Mr. Speaker, I am very honoured to speak today in favour of Bill S-219. In particular, I want to thank Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, the first Canadian senator of Vietnamese descent appointed as a suggestion of our government to the Senate. He does a very good job in representing the Vietnamese community across Canada.
I would also like to thank my hon. colleague, the member for York Centre, for sponsoring the bill in the House of Commons, and for the very eloquent speech he made a few minutes ago. He is a person who, through his family history, knows of pain, adversity and the struggle to come to Canada. He mentioned his father, who was a survivor of the Holocaust, a victim of Dr. Mengele. Just a little over a week ago, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp, he spoke about his father's struggles there and his journey to Canada.
For me, the bill tells the story of the Vietnamese Canadian community and their struggle to come to Canada, but it is a story we have heard over and over again, repeated throughout Canadian history. It is a Canadian story. It is a story that represents all of us. So many Canadians have come to Canada from places torn by war, from great adversity and oppression, and have struggled very hard through very difficult conditions to come to this country. They have found a place of refuge and freedom in Canada.
This is a country that we all love so much. It is incumbent upon all Canadians, regardless of their background, to learn these stories and to understand how these stories have contributed to our great country.
I appreciate the opportunity to voice my support for this important legislation. As I mentioned, it recognizes the lives lost and the suffering experienced by the exodus of Vietnamese people following the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975, the day that Saigon fell to Communist forces. It was a war, as we all know, that raged for well over 10 years. It was bloody and violent, and people's lives were torn apart. So many innocent lives were lost.
That is not a happy anniversary, but it is one that we must remember. We have to remember these events in history and how they affect people around the world, especially those in Canada.
Canada has played a significant role in aiding tens of thousands of refugees after the fall of Saigon when, according to the United Nations commission for refugees, more than 1.5 million Vietnamese were forced to flee their homeland under the threat of deteriorating living conditions and, it should be noted, widespread human rights abuses.
During this humanitarian disaster that followed, Canadians rallied to offer whatever assistance they could. A crucial moment came in July, 1979, when a previous Conservative government, under the leadership of prime minister Joe Clark and his cabinet, at the recommendation of the then immigration minister, the Hon. Ron Atkey, recognized the plight of these Vietnamese people and agreed to accept 50,000 Vietnamese refugees over the following year. That was a very significant number for Canada to have absorbed in one year. The Hon. Ron Atkey is a personal friend of mine who I have known for over 30 years. He is a very fine lawyer in the Toronto area today. He exemplified the finest in Canadian government at the time.
This effort ultimately brought more than 60,000 boat people, as they were then called, to settle and build new lives across our great country. It is estimated that 34,000 were sponsored by Canadian families, Canadian charities, religious groups and non-governmental organizations, and another 26,000 were assisted directly by the Canadian government.
Throughout Canada, church groups and other community organizations sponsored families to come to Canada. I know that happened in significant numbers in my city of Mississauga and the city in which I grew up, Hamilton. I went to high school and university earlier in my life with some of the young people who came with their families. I saw first hand in their faces the pain they had experienced in leaving their homeland and coming to Canada.
The hon. member on the other side mentioned what a shock it must have been for people to come from a tropical place like Vietnam to a very cold place. Let us face it, here we are in early February in Ottawa, and any of us who have been outside today know it is very cold here. What a shock it must have been for these people who had been through so much in their lives already.
It was an unprecedented example of the compassion of Canadians toward a multitude of people in need. More than a quarter of a million Vietnamese refugees lost their lives at sea during the exodus from Vietnam. Just in travelling, 250,000 souls were lost. Things had to be very desperate in their homeland for them to take the enormous risk to journey to freedom. Some were beset with illness, while others drowned or were victimized by violence from piracy, kidnapping, and other forms of violence.
The arrival of the Vietnamese refugees in Canada and their settling into new lives in what was a foreign land to them stands as a shining example of how Canadians responded to a world catastrophe. Canada's compassionate response included many sectors, communities, and governments. Many Canadian families took the refugees into their homes and helped them find employment and schooling. It is considered an exemplary moment in Canada's history of humanitarian protection and, in fact, was a contributing factor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees awarding its Nansen Refugee Award to the people of Canada in 1986. It was the first and only time that this prestigious medal was awarded to an entire nation.
Due to the overwhelming success of the private sponsorship of refugees program during this time, it became enshrined as a fundamental part of Canada's refugee resettlement program.
Contributing to the success story of the Vietnamese refugees who settled in Canada are the Vietnamese people themselves. Vietnamese Canadians are participating actively in public life in Canada, distinguishing themselves in business, politics, the arts, sports, and humanitarian endeavours.
Here are just a few examples. Kim Phuc, an internationally recognized survivor of the Vietnam war, has established a foundation to assist child victims of war here in Canada. Paul Nguyen, a second-generation Vietnamese Canadian whose parents fled to Canada, is a 2010 recipient of the Paul Yuzyk Award for Multiculturalism. Kim Thuy, an internationally renowned author, received a Governor General's award for her book telling her story of her arrival as a refugee. These are just a few of the many stories of great Canadians of Vietnamese heritage who have told their stories and contributed to the development of our country.
Communities of displaced Vietnamese people around the world already refer to April 30th as black April day. Designating that day in Canada to honour our Vietnamese Canadian population would show our support to a community that has flourished in this country, economically, culturally, and socially. Bill S-219 proposes to designate April 30th as the journey to freedom day in Canada, as a day that would acknowledge the sacrifices made by the Vietnamese people during a very dark time in world history.
Last Sunday, February 1, I attended the annual Tet festival celebration in Mississauga at the International Centre near the Toronto airport. The Prime Minister, Senator Ngo, and many dignitaries spoke there. It was a room of 15,000 people. This is about the eighth time annually that I have had an opportunity to join with the Vietnamese people in celebrating Tet.
There were many speeches made there about Bill S-219. It was just astounding to me to see the overwhelming support of the Vietnamese community in Toronto for the bill. They know it tells their story.
I also want to mention the Tribute to Liberty organization, which is constructing the monument to the victims of communism. It is very close to the parliamentary precinct, near the Supreme Court. The government has donated $1.5 million to that project. I would encourage all Canadians to go to the website, www.tributetoliberty.ca, and make a contribution. The Vietnamese Canadian people will be a very significant part of those honoured on that monument. They are an example of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who were victims of communism, who have struggled to come to Canada.
For all of these reasons, to honour the more than 300,000 Vietnamese Canadian people in Canada who contribute to Canada's prosperity and growth as hard-working members of our society, I want to encourage all of my colleagues here to support the passing of Bill S-219.