Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to take part in this debate on Bill S-219.
Before I read my notes, I would like to comment on some issues that were raised by the previous speaker. I do not think that she has a full understanding of the issues surrounding that journey to freedom.
I will speak on more of a personal note, because I came to Canada from a Communist country and regime. The many people who came before me were escaping or trying to escape a regime that they did not want to live under.
The same thing happened with those poor boat people. They were escaping because they did not want to live in a Communist regime and face oppression. A quarter of a million people died trying to escape from that Communist regime in unsafe boats. Does that not speak for itself? I do not know who would need an explanation.
The comment that was made was that the ambassador of Vietnam was not invited. The ambassador of Vietnam represents the current Government of Vietnam. It is not a democratic government. Let us make that clear. Therefore, I would not be surprised if the ambassador of Vietnam would not be in support of this bill or of creating a day to commemorate those brave people who were trying to escape to find a safe haven here, as many others have.
After the war, Canada opened its arms to a lot of people who came from Polish territories, people who took a terrible journey. They were sent by the Russians to Siberia. Hundreds of thousands of them died. No one ever knew the real number. They joined the army and fought alongside Canadians. After the war they had no country to go back to, so many of them came to Canada. We are very grateful for this. People of our generation, in the 1980s, were able to leave Communist Poland. They were stranded in refugee camps across Europe and other countries in the world. They found a safe refuge here.
We can repeat these stories with many groups from many places in the world. Canada has always been strong in supporting those who are oppressed and denied basic human and democratic rights. That is what this bill is about. Let us not confuse anyone. This is not a bill to divide communities; we have to fully understand who is a part of the community and who is not.
On April 30, Canada's Vietnamese community commemorates the end of the Vietnam War, a day that this legislation would recognize as “journey to freedom day”. It was on this day in 1975 that the fall of Saigon led to the exodus of over 840,000 Vietnamese citizens. They were prepared to take great risks. Many were even prepared to die, rather than suffer at the hands of the Communist regime. Many of those who fled the brutal regime had to resort to extreme measures. They fled on crowded, unseaworthy boats in the hope of escaping to their freedom.
Tragically, many of the Vietnamese boat people did not survive the perilous journey. More than a quarter million of them drowned, starved, or were attacked by pirates. Miraculously, more than 60,000 Vietnamese refugees did succeed in making their way to Canada. Canadians welcomed these refugees with open arms and even invited the refugees to stay with them in their homes. More than half of the refugees were privately sponsored by generous individuals and groups of Canadians from all walks of life.
Thanks to the overwhelming generosity and support of Canadians, entire refugee families were able to resettle here and build a new and peaceful life.
Resettlement of such a large number of refugees in such a short amount of time was a tremendous achievement, and Canada's humanitarian efforts and compassion were recognized internationally. In response to these efforts in 1986, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees awarded the Canadian people the Nansen Medal, which is the refugee equivalent of the Nobel Prize. This is the only time an entire country has been recognized with this honour, and for this we should all be proud.
Bill S-219 aims to designate April 30 as the journey to freedom day. Not only would it commemorate the perilous journey 40 years ago of Vietnamese refugees to Canada, but it would also pay tribute to an incredible humanitarian role played by thousands of Canadians in community and church groups, who opened up their hearts and found ways to welcome Vietnamese refugees here in our great country.
As April 30 is already recognized by our Vietnamese community, it is appropriate to designate this day as a national day of remembrance. It would serve to commemorate the lives lost and the suffering experienced by people during the exodus. It would also mark their arrival to freedom and the gratitude of the Vietnamese people to Canadians for their generosity.
It is a Canadian tradition to commemorate tragic lessons in history so that they are never repeated. We believe we must not ignore the past, and this includes the shameful past of our country's history. Indeed, perhaps it is the memory of one of our own darkest moments that contributed to such an outpouring of generosity from Canadians toward the Vietnamese refugees.
It is with great shame that Canadians recall the tragic decision to turn away the MS St. Louis in 1939. The outcome of that disturbing decision should not be forgotten. After being turned away by Cuba, the United States, and finally by Canada, the ship was forced to return to Europe, where almost one-third of its passengers ultimately perished in the Holocaust.
To memorize and educate Canadians about the MS St. Louis incident, a powerful memorial is now located at Pier 21 in Halifax, where the ship should have landed. On this day we would mark a tragic period in history, but we would also commemorate a very important part of our country's proud humanitarian tradition.
The outpouring of support from Canadian people during this time underscores our country's commitment to providing protection to the world's most vulnerable. A memorial would also serve to remind all Canadians of how fortunate we are to live in one of the most free and democratic countries in the world, and that we are proud to stand up for our values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
It should also be noted that this period in Canadian history is one that is not as well known among younger Canadians today. Unlike the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, and the Cold War, the Canadian connection to the Vietnam War is often overlooked.
In conclusion, I would say that the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees is a very important part in our Canadian history. That is why so many Canadians have voiced their support for the bill and are enthusiastic about the national day of commemoration. For this reason I urge all my colleagues to support the bill. It is a great bill, and we all, as Canadians, will be proud of it.