Commentary by Andrew Lam in San Francisco
In America, when a source of authority says it randomly singles you out, you should always be wary.
On Monday, video surfaced of a Vietnamese American, David Dao, being forcefully dragged from a United Airlines flight departing Chicago for Louisville, Kentucky. Dao, 69, had allegedly refused to voluntarily give up his seat on the overbooked flight.
The video quickly went viral around the world, including in China, one of United’s largest markets, where it broke records for being the most widely shared video on social media. United stocks quickly plummeted, dropping 4 percent early Tuesday.
Many of the comments in China and elsewhere, meanwhile, questioned whether Dao, initially believed to be Chinese, was singled out for his ethnicity. His bleeding face is now the poster child for perceived racism in the friendly skies.
“Reflecting on my three nightmare-like experiences with United,” Richard Liu, the CEO of popular online shopping platform JD.COM posted on the Chinese site Weibo. “I can say … that United is the worst airline, not one of the worst.”
Chinese media also drew attention to an online petition entitled #ChineseLivesMatter calling for a boycott of United Airlines.
Reaction from the Asian American community has been equally swift and stinging.
“There is no justification for inflicting violence on any American who poses no physical threat regardless of race, occupation, or other characteristics,” declared the advocacy group PIVOT, which works on civic engagement issues in the Vietnamese American community. “As an organization that aims to engage and empower Vietnamese Americans for a just and diverse America, PIVOT categorically condemns United Airlines and the Chicago Police for their violent actions.”
According to reports, Dao and his wife were among four passengers selected to involuntarily relinquish their seats to make room for United employees.
In its response to the growing PR nightmare, despite a public apology, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz added fuel to the growing fire after a leaked email was released showing Munoz referring to Dao as “disruptive” and “belligerent.”
Few in the Asian American community are buying the airline’s defense.
“How exactly were the four people selected to give up their seats on this flight? What is the method of ‘random’ selection?” asked blogger Phil Yu, better known as Angry Asian Man. “Do United computers come with a Random Passenger Removal Generator? Or does a flight attendant just take a quick glance around the plane and pick a poor sucker?”
In another online post, one gate agent wrote it is typically the agent that decides who to bump. “Usually, depending on the airline, it is determined based on the last passenger to check in for the flight.”
Reporting on the incident, Business Insider noted passengers can be “involuntarily denied boarding based on a number of factors.” These include “fare class of their tickets, frequent-flyer status, their itinerary, and when they checked in to the flight.”
Yet to be sure it is not all algorithm.
Like others, Yu believes Dao was selected in part because United staff assumed that as an Asian he would be compliant. “If the ‘randomly selected’ passenger had been a blonde white lady, and she refused to give her seat, there's no way in seven hells that these cops would have dragged her ass out kicking, screaming and bloody,” Yu wrote. “Such indignities are apparently reserved for 69-year-old Asian physicians.”
He added, “Clearly, they were not counting on this guy to put up a fight.”
Book Review by Rosanna Haroutounian in Gatineau
The histories of Canadians are plentiful, rich, and complex. We can never know all of them, but even sharing just a few can open windows into many unknown pasts.
Coming Here, Being Here: A Canadian Migration Anthology brings together people’s stories of arriving in Canada, as told through first-hand accounts and by those who have studied immigration and helped newcomers along the way.
Edited by Donald Mulcahy, this collection of stories about the immigration experience seems a long time coming. It is the first time I have had the chance to read about such a wide scope of experiences from across the country in one book.
On the other hand, this collection could not have come at a better time, as we seem of late to be in need of reminders about how integral these stories are to our national identity.
Struggles and successes
In the story titled “They Left Their Homes with Nothing, and Made a New Life with Hard Work,” Dana Borcea shares the stories of some of the 6,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to Edmonton 25 years ago as “boat people.” Learning about their struggles and successes, I could not help wondering what stories the newly arriving Syrian refugees will tell in 25 years about coming to Canada.
Like the stories of refugees from Vietnam, they will undoubtedly include working at menial jobs to support their families, struggling to learn a new language, and adapting to a new culture. Will they also realize their dreams for peace and belonging?
Another story I know will stay with me for a long time is “Prejudice,” by Anton Capri. It recounts the author’s arrival as a DP, or displaced person, in Canada after the Second World War. At his first baseball game, the other children laugh at the boy who can’t hit the ball – except Dave, who becomes young Anton’s first friend.
Anton feels guilty that the other students now shun both him and Dave, yet to his surprise Dave thanks him for being his friend. The impact of this short narrative is felt in its ending and for that reason cannot be revealed in a simple summary, but it is sure to leave readers pondering about the lengths and limits of that ugly word – prejudice.
Our privileged lives
The stories also present diverse viewpoints on the present state of immigration in Canada. Monica Kidd writes in “The Music of Small Things” about being “purple with rage” at the government after seeing the photo of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi – a young boy who escaped the current violence in Syria, only to be swept up on a beach in Turkey.
“We lived privileged lives in a wealthy country and would find a way to sponsor a refugee family,” Kidd decided with her friends.
Meanwhile, the prominent author Henry Beissel calls Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to settle 50,000 Syrian refugees in Canada in 2016 “hasty,” adding that the government did so without regard for demographic and security concerns. His suggestion that this will lead to the creation of ghettos, the “breeding ground of discrimination and racism,” contrasts with the image of a welcoming and pluralistic Canada described in an essay he delivered in 1985, also included in his contribution to this anthology, titled “No Country for a Master Race.”
Story after story in this anthology illustrates the challenges people must overcome to arrive here, and how hard they must work to stay and ultimately belong here.
Even the notion that our values and customs are under threat seems to be challenged when in “Writing in French in Alberta,” Laurent Chabin points out: “No one threatens a language that is freely used, and there is no reason to invent enemies when all one really needs to do is practice and write in one’s own language.”
This can be said of all the traditions Canadians hold dear and fiercely protect. The best way to defend these qualities – which in my mind include equality, respect, and generosity – is to practice them freely.
As Batia Boe Stolar writes in "I Am an Immigrant," though they carry some burdens, the experiences of immigration should be accepted and acknowledged.
“Identifying myself as an immigrant is a self-conscious act that grants me a degree of agency, allowing me to exert some control over my identity,” she writes.
“I must here confess that there is a part of me that sometimes relishes the fact I have a story to tell that others crave to hear…. My markings open doors and close others; they generate other stories about other people’s experiences too.”
Here’s to hoping this collection of stories is a spark that ignites others to tell of the victories celebrated and hardships endured in coming to this country and calling it “Home.”
Commentary by Bhupinder S. Liddar
Come August 14 and 15, some in the Pakistani and Indian-origin Canadian communities will fly flags and sing national anthems to celebrate independence days of their respective former home lands – ironically, the very countries they left voluntarily to enjoy the Canadian way of life. (A big Indian parade was held in Toronto last weekend.)
The display of flags originated on battlefields to identify warring factions. Though national flags have come a long way from serving this purpose, they are still a potent political symbol of nationalism.
The national anthem, while evoking emotional sentiments, also sings praises of a country. What fascinates and baffles me is that many of these immigrants were not brought here under duress or against their will, but felt strongly about leaving their homelands and heading here of their own accord.
Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, Vaisakhi or Caribana are cultural and religious – not political – events, devoid of evoking dual political loyalty.
Loyalty is the key word here. Singing national anthems and saluting flags of former homelands evokes images of dual loyalty and patriotism.
However, it is not as offensive to see Canadians of Italian or Chilean origins run around waving Italian or Chilean flags during a soccer World Cup match.
Fortunately, in today’s multicultural Canada, one enjoys the luxury and liberty to speak in one’s mother tongue, eat one’s ethnic cuisine, dress in one’s national attire and partake in numerous cultural events. All that the new country expects is that political loyalty be to one flag and one national anthem – that of the adopted country, in this case Canada.
Enjoy your emotional attachment indoors, but do not display it in public.
The problem of divided loyalties has its roots in Canada’s British political class. Canada’s two political tribes – English and French – imported their historic political and cultural rivalries to the new country, with no regard for the existing Indigenous Peoples.
As a result of English-French battles in the new country, the victorious British-designated Union Jack, flag of the United Kingdom, was adopted as the new Canadian flag. It flew across the country, with no regard to the feelings of French-origin Canadians.
That lasted until the current Maple Leaf was adopted as the official flag in 1965.
Foreign diplomatic missions fly their flags on their office buildings and residences. Foreign national days are celebrated with receptions, hosted by diplomatic missions, on embassy premises or in hotels. Canadians, at large, and those with roots in those countries are invited and appropriately attend these events.
However, it is inappropriate for Canadians to involve themselves in hosting or organizing events to celebrate national days of their former homelands. In 2013, one foreign mission – the Indian Consulate General, in Toronto – went so far as to “sponsor” a public event for Indian diaspora, the “India Day Festival and Grand Parade”, to mark India’s Independence Day. (A similar event was repeated this year.)
In the 1990’s, Ottawa’s then mayor began flying the flag of each country that had diplomatic relations with Canada, on their respective national days, at City Hall. He would invite Ottawa residents who were part of that country’s diaspora in the capital city to mark the national day of their former homelands.
Unfortunately, this was no more than a crass vote-getting tactic. It eventually backfired, when in September 2014, Vietnamese Canadians held a large protest against flying the flag of Communist Vietnam – the very regime they fled to seek refuge in Canada.
Some may wonder, “What’s in a flag”?
Well, after the close defeat of the 1995 referendum on Quebec’s desire to separate from Canada, then Deputy Prime Minister and Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, decreed that all Canadian federal government buildings across Canada should fly the Maple Leaf, as a public symbol of federal government presence.
Canada, is a relatively young country, engaged in building Canadian institutions. What Canadians need to do is to effectively contribute to these efforts and desist from displays of split loyalty and patriotism.
As at the Olympic Games, one can stand under only one flag and sing only one national anthem. Hence, the only flag that we need to fly is the Maple Leaf, sing “O Canada”, and the only National Day that we need to celebrate is July 1, when in 1867 Canada became a unified country.
It is the least one can expect in return for what Canada offers.
Bhupinder S. Liddar is a retired Canadian diplomat and former editor & publisher of “Diplomat & International Canada” magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Susan Korah (@waterlilypool) in Ottawa
Haquyen Nguyen remembers that fateful moment 40 years ago as if it happened yesterday. As a teenager in South Vietnam, she sat with her family around the radio when president Duong Van Minh dropped the news bomb that shattered her life and dreams, as well as those of millions of her compatriots.
Saigon had fallen to the communists, and South Vietnam had surrendered. This was the end of their relatively peaceful and family-centred lives.
“My mother cried,” says Nguyen, her own eyes misting with tears as she recalls that moment today.
Four years later, halfway across the world in Ottawa, another young woman watched the news.
The young woman was Marion Dewar, a public health nurse who had recently been elected mayor of Ottawa. Scenes of chaos and misery flashed across the TV screen, as hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who had opposed the communists fled for their lives, jammed into tiny and often unsafe boats.
One such person was Nguyen’s husband, Phuong Lethebinh.
“For days, my father and the others battled against the heat of the sun, dehydration and starvation,” says Quoc-Viet-Le The, Nguyen’s son, describing his father’s escape by boat.
As Dewar watched these scenes in horror, her legendary sense of social justice came to the forefront. “Her immediate thought was, ‘What can we do to help these people?’” says her son Paul Dewar, MP for Ottawa Centre and Official Opposition Critic for Foreign Affairs. Driven by her faith and her desire to be an “instrument of peace,” she devised a plan of action.
'We’ll Take Them'
This was the birth of Project 4000, a plan that linked Southeast Asian refugees with Ottawa residents who stepped forward to sponsor and support them. Weary and exhausted after a harrowing journey through treacherous waters, the refugees found a warm welcome in a cold northern city that most of them knew nothing about.
To get Project 4000 off the ground, Dewar met with the city’s religious leaders and an immigration official. The latter informed her that Canada had a quota of 8000 Southeast Asian refugees for that year (1979) and that 4000 were already processed.
“We’ll take them [the 4000],” she promised on a wing and a prayer. Her idea was that organized groups such as churches, service clubs and community associations would sponsor refugee families.
At city hall, council voted unanimously to support the mayor’s project, paving the way for an inspirational rally at Exhibition Hall in Lansdowne Park.
Writer Sue Pike and her husband George were among the volunteers who helped to organize the rally, and ended up sponsoring a young Vietnamese family with two children, a boy and a girl. A third child was born after the family settled in Canada.
Another young Ottawa couple, Barbara Gamble and her husband Dan, were on vacation when they heard of Mayor Dewar’s appeal to help the refugees. Having worked on the mayor’s election campaign, Gamble knew Dewar personally and gave her a call. Dewar invited her to come home and help organize the rally. They too became sponsors.
After the rally, complete strangers and businesses organized smaller meetings to raise funds (about $10,000 a year for a family) and organize the logistics of relocating thousands of people to Ottawa.
“These people opened their hearts and arms to us,” says Haquyen Nguyen, tears of gratitude brimming in her eyes. “They knew nothing about us, but were ready to welcome [us] as Canadians.”
The sponsors’ investment of money and goodwill paid off. Not only did they earn the sincere gratitude of thousands of boat people and their families, but also enriched the city of Ottawa culturally and professionally.
Today, many of these original refugees and their descendants are the proud owners of thriving businesses and are contributing their talents and expertise to Canada as doctors, scientists, engineers and artists.
Expressing Gratitude and Commemorating the Past
“Every year we hold a commemoration on April 30, the date when Saigon fell,” says Nguyen. “But this year is very special because it’s the 40th anniversary. We are also celebrating the passage of the Journey to Freedom Day Act.”
She is referring to Bill S-219, which commemorates the mass exodus from South Vietnam and recognizes the fundamental role that Canadians played in rescuing and welcoming thousands of refugees after the Vietnam War. The bill was sponsored by Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, himself a refugee from those nightmarish days following the fall of Saigon.
The Vietnamese community expressed its gratitude to the people of Ottawa at two special events this year. One was a ceremony at the Marion Dewar Plaza in front of city hall on April 30, when community leaders formally thanked and honoured the late Marion Dewar and the people of Ottawa. Haquyen Nguyen presented a commemorative plaque to MP Paul Dewar, recognizing his late mother’s vision and compassion.
The other was at a reunion and “thank you, Canada” dinner on May 23 hosted by the Ottawa Vietnamese Canadian Cultural Organization at the Ron Kolbus Lakeside Centre. It was an occasion that brought together many of the original refugees and sponsors.
The exemplary humanitarian actions of thousands of ordinary Canadians 40 years ago not only gave new lives and hope to refugees from the Southeast Asian conflict, but also brought unprecedented international recognition to Canada.
“This was the only time the Nansen Refugee Award has been awarded to an entire nation,” says Mike Molloy, president of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society and former Foreign Affairs officer who coordinated the movement of 60,000 Indochinese refugees to Canada in 1979-80. He explains that this award is usually given to individuals or organizations in recognition of outstanding service to refugees or displaced people.
Would programs like Project 4000 be possible today? “It’s possible, but the current government lacks the political will to undertake them,” says Paul Dewar.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
by Andrew Lam (@andrewqlam) in San Francisco
My mother is 82 and suffering from dementia, but the moment she heard that I was going to give a speech to Vietnamese youth in Canada, she sort of regained her full faculties and perked up.
Mind you, Mama didn’t congratulate me or say that she was proud. No, that would be unbecoming of her Vietnamese tiger-motherhood. Instead, she offered a warning: “Listen,” she said, “no matter what you tell them, don’t you dare encourage them to become a starving writer.”
“Tell them,” Mama said, “it’s never too late to study for ‘ElmerCAT’ and become a doctor.”
You see, even with dementia, my mother can’t forget my so-called betrayal a quarter of a century ago.
Like any Asian immigrant kid, I was obedient. I got good grades in high school and I got into Berkeley.
I was a pre-med student, majoring in biochemistry. I worked in a cancer research laboratory. I was going to be a doctor, as my parents wanted. I did everything that I was told to do.
But somewhere along that seemingly assured academic trajectory, life, happened. Or to be more precise: love happened.
My freshman year, I fell hopelessly in love. My new love stole me away from my familial sense of duty. But then, soon after graduation, it was all over. And my heart shattered.
While working at the laboratory on campus I took to writing, in part, in order to grieve. In the daytime I killed mice. At night I gave in to heartbreak. I typed and typed. I bled myself into words.
One day I wrote something along the lines of this passage: “When one loses someone whom he loves very much, with whom he shares a private life, a private language, a private world, a routine – he loses an entire country. He becomes, in fact, an exile.”
And upon reading it again sometime later, I broke down and wept.
I was not weeping for the broken romance, though. I was weeping because it suddenly dawned on me that my heart had been broken before.
My first heartbreak took place when I was 11 years old, a refugee boy standing in a refugee camp in Guam, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, listening to the BBC describe the fall of Saigon – communist tanks rolling into the city, the Independence Palace ransacked, panic in the streets, a city veiled in smoke, refugees setting out into the open sea.
My family and I left Vietnam just when the war ended. We lost everything when we came to America. We started over from the bottom. There was a period in which we lived as impoverished exiles, sharing an apartment with two other Vietnamese refugee families at the end of Mission Street, where San Francisco ended and the working-class neighbourhood of Daly City began.
We struggled for some time to make it to the middle class. There was a time when we were wrecked with losses and longings.
My sadness had opened a trapdoor to the past. I remember a city made of khaki-green tents flapping in the wind, the bulldozed ground under my sandaled feet, the long lines for food under a punishing sun. A way of life stolen, a people scattered.
For a long time in America I had pretended all that sadness didn't exist. I blocked it out. I changed my name. I spoke no Vietnamese. I fancied myself American born.
I wanted to forget all the sadness of Vietnam because as a teenager I couldn’t deal with such an epic loss. How to bear the burden of a history of exile? What to do with thousands of others’ loss in the South China Sea when your family barely survived as working class living in a crowded apartment?
In my teenage years I went glibly on with my American life, went to Berkeley, and I barely looked back.
But as I wrote, it all came flooding back – and I hungered for memories.
No longer did I write about the broken romance. Instead I wrote about a broken people, about people who lost family members escaping an oppressive regime, people languishing in refugee camps, people who drowned in the South China Sea, people struggling to rebuild their lives in the new country.
For the first time in my adult life I began to grieve for my lost homeland, for a defeated people. And I began to recognize that the personal and the historical are but brooks and rivers to the sea. I saw that in order to rise above one’s own biographical limitations one needs to do something beyond oneself – and that the way out of one’s own self-resenting morass, out of one’s own sadness and confusion, was not self pity, but compassion for others.
That is to say, I entered college with one particular set of blueprints and left it with a totally different sense of direction, one that for the first time in my life was something of my own choosing. I didn’t do it while being a student. I did it afterward: I started thinking for myself and critically. And I dropped the test tubes and Mama’s ‘ElmerCAT’. I kept the proverbial pen, as it were.
I struggled. I became a writer and journalist. Slowly, I found my way to the larger world.
Over the last 23 years, I have followed the story of Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora closely.
I went to refugee camps in Hong Kong in 1990, and I reported from inside detention centres. I wrote about people who committed suicide when they faced repatriation back to Vietnam in the early ’90s.
I then went back to Vietnam to report on the thaw of the cold war in 1991 and how the country was slowly turning capitalistic. I went to Cambodia to report on the Khmer Rouge giving up arms and joining the Hun Sen government, and on the corruption of the United Nation’s faulty implementation of the election.
I’ve been back to Vietnam and Southeast Asia many times since then. And each time, it’s a new world.
Some years ago, for instance, I went back to Vietnam to participate in a PBS documentary called My Journey Home, and I did the touristy thing: I went to the Cu Chi Tunnel, in Tay Ninh province, bordering Cambodia. It is a complex underground labyrinth in which the Viet Cong hid during the war many years ago.
There were several American vets in their late 60s there – they fought in Vietnam and lost friends. They were back for the first time, and very emotional.
A couple of them cried after they emerged from that visit. One Vietnam vet wept and said that, during the war, he “spent a long time looking for this place and lost friends doing the same.”
Yet the young Vietnamese tour guide, born after the war ended, did not see the past: she had a dream for a cosmopolitan future.
She told me that it was tourism that forced the Vietnamese to dig up the old hideouts.
She crawled through the same tunnel with foreigners routinely, but she emerged with different ideas. Her head is filled with images of the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, two-tiered freeways and Hollywood.
“I have many friends over there now,” she said, her eyes dreamy, reflecting the collective desire of Vietnamese youth. “They invite me to come. I’m saving money for this amazing trip.” If she could, she told me, she would go and study in America.
So there I was, standing at the mouth of the tunnel, and thinking, in the end, there may never be a final conclusion about that war.
There’s the version that we Vietnamese in the diaspora tell, in which the date marks the day we lost a country.
There are plenty of stories of Vietnamese fleeing from oppression as boat people. Tens of thousands more were sent to reeducation camps.
There are stories of young men fleeing from a war in Cambodia, in which the Vietnamese were the imperialists.
And there are, of course, the stories of the American veterans coming back to look at their losses and to make peace with the past.
But here was a young woman, born after the war ended. She looked at a tunnel that was the headquarters of the Vietcong, and what did she see? The Magic Kingdom. The Cu Chi tunnel leads some to the past, surely, but for her, it may well lead to the future.
The Vietnam War was a war with so many sides, and it’s complicated by multiple points of view. In that sense when we talk about Vietnam, we should not simplify, but expand, toward the multitudes, so much so that it becomes the story of people, of human beings rather than some purported metaphor for tragedy.
James Baldwin’s riddle is rhetorical, after all, when he asked in one piercing essay, “Which of us has overcome his past?” He promptly answered with another: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
With due respect, one can chase Baldwin’s grim discernment with N. Scott Momaday’s astute counsel: “Anything is bearable as long as you can make a story out of it.”
The more mature response to one’s tragedy is not hatred, nor resentment, but the spiritual resilience with which one can, again and again, struggle to transcend one’s own biographical limitations. History is trapped in me, indeed, but history is also mine to work out, to disseminate, to discern and appropriate, and to finally transform into aesthetic self-expression.
These days my parents are okay with me being a writer. They are, in fact, very proud. Every time I’d win an award for journalism or fiction, I’d give it to them to put on the mantel of their living room.
My own story is that, through the years, I made my own peace with the past. We lost a great deal, but we survived and we prospered and we thrived, after all.
And though I once lost a country, and I’ve been homeless, and stateless, lost friends and relatives due to war and the subsequent exodus, and though I’ve had my heart broken, I am profoundly grateful and blessed.
Instead of running away from the past, I own it. That is, I learned to bear witness to a constantly shifting world, and found my way in life. The refugee child from a defeated war, through the act of storytelling, slowly found his way to self-liberation.
Andrew Lam first delivered this speech in Ottawa to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Black April Day at an event, "A Journey to Remember: from Vietnam to North America", presented by the Vietnamese Canadian Community of Ottawa and the Vietnamese Canadian Federation. This is a slightly edited and condensed version of the speech.
Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. His latest book, Birds of Paradise Lost, was published March 2013.
How would Canadians feel if July 1 was called Black July Day?
What would happen if fictitious governments that no longer exist–such as the old Saigon regime–continue to be recognized in Canadian legislation?
Bill S-219 is a very troubling precedent. Any unhappy faction can not only celebrate its own private version of right and wrong, in parades and heritage societies and the like, but also in actual legislation.
We understand the importance of recognizing the heritage of ethnic groups in Canada. But Bill S-219 is not about commemorating the exodus of refugees, not about showing appreciation to Canada for accepting them, or acknowledging their contribution to this country. This bill is to get votes for the Conservatives in the upcoming election.
Bill S-219 does not add anything good to the community, and it will continue to divide it. How backward that the bill still has a we-were-victims mentality rather than focusing on moving forward. Furthermore, this bill is an obstacle for Canadians who work in sectors or are interested in promoting Canada’s Global Markets Action Plan, International Education Strategy, or aid effectiveness agenda in Vietnam.
Let’s put Bill S-219 in an international context. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the US normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995. In 2015, the US is ready to build a better relationship with the government of Vietnam. A recent US policy prohibits the flying of the old Saigon flag and singing the old national anthem on federal property.
To the opposite, Canada decided to be friendlier with the old Saigon group, at the risk of upsetting a partner of more than just trade, and the minister of defence has draped the old Saigon symbol around his shoulders at Vietnamese events.
April 30 as a dark day is the view of only a few thousand South Vietnamese who lost their power and privileges. On the other hand, April 30 is North-South reunification day for ordinary Vietnamese-Canadians, including many refugees who arrived in 1979-80 and over 100,000 economic immigrants who landed after 1981, who longed for peace and prosperity.
We agree that the experience of 60,000 boat people from Vietnam and the generosity of Canadian people in accepting them should be acknowledged as part of Canadian history. Refugees would want to remember the date when they are accepted and land in a safe place. The appropriate date of commemoration is July 27 when the first flight landed in Toronto in 1979, and the title should be along the line of an appreciation of Canada by Vietnamese refugees.
Canadians who are interested in freedom and democracy might want to take a look at our community. The few thousand South Vietnamese who fled in 1975 seek to impose their old Saigon political view on the refugees and immigrants who came later. All other voices are suppressed using threats of red-baiting. Members who are not outspoken about their anti-communist view or who have any contact with the government of Vietnam are singled out and labelled “communist.”
But because of Bill S-219, many members who have put up with this old group for so long, now for the first time in 40 years, have mobilized among themselves and become active in their political life.
On April 30, we will celebrate our own journey to freedom day as we understand it. We understand that even in a democratic country like Canada, the Senate can deny opposing views to be heard; that our community has been imposed a political view by a small group for 40 years.
But after 40 years, our journey has reached a critical point to achieve the freedom we look for. We will celebrate this day as the day when we feel free to have our own views, despite the Conservative government’s attempt to take the side of the old Saigon group with this vote-grabbing bill.
Dai Trang Nguyen is a co-founder and director of the Canada-Vietnam Trade Council and a representative of the Canada-Vietnam Association. She is a college professor in international business and international development in Toronto.
This piece originally appeared in Embassy News. Re-published with permission.
by Alice Musabende (@amusabende) in Ottawa
Most North Americans, at least of a certain age, identify the fall of Saigon in April, 1975, with the news footage of Americans being evacuated from the roof of the United States embassy by chopper as North Vietnamese troops claimed the city.
Forty years later, the commemoration of a day that turned the hinge of history 14,000 km away has become a serious irritant between Canada and Vietnam, a partisan flashpoint on Parliament Hill and a source of division within Canada’s Vietnamese community that some observers say is being exploited for votes by the federal Conservatives in an election year.
For the Vietnamese who fled the ravaged country and made their way to Canada after the April 30th, 1975, communist victory, the date is known as “Black April Day.” Which is why Sen. Thanh Hai Ngo’s private member’s bill commemorating the exodus that brought him to Canada in 1975 was originally titled, the “Black April Day Act.”
Then, the current communist government of Vietnam, mindful of much of the Vietnamese diaspora’s before-and-after version of the country’s repressive post-1975 history, protested vehemently to the Harper government. The bill is now called the “Journey to Freedom Act,” and it continues to fuel tension between Ottawa and Hanoi.
But Bill S-219 is also the cause of another rift, between the Conservatives on the one side and the Liberals and NDP on the other. When it was initially tabled in the Senate last fall, some Liberal senators voted against it, though it ended up passing. In the House of Commons last month, Bill S-219 passed first and second reading but not without opposition from MPs recommending that it be referred to committee in the hope that it would be amended.
That is because, soon after the relatively obscure bill, which may have initially looked like a no-brainer, was debated in the House, oppositions MPs such as NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan say they started receiving emails and phone calls from people saying the bill did not represent the views of the whole Vietnamese-Canadian community.
NDP MP Anne Minh-Thu Quach, one of the two Vietnamese-Canadian MPs to ever sit in the House of Commons, explained to iPolitics that the community is generationally divided, mainly between those who left when Saigon fell — including some associated with the old regime — and were welcomed to Canada as “boat people” in the 1970s, and those who’ve come to Canada more recently as students or economic immigrants and maintain ties with the communist state.
As a result, Julie Trang Nguyen, who leads the Canada-Vietnam Association — a group opposed to the bill and in favour of maintaining ties with Vietnam — says that people like her feel ostracized. “You are not supposed to do anything with Vietnam. That is the attitude. Even the flag, when you have an event then it must be the old Saigon flag. If not, they will come and question you on how come you don’t have that flag up there” Nguyen told iPolitics.
Nguyen and other representatives of the association told reporters in a press conference that they felt insulted by the fact that the bill advocated for April 30th as a commemoration date, fully knowing it’s the same day as Liberation Day in Vietnam. They were in Ottawa to ask the House heritage committee, which was studying the bill, to consider an alternative date and to change the wording of the bill to remove references to the war.
MP Anne Minh-Thu Quach, who supported the bill, said she had hoped that the committee would indeed consider dissenting voices, but only two opposing witnesses were heard and no alternative suggestions were deemed acceptable. “It’s regrettable, I find that it’s a bill that divides more than it unites people” Minh-Thu Quach says.
NDP MP Hoang Mai agrees, saying the bill’s benefits are mostly symbolic. “Why is the government bringing something forward when, for example, people in my riding are already celebrating on April 30th?” Mai says that if the government wanted to show real leadership, it could have put forward a bill that addresses human rights in Vietnam. “The way they have brought it forward, I do find divisions within the Vietnamese community” says the NDP MP.
Nguyen, after testifying in committee, said she was disappointed by the manner in which Senator Ngo and his party had dealt with the issue. “By taking this side that is already imposing their view on the rest of the community, in a way the Conservatives are putting a stamp on it, saying this is a view that we endorse.”
Some observers say the bill is a textbook case of targeted political pandering for ethnic votes ahead of what is shaping up to be a close-fought federal election.
Alberta-based political strategist Stephen Carter says, “This is being done in essence to gather support from those people in the first generational subset. It absolutely is being done for votes, there is no other way around it.”
Veteran poll analyst Paul Barber says that, among multiple strategies that parties use to woo ethnic votes is the use of “overarching symbolic things that are connected to their homelands.”
Senator Ngo’s office refuted the accusation that the Senator’s intent with this bill was to play into ethnic politics, and said that he only wanted to have a day to commemorate the Vietnamese boat people’s saga and pay tribute to Canadians who assisted them.
But a former Liberal strategist told iPolitics that this scenario is typical of the Conservatives, who he says have a history of targeting subgroups within larger ethnic communities. “I think of Hong Kong Chinese versus mainland Chinese, I think of Sri Lankans, or people of Indian descent; Conservatives are good at targeting subgroups within immigrant communities.” he says.
Phil Triadafilopoulos, a professor of Political science at the University of Toronto who has researched the Conservative Party of Canada’s “ethnic outreach” strategies, also says that Canada’s electoral system facilitates these types of approaches. “With our electoral system, you don’t need everybody, you just need enough to win. Some of our communities have upward to 40, 50, 60% people who are on board. Never mind second generation.” he says.
As to those who wonder how the Conservative government is threading the thin line between courting communist Vietnam as a trade partner and commemorating those who fled its brutal communist regime, Carter says “You do it very carefully.”
Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca
Top of mind this week: #JeSuisCharlie vs. #IAmBaga + Opinion on the new anti-terrorism bill in Parliament + Pulse of Latin America + a cricket googly, howzzat?
by Jan Wong
My sister worries about my vacation plans, a 10-day tour of Vietnam in the midst of anti-Chinese riots.
To be clear, I booked it weeks ago, before four Chinese workers there were killed and more than a hundred injured. Last week, Beijing sent five ships to evacuate thousands of its nationals.
“Can you cancel your trip?” my sister asked.
I considered begging the Vietnamese travel agency to switch my hefty deposit to a tour of Thailand. But then the Thai army staged a coup and declared martial law.
For now I’m sitting tight. As a journalist, one thing I hate more than race riots is waiting on hold to ask about non-refundable plane tickets.
If I felt like a bowl of pho beef noodles right now, I could drop by a Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto without fear of a race riot, or even a food fight. Heck, the waiter would probably be Chinese.
Nationally, one in five Canadians is born abroad, the highest proportion among G8 countries, according to new data from Statistics Canada. Toronto is 50 percent visible minority and Vancouver is the most Asian city outside of Asia. The latest trends show newcomers choosing to live in smaller cities like Halifax, Winnipeg and Saskatoon.
Canada’s ethnic harmony is as soothing as a warm bath, so normal it surprises only someone like a Canadian violist who has just spent three years in Europe. To protect his career opportunities there, I’ll call him Ahmed Ali.
He was born and raised in Fredericton where he never experienced discrimination. But with his dark skin and Arabic name, he endures unrelenting, soul-destroying discrimination in Vienna and Berlin, cities he calls “Hell on Earth.”
Over tea at my Toronto home last week, he said his German partner was disbelieving until he witnessed incidents for himself. Ali, who is 29 and fluent in German and French, fills out forms at the university library requesting scholarly journals. When it’s time to pick them up, the librarian says, “What form?”
At the German visa office, Ali takes a number and waits several hours. But the clerk always throws his number out — just like that.
Ali says it’s counter-productive to speak to a supervisor. He stoically gets another number — and waits again.
He stays in Europe for the superb musical training, even though his viola teacher sometimes snaps, “We want Austrian intonation, not Arab-Egyptian intonation.”
He’s been mocked for his name during an audition for a German orchestra, where musicians try out in full view of the hiring committee. In Canada, musicians audition anonymously behind a screen, a 40-year practice that has led to significantly more female orchestra players.
To be sure, Canada has racial problems, but they’re mostly unintended slights like micro-aggressions.
Thus we condemn bigotry. This year when the Parti Quebecois tried to prohibit teachers, nurses and doctors from wearing Muslim head scarves and Sikh turbans, it suffered widespread criticism and its worst electoral defeat in a generation.
Vietnam’s xenophobia is rooted in China’s millennium of aggression there, starting in 111 BC. The recent violence came after China positioned an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Rioters also burned factories owned by Taiwanese and South Koreans.
Hanoi’s Communist Party has since cracked down on the unrest, which hurts tourism and investment. So I guess it’s safe to visit. I’m sure the trains are running on time, too.
This piece was originally published in the Chronicle Herald and is re-published with permission from the author.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit