every ethnic group? However, this is not a national day celebration, such as Tartan Day celebrated on the 6th of April. It is more akin to Raoul Wallenberg Day, January 17th that commemorates what Wallenberg did to help Jews escape the genocide of Nazi Germany.

There were also process concerns. The Vietnamese ambassador was not permitted to come before the committee and had to register his objections in writing. When the letter was received, delayed because it had to be translated into French, the Senate committee had already reported back to the Senate and did not consider the letter. Witnesses from the Vietnamese community, especially those opposed to the bill, were not invited to the committee considering the bill. Only three witnesses appeared. Further, the bill, after languishing in committee for months, was hurriedly passed by the Senate. The Vietnamese ambassador, Anh Dung, in his letter, accused Ngo of dredging up the past, painting a distorted view of his country’s history and ignoring its positive bilateral relationship with Canada over the past 40 years. “The government of Vietnam disagrees with this negative and selective portrayal and has expressed its concerns privately and publicly…about the language and intent of this bill.” The ambassador, in addition to his complaints about the portrait of Vietnam painted in the bill and about dredging up the past, claimed that the bill, if passed, will have an adverse impact on the growing bilateral relations between Canada and Vietnam. The bill was accused of inciting hatred between Canada and Vietnam and fostering division not unity. And it was not only the ambassador who complained about the bill. Vietnam’s deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, Pham Binh Minh, wrote John Baird in June to voice his objections.

I have absolutely no problem with the intent of the bill. Commemorating the suffering of the Vietnamese community in Canada, the huge loss of lives in their flight, yet their very successful resettlement in Canada, is commendable. To call this “dredging up the past” is not only an insult to Canadians of Vietnamese descent, it flies in the face of the widespread belief in Canada that the past must not only be remembered, but wrongs that took place must be pointed out and analyzed. History should NOT be forgotten but recalled. Any country that desires to suppress its past, any country that does not confront its past head on, seriously risks a failure to liberate itself from that part of its past that is despicable. The past must be brought into the present and thoroughly debated.

Articulating and explicating the causes of the exodus of the “Boat People”, however, is not Canada’s task, it is Vietnam’s. Nor is a private member’s bill the place to record and analyze that history. And the bill does not do that. It offers only a very brief passing reference to that history that is 90% accurate, and the one minor inaccuracy can be corrected in committee as the House considers the bill. If the bill has a detrimental effect on Canada’s economic and social relations, then that is a problem for Vietnam, not Canada. Canadian policy in relationship to its own citizens is a Canadian issue, not Vietnam’s, and should not be subject to Vietnam government threats or possible blackmail.

However, there are a number of other issues, all relatively minor, which can be corrected in the committee of the House of Commons considering the bill and then passing an amended version that can then be sent back to the Senate for its approval. Which takes us back to the initial question. Why has the bill been handled so poorly and with last minute haste? I can think of only one reason, but there may be others. Aside from the genuine merits of the bill, it is probably intended both to win favour with the Vietnamese-Canadian community as part of Jason Kenney’s larger strategy of shifting ethnic Canadian support from the Liberal Party to the Conservatives and to place the Liberal party in a conundrum, forcing that party, if possible, to be ambivalent about the bill. Whatever the Liberal Party does, it loses by either supporting a quasi-government initiated bill or placing obstacles in its way. The Conservative Party gains whichever path the opposition takes.

The motives of the Conservative Party may be primarily or secondarily political – domestically to secure support from the Vietnamese community in Canada, and, by making it a private member’s bill, to minimize as much as possible any friction with Vietnam. However, that is insufficient grounds for opposing the bill. So is the fear that often plagues Canadian policy in dealing with different ethnic groups. A policy of apologizing to one group may inundate needed apologies to others. A policy commemorating the experience of one ethnic group may result in a cascade of requests by other groups. The argument is often made that commemorating one group’s past suffering discriminates and ignores the suffering of other groups. It does not. It makes one more sensitive to the history of suffering. The more commemorations for more groups, the better position Canadians are in to both understand suffering and to comprehend the multicultural heritage of this country.

I support the bill and hope there will be some fine tuning by the committee of the House of Commons. If there is not, I would still support the bill. Its merits far outweigh any disagreements I have with how the bill was passed by the Senate or the lack of clarity and even errors in the wording.