Conference explores how Canada welcomed thousands of ‘Boat People’


TORONTO, Nov. 14, 2013 − As refugees continue to crowd onto tiny, unseaworthy ships to seek asylum in many parts of the world, a major conference at York University will examine how, in 1979, Canada’s government, churches and private citizens stepped up to offer shelter to 60,000 “boat people” and other Indochinese refugees from remote camps in South East Asia.

The Canadian Immigration Historical Society (CIHS) and York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies will mark the Centre’s 25th anniversary with an examination of this unique resettlement program.

Entitled “The Indochinese Refugee Movement 1975-80 and the Launch of Canada’s Private Refugee Sponsorship Program”, the conference takes place at York University from November 21 to 23, 2013. Canadian and international experts on this period, a well as refugees and private citizens who were directly involved, will offer their perspectives.

The conference will highlight Canada’s decisions to resettle Indochinese refugees through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, said York University Professor Emeritus Howard Adelman. Adelman is a founder of Operation Lifeline, Canada's largest civil society response to the Indochinese Refugee movement, and established the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, which grew out of a project that focused on collecting documents related to the Indochinese refugee movement.

“This was one of the most significant refugee resettlement efforts in Canada’s history, and a unique effort with unprecedented levels of citizen participation. More than 7000 groups of Canadians helped to sponsor refugees in this period,” says Adelman.

CIHS president Michael Molloy said to tell the story, the conference will look at the reaction of faith communities, the Canadian public at large and the media to the dramatic refugee flow that reached crisis proportions in the summer of 1979.

“Conference delegates will examine the policy debates that preoccupied elected leaders at all levels of government and the operational challenges involved in moving so many refugees from remote camps to communities across Canada,” says Molloy.  “Equally important, we will capture the work of the private citizens and government officials in Canada who helped these refugees re-establish their lives in a very different country. And, we will hear from former refugees and their descendants about their arrival and subsequent integration into the Canadian family.”

Keynote speakers at the conference include: The Honourable Thanh Hai Ngo, Canadian Senator; Udo Janz, Director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Office in New York; and Vincent Lam, Surgeon, and award winning author.

This conference is part of a broader initiative that examines the historic significance and contemporary relevance of this time period. The broader initiative includes other events, a story telling project, academic publications and a future multimedia website.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada provided financial support for the conference.


The Canadian Immigration Historical Society was founded in 1986 to support, encourage and promote research in the history of Canadian Immigration and to foster the collection and dissemination of that history and further the understanding of immigration on Canada’s development and position in the world. CIHS publishes a Bulletin of historical articles and memoirs three times a year, presents an annual prize for the best university term paper on immigration history, and maintains a web site with a growing collection of historical materials.

The Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) originally began as a documentation centre in 1981 largely in response to the Indo-Chinese Refugee Program. It was chartered in 1988 as the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. It engages in research on refugee issues to inform public discussion as well as policy development and practice innovation by international, governmental, advocacy and service organizations. It also supports teaching in refugee and migration studies. This conference marks its 25 anniversary.

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