This article is supported through Junior Research Fellowship by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. The article is first appeared on iAffairs.
Canada’s Bill S-219, which came into effect in April 2015, was met with both cheers and boos among members of the country’s Vietnamese community. According to the Bill, April 30 will now be celebrated as national “Journey to Freedom Day” to respect “the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and their acceptance in Canada after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.”
While Hanoi refers to April 30 as “Reunification Day,” when the North and South were unified, many in Canada’s 220,000-strong Vietnamese community, comprised predominantly of South Vietnamese refugees from the war, remember the date as “the Fall of Saigon,” “Black April,” and a “National Day of Shame.”
Perceptions of insensitivity in Canada have not been limited to Acts of government. In 2014, a group of Vietnameseprotested against the City of Ottawa’s decision to fly the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam at Ottawa City Hall. But the demographics of Vietnamese immigrants in Canada are changing, leading to a growing divergence within the Vietnamese community on such issues.
The Bitter Past in the 1980s: The Arrival of 600,000 Vietnamese Refugees
“A lot of [Vietnamese] international students are raised in North Vietnam, whereas many Vietnamese people here are South Vietnamese – the politics is different,” explains Vicky Mai, president of the Vietnamese Student Society at the University of B.C.. Both Mai’s father and her grandfather fought in the war on the side of South Vietnam before her family immigrated to Canada during the second Vietnamese migration wave in the 1980s.
As of January 1, 1975, only 1,500 persons of Vietnamese ancestry were living in Canada, mainly in the province of Quebec. Then, two waves of immigrants arrived in Canada in less than a decade. Unlike the first wave in the mid-1970s, which was dominated by highly educated urban professionals who already had family members in Canada, the second wave was marked by a massive movement of refugees out of South Vietnam beginning in 1979. Between 1979 and 1982, hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese — later known as “boat people” – fled the country frantically via dangerous sea voyages to countries abroad. An estimated one-third of the refugees, amounting to at least half a million people, who escaped by boat, did not survive the journey.
Mai’s father is one of the lucky to have survived. Despite being chased by Thai pirate boats and being captured by the Viet Cong, he finally reached Canada, in September 1985, after spending months on a 70-person-capacity boat with 120 other people.
By the end of this stage in the second wave, Canada had accepted nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, many with stories not unlike that of Mai’s family.
The Changing Present: A Slowing and Changing Wave of Vietnamese Immigration
The once fairly homogeneous Vietnamese community subsequently began to change, for two reasons. The first was due to changes in Vietnamese immigration trends. While the high rate of immigration continued through the 1980s, a period when the Canadian government encouraged family reunification, the migration wave slowed down in the 1990s. And secondly, since 1995, fewer than 5,000 Vietnamese a year have entered Canada, with many of them arriving as international students.
“Some international students come here and feel homesick. We try to nurture a sense of community, to find common grounds that Vietnamese either born here or come from Vietnam can be active in,” says Mai, adding that with more Vietnamese born and raised in North Vietnam arriving in Canada, misunderstandings and tensions happen from time to time.
Born in a family with bitter military experience during the war, Mai worked hard to convince her father to let her even join UBC’s Vietnamese Student Society. “My father threatened to disown me when I first joined the club because there were North Vietnamese in it. But our goal is to bring all the Vietnamese students together. That’s why our club is apolitical,” says Mai.
This apolitical-ness, however, constitutes yet another factor dividing the local Vietnamese community.
Today, Vietnam itself still elicits a strong sense of bitterness, if not resentment, among established Vietnamese immigrants and their offspring. But while the memories of poverty and chaos in their homeland continue to haunt many of Vietnamese expats, the country itself is drastically different from the dilapidated nation they left behind decades ago. With growing consumerism and a rising middle class, cities in Vietnam emit a sense of dynamic potential just like other developing Asian economies.
In 2014, Vietnam was Apple’s fastest-growing market, with iPhone sales in the first half of the fiscal year tripling, outpacing growth rates in other markets like India and China. Vietnam also has one the most active web populations in Southeast Asia. In January 2014, 20 million Vietnamese users were on Facebook, with an increase rate of one million new users per month. Popular western chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s are now nearly as ubiquitous in major cities as they are in other countries.
This meteoritic economic growth has turned the once war-wounded Vietnam into an attraction. While many of their forbearers came as students and decided to stay in Canada in the early 1970s, young Vietnamese today tend to go back to their country for internships, employment, and other business opportunities. To some, like Mai, the war has long been over and the anniversary should be celebrated in a way that talks “about the future, not the past anymore.”
“A lot of the clashes with the community are not cultural or about whether they fit in with the society. It’s about ideology,” says Mai. Having spent three years in the Vietnamese Student Association, she now wants to get more involved in Vietnamese advocacy groups that can exert some policy influence within Canada.
Forty years after the war, the Vietnamese remain conflicted, with some haunted by the past and others asking to move on. While Canada is looking to engage economically with Hanoi, how to mingle with these groups with diverging ideologies and priorities is an inescapable issue for the country.