The Boat People
By Sharon Bala
McClelland & Stewart, 2018
Reviewed by Deborah Mebude
The Boat People is inspired by the untold stories of hundreds of Tamil refugees who arrived on British Columbia’s coast in 2009 and 2010. It depicts the tension between the slow pace of government protocols and the urgent needs of refugees in search of protection. Though a work of fiction, Bala weaves together a strikingly realistic portrayal of the difficult process of refugee determination. The novel sparks timely and difficult questions about how countries must balance their national interests with the greater international responsibility to provide support to refugees.
When Canada is confronted with a boatful of migrants, the story dives into the minds of government decision-makers, legal professionals, Canadians, and the refugees who find themselves waiting in detention, at the mercy of the bureaucratic process. Bala presents a complex and nuanced story ripe with emotion, suspense, and gravity. She expertly draws attention to the ills of the Japanese internment to show that Canada has not always gotten it right in regard to foreigners. Later, Bala uses the Underground Railroad to explain how allowing outsiders into the country can absolutely be a morally upright decision.
With this book, Bala seems to hold up a mirror to the present day and invite each of us to connect deeply with the lives of those in search of protection, reflect on the past, and envision the type of Canada we want in the future. With lives at stake, we cannot afford to get it wrong.