moved that Bill S-219, 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, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, on April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War ended. The capital city of South Vietnam, Saigon, fell to the Communist invaders from the north, but that is not where the story ends. April 30, 1975, began a new chapter in the lives of the people of South Vietnam.
It was the start of the exodus of millions of people fleeing that country, the land they had called home for generations. They were fleeing the harsh treatment and suppression of human rights by an authoritarian government; ethnic, religious, and political persecutions; political executions of former South Vietnamese officials and their families; forced resettlement in remote areas; and deteriorating living conditions brought on by food shortages, flooding, and drought. By 1979, some 600,000 South Vietnamese had fled.
Over the next three years, the refugee label “boat people” became familiar as Vietnamese began trying to escape from their homeland aboard small watercraft, seeking temporary refuge in neighbouring countries.
Many countries refused to allow them to land. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reported that while attempting to escape, at least 250,000 Vietnamese people lost their lives at sea due to drowning, illness, starvation, and sexual assault or violence from kidnapping or piracy.
In response to this humanitarian crisis, Canada responded by opening our doors. Between 1975 and 1976, Canada accepted some 6,500 political refugees who had left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. In October 1976, Canada accepted 180 boat people. In August 1977, there was a further commitment for 450 people. In 1978, the government agreed to accept 50 boat families per month. By 1980, some 120,000 Vietnamese refugees were welcomed with open arms to Canada. Also, by demonstrating an ongoing concern, Canada aimed to encourage countries of first asylum to open their doors as well.
By 1986, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was so impressed by Canada's role in accepting so many refugees from South Vietnam that the people of Canada were awarded the Nansen Medal for their “major and sustained contribution to the cause of refugees”.
This medal is the refugee equivalent to the Nobel Prize, and marks the only time in history that an entire country has been recognized in this fashion. That is why I am so proud to co-sponsor, along with Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, Bill S-219, or the journey to freedom day act, which will serve three purposes.
First, it would establish April 30 as a day to commemorate the exodus of refugees from South Vietnam.
Second, it would recognize the extraordinary humanitarian role played by the Canadian government as well as Canadian families, voluntary agencies, communities, synagogues and churches, and religious groups in welcoming so many Vietnamese so warmly into the Canadian family.
Third, it should also be noted that this period in Canadian history is one that is not well known among younger Canadians today. For that reason, April 30 should serve as a day of reflection and education. All Canadians should know the story of Vietnamese refugees who were forced to flee their native land, of the vast humanitarian effort that was undertaken by Canadians to welcome them, and of the triumph over adversity that the vibrant Vietnamese community in Canada represents.
Canada was among the first countries to welcome Vietnamese refugees with open arms. When the people of Vietnam were in need, Canadians from all walks of life answered the call without hesitation and opened their homes and hearts to over 60,000 Indochinese refugees who desperately needed a place to rebuild their lives.
This is the highest number of refugees per capita taken by any country in the world during this period. Canada's role in opening its doors to so many Vietnamese refugees is an example of the best of Canada. It is a true demonstration of Canadian values.
Here is a little bit of how it worked.
The federal government developed a private sponsorship program whereby institutions such as churches and groups of at least five adult citizens would take a refugee family into their care for a year.
For each person sponsored privately, the government accepted another refugee under its own care. It was Canada that pioneered the private sponsorship refugee program, enabling our country to accept a much larger number of refugees while also reducing the cost to the government coffers and providing an example to the rest of the world.
Without the warm and caring efforts of thousands of Canadians, and the leadership, support, and co-operation of the Canadian government, as well as refugee agencies, non-governmental organizations, and religious groups, the movement of such large numbers of people, under such urgent and difficult circumstances, would simply not have been possible.
It is written in scripture that he who saves a single life saves an entire generation. Today there are approximately 300,000 people of Vietnamese origin living in Canada. More than 100,000 of them live in the greater Toronto area.
On April 30, for the past 39 years, Vietnamese Canadians have gathered to remember a new beginning and to thank Canada. In 2015, the Vietnamese Canadian community will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the resettlement of the boat people to Canada.
This bill speaks to Canada's long-standing tradition as a beacon of freedom and democracy, a nation that generously embraced refugees who were forced to flee their homelands through no fault of their own.
One of the more remarkable developments in this story is that many of those who came to Canada as boat people are today sponsoring refugees themselves. They have partnered with the Government of Canada, under the leadership of our Prime Minister, to bring to Canada the last remaining Vietnamese refugees, who have been stranded, without status, in Southeast Asia, in places like Thailand and the Philippines, for nearly 40 years. What a proud legacy, and what an amazing way to mark their journey to freedom: by helping others.
This is an important bill, and today I ask for all members' support in moving it forward. National recognition of this day would serve as a point of pride for people of Vietnamese descent and for all Canadians, highlighting as it does the generous Canadian spirit and national respect for freedom. Our nation is one built by immigrants, and our communities are enriched by the vibrant mosaic of cultural heritage within them.
Never again shall Canada's refugee policy be as disgraceful and despicable as it was before and during the Second World War, a time when “none is too many” was the order of the day. Canada's warm, generous acceptance of immigrants and refugees is one of our nation's most sacred traditions. Our historic and continued commitment to diversity is one that we as a government must strive to recognize and honour whenever we can.
This bill would also provide an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our own commitment to a diverse and inclusive Canada, a place where we are all united in our values, regardless of race, religion, colour, or creed. It is so important for all Canadians to remember and reflect on our nation's history and how it has contributed to our current culture of pluralism, diversity, and acceptance.
This bill would also provide an excellent chance to reflect on the strengths and diversity the Vietnamese community has brought to our country and to thank them for their contribution to our cultural mosaic. We can all learn something from the refugees who were willing to risk everything to live in freedom, because a life lived without freedom is no life at all.
I am a first-generation Canadian, and this bill invites reflection on my own experience as a child of a Holocaust survivor, whose dad came to Canada with nothing more than the shirt on his back, a number tattooed on his arm, but most importantly, hope in his heart. For so many refugees who came to Canada, like the survivors of the Holocaust, the Vietnamese boat people, the persecuted Christians and Yazidis of northern Iraq and Syria, and so many others, each and every one of them had a right to turn their backs on humanity, yet they did not. They came to Canada in search of hope, hope for themselves, yes, but more importantly, hope for their children so that they would not be forced live under the yoke of oppression or persecution. They came to Canada because Canada is a beacon of light in the world, a country that stands tall and strong, adhering to the values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
The journey to freedom day act would offer an opportunity to reflect on our commitment to the very best of Canadian values. It would give us yet another reason to showcase Canada as the best country in the world to call home.
Today I ask for my colleagues' support to pass Bill S-219 and help us declare April 30 as journey to freedom day in this great country of Canada.