A bill introduced in the Canadian Senate to commemorate the struggle that began for refugees on the day Vietnam fell to the communists is generating friction between Hanoi and Ottawa. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has written directly to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to register his concern over the measure, which would declare April 30 an official day to observe the exodus of South Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Dung warned in his letter that the bill presents a distorted version of Vietnam’s history and could damage the bilateral relations both countries have worked to build. The letter was provided to the Privy Council Office and delivered to the Canadian Embassy in Hanoi in December.
The bill was first introduced in April last year by Sen. Thanh Hai Ngo, a 68-year-old Conservative Party lawmaker as “Black April Day” the term the refugees use for South Vietnam’s capitulation. The measure’s name was changed to the “Journey to Freedom Act” and the language was moderated to make it somewhat more palatable. It is now before the House of Commons Canadian Heritage Committee for study after its second reading
The measure is causing waves at a time when Ottawa is seeking to improve its economic relationship with Vietnam. The government has named Vietnam a priority investment target and is seeking to become a partner in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement now under review.
Although of faint consequence to Canadians, the bill, however symbolic should it come to pass, carries with it great meaning for the 60,000-odd Vietnamese who now live in Canada. It would designate the day each year as a day to remember the journey of Vietnamese refugees following the fall of Saigon. Ngo himself is a former officer in the Vietnamese army who fled Vietnam as the country collapsed.. He is the first Canadian of Vietnamese descent to serve in the Canadian upper house.
The bill is not, nor has it been proposed to be, a holiday. Its language has been softened to the point where it is not an attempt to condemn anyone or any government. It is, if nothing else, a day on the calendar to reflect on events that, however tragic the circumstances, gave birth to Canada’s small but thriving Vietnamese community. Its proponents say it is a day to recognize the generosity of Canada but most especially those Canadians who opened their hearts and doors to so many Vietnamese refugees – an act of humanitarianism that today has largely been forgotten save for those whose lives were touched.
Much has been said and written on the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Yet, due perhaps to the unsavory nature of the conflict, there is little understanding of the consequences faced by South Vietnamese citizens in the wake of their country’s capitulation to North Vietnam. From political persecutions to re-education camps to famine, those who had opposed the North Vietnamese regime during the war faced a bleak future should they remain behind.
The bill apparently has stalled. Ngo, in a prepared statement, said that the Liberal Party, by refusing to support it, “has given into pressure from a foreign government – namely that of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – rather than listen to the voices of Canada’s Vietnamese community.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Government of Vietnam desires that the past remain where it belongs. This opposition is expected and should not come as a surprise. Whereas April 30 is sometimes recognized as Black April Day by those who fled the Communist regime, it is celebrated in Vietnam as the day on which their country was unified.
Today, Vietnam is a vibrant and youthful nation with great potential. It is, of course, far from perfect. Democracy remains out of reach and individual freedoms are limited. Nevertheless, the people are warm and friendly, and the country is beautiful. History, however, should not be left to the victors.
The experience of Vietnamese refugees differs sharply from those who had supported the other side. While the winners can look forward to enjoying their victory, those who lost were forced to gather their bearings and rebuild their lives. The bill won’t rewrite history or return South Vietnam to those who once called it home. It will, however, recognize that a people’s suffering did not end with the war.
It is with the passage of time that first generation Vietnamese-Canadians have grown and found their footing in Canadian society. Difficult though it may have been, the sacrifice and hard work of first generation Vietnamese-Canadians have established the foundations for their children and grandchildren to succeed, thrive, and enjoy benefits their parents and grandparents did not and could not enjoy. Yet, none of this would have been possible without the unfailing kindness of Canadians.
In much the same way as the contribution of Canadians towards the cause of refugees was recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1986 through the award of the Nansen Refugee Award, the Journey to Freedom Act speaks to all Canadians and not only those of Vietnamese descent. The measure would honor the sacrifice of the Vietnamese refugees and people of Canada. This is, indeed, a day for commemoration, remembrance and gratitude.
Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.