Mr. Speaker, as the Liberal critic for Canadian heritage, I would like to explain to the House why I will be supporting 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, or the Journey to Freedom Day Act.
I would also like to explain why I am insisting that the government allow this bill to be extensively and thoroughly reviewed by the appropriate parliamentary committee. Everyone must have an opportunity to freely express their opinions, unlike what happened in the Senate.
Bill S-219 would designate April 30 as the Journey to Freedom Day and would commemorate Vietnamese refugees and their exodus to Canada. This day would not be a legal holiday or a day off. However, it would provide an opportunity to celebrate how lucky Canada is to have such a vibrant Vietnamese community. As the Liberal leader and member for Papineau always says, Canada's diversity is what makes our country strong. Vietnamese Canadians are a good example of that.
A number of my constituents of Vietnamese origin have shared a different perspective. They see this day as an opportunity to thank Canada for welcoming them with open arms and for giving them a chance at a new life. The Vietnamese are known for their generosity and modesty.
If Canada tells them that it wants to celebrate everything they have contributed, they respond that they would rather celebrate everything that Canada has given them. After all, we are looking at two sides of the same coin. Canada owes a lot to its Vietnamese community, which wants to thank Canada. Let us celebrate together.
The proposed new national day would commemorate a major historic event. On January 1, 1975, some 1,500 persons of Vietnamese ancestry were living in Canada, mostly in Quebec. Following the 1979 to 1982 boat people crisis, some 59,000 Vietnamese refugees entered Canada. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, after the United States, Canada is the country that welcomed the largest number of Vietnamese refugees from 1975 to 1996.
In 1986, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees awarded the Nansen Refugee Award to the people of Canada for the “major and sustained contribution of the People of Canada to the cause of refugees”. Canadians were the first and the only people to have been honoured collectively with this award.
The journey to freedom day will remind us that Canada welcomed tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees and that Canada must continue to be welcoming. There were millions of victims of the Vietnam War, and unimaginable atrocities were committed on all sides. Since we did not participate, our country could have chosen to ignore these victims. If we are being honest, there were some people in Canada who did not want to get involved in the aftermath and consequences of a conflict we had no part in.
However, Canada remembered that although it was not involved in the war, it played an active role in the peace efforts. Canada remembered that every time it has shown generosity, it has become even stronger. Canada listened to its heart and welcomed refugees not only from Vietnam, but also from Cambodia and Laos, saving many lives and transforming broken dreams into renewed hope.
We must never forget the pain of the exodus, those who lost their lives, the unspeakable horrors experienced by the boat people, or the generosity of the Canadian families, communities and religious groups who took them in, clothed and housed them. Nor must we forget the foresight of the Canadian governments of the day, how hard the newcomers worked to learn, in a matter of months, French, English and new customs or how very much Canada benefited from the contributions of these newcomers, their children and the generations that came after them.
That is what we must never forget. That is what we will all be able to celebrate together in harmony, as we bear in mind both the sacrifices people made and the promises of the future, the opportunities available in a Canada that is stronger because of its Vietnamese community. That is how I, as Liberal critic for Canadian heritage, see this commemoration. That is why I support this bill. There is no other reason. The goal is to bring people together, to leave nobody out. The goal is also to strengthen the bond between Canada and Vietnam, to strengthen the trade, cultural and scientific ties between our two countries. Canada must stand up for human rights and justice in Vietnam as it does all over the world.
In other words, the Liberal Party sees this bill as an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the great contributions of the Vietnamese Canadian people to Canada's diversity and multiculturalism, and to all the elements of Canadian life and society.
The proposed new national day would also celebrate the Canadian families, charities, religious groups and non-governmental organizations that sponsored tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees and assisted them in their resettlement and adjustment to their new country.
Some Vietnamese Canadians have written to us, their parliamentarians, to tell us that they do not like the date chosen for the commemoration, April 30; others do not like the title; still others are afraid this commemoration will lead to a historical interpretation that makes them uncomfortable. To that I say that it is important for the people of the Vietnamese community to talk to each other. This commemoration must not be a divisive issue. On the contrary, it should be a symbol of unity and the wonderful symbiosis that exists between the Canadian and Vietnamese identities. That is why I think the committee that looks at this bill must take the time needed to listen to all points of view. In the meantime, Vietnamese Canadians must continue talking to each other to reconcile their points of view.
The Liberal Party of Canada will insist that it is the government's responsibility to invite an inclusive and comprehensive list of witnesses and experts to discuss this bill at committee to ensure a thorough discussion on the title, date, content and implications of the act.
We, as Canadian parliamentarians, need to clearly understand and send a message that, above all, our intention with this bill is not to dictate an official, unilateral version of the history of another country. We cannot even do that when it comes to Canada. It is not a question of siding with one side or the other after the fact, after a long and bloody war that our country consciously chose not to take part in. No, it is simply a matter of providing an opportunity for us to celebrate the contribution made by Vietnamese Canadians to Canada's rich social fabric, to remember where we come from in order to better understand where we want to go together.