2nd Session, 41st Parliament,
Volume 149, Issue 57

Wednesday, May 7, 2014
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

Black April Day Bill

Second Reading—Debate Continued

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Ngo, seconded by the Honourable Senator Ogilvie, for the second reading of 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.

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, I rise to speak about Bill S-219, the Black April Day act. I would like to thank Senator Ngo for tabling this bill. I’m certain there are many in the Vietnamese community who would like to thank him, as well, so thank you, Senator Ngo.

For the Vietnamese communities around the world, Black April Day is one of the most significant days of their collective history. It recognizes the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the takeover of South Vietnam by the North, and the beginning of the mass exodus of millions of Vietnamese people from their beloved homeland.

During this exodus, many Vietnamese were forced to leave their homeland, and by any means necessary. Sadly, this meant the use of overcrowded, poorly constructed boats.

At the time, approximately 840,000 Vietnamese who fled became known as “Vietnamese boat people” because of their use of those dangerous boats. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that at least 215,000 people lost their lives at sea in the desperate attempt to flee Vietnam. Many died by drowning, illness and starvation. In other cases, boats were hijacked by pirates, their passengers kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Senator Ngo has stated several stories about the suffering of the Vietnamese boat people. I would like to tell you one that really struck me. It is the story of a girl named Thuy Trang Lai. She writes:

I was 11 years old when I fled my homeland in a frenetic whirlwind of madness, confusion, and fear. What I recall most vividly was a sudden devastating realisation that my mother wasn’t coming with me.

She stayed to look after the rest of the family. She could afford only to send one of her children out of the country, and I was the eldest. But no one had told me any of this — I had no idea I was leaving. It wasn’t until the moment when my seventeen-year-old cousin grabbed me by the hand and the two of us ran off that I had any inkling my life was about to change. It was a moment that has me in tears even to this day.

I have tried to block out the horrors of that boat trip during the first terrible seventy-two hours. The South China Sea is merciless at the best of times, and it was as though our boat would be swallowed at any moment. I clutched at my stomach to keep the vomit down. I held desperately onto my knees and shut my eyes tight to stop myself from thinking too much about my mother.

But there was one thing I couldn’t block out. A dream, a particular dream. How I cried when I awoke from it! It was the hard damp timber I had been sleeping on that woke me. Then I would feel the tears pour from my eyes, down my cheeks and into the hands that desperately craved to reach out to my mother. In the dream I was drinking lemonade Mum would make at home and, as always, she was there beside me.

It felt so real, and it was so beautiful that it turned into a real nightmare when I woke. In that sad moment I remembered how her arms would reach out for me whenever I needed her, and I cried until I ached.

The boat cut a sad figure on the furious sea. The half- broken vessel carried the weight of hundreds of people and their heavy hearts. We had to sit on top of each other, and couldn’t even see our own arms and legs. Babies who resembled rag dolls howled day and night as people twenty years older than I was cried for their mothers too.

I was constantly shivering from being drenched in seawater, but at least it washed other people’s vomit off me.

As the days passed, the boat began to stink of desperation. All around me were the hungry bodies and haunted faces of people deteriorating before my eleven-year- old eyes. The cramped conditions make it hard for us to move even an inch, so we often sat in the same position for days on end. It was as if Death visited me more times than I could count on one shivering hand.

Honourable senators, to be a refugee is one of the most difficult trials a person can face. There is an overwhelming helplessness that you feel when you are in the hands of the good will of the international community. I thank Canada and the policies of Prime Minister Trudeau which allowed my family and me to find a home here in Canada in 1975.

It was around that time when Senator Ngo also arrived in Canada as a refugee.

Those of us who have been refugees share an unspoken bond. We are acutely aware of the varying levels of suffering that each refugee undergoes. Some of us, through sheer chance, were put in a position where a country welcomed us with open arms, such as Canada. We are the lucky ones. Others were forced to spend their time in refugee camps or roam from one country to the next hoping that they would be accepted or, at the very least, allowed to remain in humane conditions.

For those of us, like Senator Ngo and myself, who were fortunate enough to have a country such as Canada accept us, we know that it could have very well been us on that boat or in a refugee camp. We could still be in a refugee camp.

It is because of this understanding that Senator Ngo, you senators and I work hard to raise the awareness of the plight of refugees around the world.

Recognizing April 30 as Black April Day is a recognition of Canada’s acceptance of 137,000 Vietnamese refugees between 1976 and 1991.

In particular, it is recognition of the Canadian families, religious groups, charitable groups and the non-governmental organizations that sponsored an estimated 34,000 Vietnamese refugees to come to Canada. It is also an acknowledgment of the suffering that many Vietnamese refugees, like the 11-year-old Thuy Trang Lai, underwent during their exodus or a boat ordeal.

Honourable senators, Bill S-219 is an important bill, not only for the Vietnamese community in Canada, but for anyone who has suffered the loss of one’s beloved homeland and had to endure the status of refugee. It is for this reason that I would urge honourable senators to speak in favour of Bill S-219 and eventually vote for it.

(On motion of Senator Martin, debate adjourned.)