The story behind the world’s first private refugee sponsorship program

Published in The Conversation on December 11, 2019

Forty years ago, an estimated three million Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese people fled their homes following the Indochina wars. Hundreds of thousands died. Many suffered brutal repression. Many languished in refugee camps for years.

Eventually, more than 200,000 Southeast Asian refugees arrived in Canada between the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was the first time that the Canadian government applied its new program for private sponsorship of refugees — through which more than half of the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees who came to Canada during this period were admitted.

The Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCC-ON) recently hosted an ecumenical commemoration of this anniversary to recognize the leadership provided by churches and their relief and development organizations. It also celebrated how this migration of Southeast Asian refugees changed Canada for the better. Those fleeing violence and repression for safety and freedom energized the Canadian churches and ecumenical organizations.

In his recent book, Journeys to Justice, Joe Gunn, the former executive director of Citizen’s for Public Justice, observed, “Right up into the 20th century, Canadian immigration policy has been decidedly racist. Until the 1970s, Canada had not undertaken a large-scale sponsorship of non-European refugees.” The scale of immigration changed in the 1970s.