Vietnamese immigration to Canada after 1978

Vietnamese refugees in 1979 © Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / e999901782-u

For the Week of Monday, November 15, 2021.

On November 15, 1978, the Government of Québec announced it would resettle roughly 200 of the 2,500 Vietnamese refugees aboard the vessel Hai Hong, which had lost one of its engines and was drifting towards Malaysia. 

Canada admitted increasing numbers of refugees and displaced persons after the Second World War: roughly 187,000 adults and children fled devastated Europe for Canada between 1947 and 1952, including Holocaust survivors and former prisoners of war. However, refugees were not a clearly defined class of immigrants under the law until 1976. That year, the federal government passed a new Immigration Act, which exempted refugees from the points system—a means of determining the eligibility of potential immigrants according to such measures as education, language, and age. The Act further required that federal immigration policy, rules, and regulations must reflect certain objectives, including the need “to fulfill Canada’s international legal obligations with respect to refugees and to uphold its humanitarian tradition with respect to the displaced and the persecuted.”

The withdrawal of American forces marked the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The Canadian government’s response was minimal, agreeing to a request from the United States to accept South East Asian refugees in American resettlement camps who had family in Canada. Between 1975 and 1978, there were local skirmishes, economic problems, and a major crop failure in Vietnam, to which Canada responded by shipping 100,000 tons of wheat. In 1978, Vietnam’s relationship with its large ethnic-Chinese community deteriorated and an exodus began by mid-year. Several large freighters left Vietnam, carrying fleeing Vietnamese passengers who made the perilous journey to seek asylum in neighbouring countries. One of those vessels, the Hai Hong, captured the world’s attention and shaped public opinion in Canada.

French-language newspapers in Canada published the harrowing story of the Hai Hong. The Government of Québec responded to the plight by offering to accept roughly 200 passengers from Malaysia by invoking the Cullen-Couture Agreement of 1978, which had granted the province some authority in their selection of immigrants. The Canadian government admitted another 400 passengers, bringing the total to approximately 600. The remainder received offers of resettlement from other countries.

Thus began a refugee settlement program that still stands as one of Canada’s largest and best remembered refugee programs. It marked the first time that private sponsorships by volunteer groups played a role in admitting refugees. Between the program’s start in 1979 and its end in 1997, Canada accepted approximately 163,000 refugees from all over Vietnam, who were admitted entirely on a humanitarian basis.

Immigration to Canada is a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

May is Asian Heritage Month. Learn more about Asian Canadian histories by exploring articles in our online archives about the Early Chinese Cemeteries in Victoria, British Columbia, Vietnamese immigration to Canada after 1978, and The Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple.