Operation Lifeline – Part I: The Backstory

On the Genesis of Operation Lifeline 

[Part 1: The Backstory}


Howard Adelman


for delivery at the conference

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

22 November 2013.


After two initial sections outlining the back story of the Indochinese refugee movement and exploring the alternative explanations for Canada’s exceptional response, the paper will cover the origins of Operation Lifeline, its timing and organizational structure; I will knit into my discussion the role of the media in both the formation of Operation Lifeline and the encouragement of private sponsorship dealt with in the previous panel. I will then zero in on two crises that emerged in the development of Operation Lifeline with respect to two major policy issues: a) Operation Intellectual Kneecapping dealing with pre-empting a backlash, and b) the so-called reneging on the matching formula. I will then tie both into revisiting which, if any, of the various explanations outlined earlier best account for the generosity exhibited by civil society. I will then draw some general conclusions.


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. So a question naturally arises: why did that moment in history create in Canada the culmination of any effort before or since to develop an outstanding humanitarian agenda on behalf of refugees in need, a moment that subsequently earned for Canada the award of the Nansen Medal by the UNHCR?  Since the national outpouring was complemented by significant actions and initiatives by other western countries, the explanation for what happened should integrate both local and transnational factors.


I The Back Story

The back story in the creation of Operation Lifeline is easily told. In 1967, Canada broke through its legislative racist-based immigration policies when the Immigration Act was revised to be based on an abstract point system rather than favouring specific countries of origin. This was the beginning of the large scale arrival of so-called “visible minorities” to Canada. The first major influx was that of the Ugandan Asians when Idi Amin, then President of Uganda, on 4 August 1972 ordered the expulsion of the Indian and Pakistani populations of Uganda within 90 days. Of the up to 70,000 ethnically cleansed Ugandan Asians, Canada took in 7,000, the highest number for resettlement anywhere except Britain which took in almost 30,000 who were formally “British protected persons”. (Cf. M. Mamdani (1976). Politics and Class Formation in Uganda, New York: Monthly Review Press and C. Pereira, B. Adams, and M. Bristow (1978) Canadian beliefs and policy regarding the admission of Uganda Asians to Canada. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1,(3), 354-366.)

In 1975, after the termination of the Vietnam War, dubbed by the Vietnamese as the “American War”, as the In Memoriam short video demonstrated, Americans felt a special obligation to assist Vietnamese who had been associated with the American side in the conflict. The USA put pressure on its allies to assist in the humanitarian endeavour, including Canada which, unlike Australia, had remained aloof for any military involvement in Vietnam. Canada offered a token response and took in 5,608 Vietnamese humanitarian immigrants in 1975 (3100) and 1976 (2500). Prior to that, there were only 1500 Vietnamese living in Canada, the vast majority in Quebec, usually students and graduates (and, in some case, their children and families) at Canadian French-speaking universities. The numbers taken in were only token in comparison to the huge numbers the United States admitted following the immediate termination of the Vietnam War. Given that the general Canadian attitude was an assignation of blame to the United States for the responsibility for both the war and the refugees resulting from that war, this number was considered more than sufficient to demonstrate Canada’s humanitarianism without identifying the problem as a Canadian one.

The situation changed in 1978. The Hoa or Chinese Vietnamese, like the Indo and Pakistani Asians in Uganda, disproportionately dominated the South Vietnamese business and economic sector as well as its educated and upper class; they controlled an estimated 75% of the South Vietnam economy before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Once before in 1956, the Diem government had tried to break the dominant ethnic Chinese control of the Vietnamese economy but failed. (The Ngo Dinh Diem regime in 1955 decreed that all Chinese born in Vietnam would automatically become Vietnamese citizens and in 1956 issued a decree nationalizing all categories of trade. Further, non-ethnic Vietnamese were excluded as butchers and fish mongers, rice or grain traders, in the trade of fuel (coal, charcoal, fuel oil), and from the textile industry at both the wholesale and retail levels. However, the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam circumvented these decrees most frequently by taking on Vietnamese “partners” rather than becoming citizens.) Further, by 1961, in spite of Diem’s “forced nationalization” program, only 2,000 of approximately one million ethnic Chinese in South Vietnam had become Vietnamese citizens. Nevertheless, in 1976 Hanoi demanded that the ethnic Chinese register for the elections of the National Assembly. At the time, business for the ethnic Chinese seemed to flourish as usual in spite of Hanoi’s introduction of currency reforms to break the control of the Hoa on the economy as the businessmen managed to use bribes on the Vietnamese communist cadres to allow their businesses to continue. The maintenance of the status quo was also helped by the utility of these businessmen to the Vietnam government in fostering regional trade. The Hanoi government efforts initially seemed to follow Diem’s failed footsteps.

The crucial turning point was political rather than economic, though the economic crisis of 1977 as a result of crop failures that year and general economic mismanagement did not help. Hanoi’s initiatives were pushed by relations with both the Khmer Rouge Cambodian regime on one side and China on the other. Between 1975 and 1978, there had been occasional clashes along the border between the two communist regimes, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and Democratic Kampuchea, punctuated in 1975 by the Cambodian attack on the Vietnamese island of Phú Quȭc and a second major attack in April of 1977against the Vietnamese provinces of An Gang and Chāu Dȭc, killing over one hundred Vietnamese civilians. This coincided with a Communist Party of Kampuchea Central Committee directive instructing local officials to arrest all ethnic Vietnamese, all Khmer who spoke Vietnamese and even Khmer who had Vietnamese friends. The Pol Pot genocide began with the mass murder of the vast majority of those who had been arrested in the effort to purify Kampuchea of Vietnamese influences and to reclaim lost Khmer lands in Vietnam, primarily in the Mekong Delta. (Cf. Kanika Mak (2004) “Genocide Irredentism under Democratic Kampuchea (1975-79), Yale Center for International and Area Studies, Working Paper 23.) China, given its traditional rivalry with Vietnam over influence on Kampuchea, seemed to side with Cambodia. Hanoi began to fear the emergence of a fifth column and pressure was exerted on the ethnic Chinese in what had been North Vietnam. In February 1978, China accused Hanoi of forcing an exodus of ethnic Chinese, especially in the border area as tens of thousands streamed into China.