Black April in Canada

By Thy Phu Posted June 8, 2015

Figure 1  Gratitude on display at the Thank You Canada Gala organized by the Vietnamese Association of Toronto, April 12, 2015. Author's collection.

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The Vietnamese Association of Toronto holds frequent gatherings for its community members who have settled across this sprawling megacity. But the most recent event, “Thank you Canada,” was no ordinary fête.

“Thank you Canada” marked Black April, a day commemorating the end of the war in Viet Nam, on April 30th, 1975, in a big way. The event was held on Saturday, April 12th, 2015, at a banquet hall in a nondescript strip mall in Scarborough, one of many that cluster this scrappy working-class suburb of Toronto Canada. For the refugees and VIPs in attendance, this day, the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, was special.

Uniformed policemen guarded the entrance with polite attention. The men wore carefully pressed suits, the women tightly fitted outfits, or, more often, ao dai, the elegant traditional Vietnamese dresses reserved for special occasions. (In my go-to outfit of blazer over skinny jeans, I felt out of place. My signature style of casual dressiness, which has served so well at other work functions and should have been appropriate for the community event I had been told to expect, just wouldn’t cut it here.) Adorned on the walls of the restaurant were black-and-white photos documenting the journey of Vietnamese boat people to Canada. They led a trail to a stage where the flag of the fallen Republic of Vietnam, cheerful crimson stripes against a bright yellow background, stood sentry next to the iconic national maple leaf. 

Figure 2. Photographs of the second wave of refugees, who arrived in Canada during the Indochinese humanitarian crisis in the late 1970s through to the 1980s. Author's collection, April 12, 2015.                                                                                  

  

Although prominent refugees such as Phan Thi Kim Phuc (the so-called “girl in the picture”) and a well-known Operation Babylift orphan where in attendance, they were not the VIPs. This honor was reserved for the politicians, who stood out, white men in dark suits adorned with scarves bearing the colors of the fallen Republic of Vietnam flag. Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Alexander, drew the loudest applause. He had reason to smile.

Alexander had recently authorized the visas of 105 refugees, who had been stranded and stateless in Thailand for twenty-five years. One of these families landed at Pearson International Airport on Saturday, November 15th, 2014, where they were greeted with much fanfare by the Vietnamese community.

The Conservative Party, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s leadership, has drawn fire from critics for recent changes to immigration policy that have have been less than welcoming to refugees, instead favoring wealthy applicants. But if any detractors were in the banquet hall that night, whatever criticism they might have voiced were drowned by an effusive tide of declarations: “Thank you,” the emcee shouted. The audience roared, “Canada!”

The VIPs basked in the attention, this call-and-response staged for the politicians’ benefit. It was an election year, and such a spotlight on the sitting conservative government likely earned them votes that night, never mind that the hard work of advocacy and sponsorship was done by the Vietnamese community itself. For its part, the Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship had only approved the visas.

After his address, Minister Alexander moved from table-to-table, glad-handing group after group, making sure to pause at the group next to mine. This was where the refugees from Thailand were sitting. It was a photo-op that no savvy politician would miss.

Figure 3. Chris Alexander poses with recently arrived refugees, who had been stranded and stateless in Thailand. Unknown photographer, April 12, 2015.

If you look closely, you can, almost but not quite, see me in the background, equivocal witness to this scene of welcome and gratitude. However, the photograph records a direct visual exchange between the state and its newly minted subjects. What it does not show are the networks that join this group of refugees with an older generation, which had done so much to bring these newest community members to Canada, not to mention the connections and disconnections between these varied refugee stories. Welcome and gratitude are gestures and expressions that, for all their toothy sincerety, tidy up a mess of feelings that bind these groups together.