Vietnamese Refugees in Canada

Thursday, May 14, 2015
Vietnamese refugees known as “boat people” arriving in Hong Kong, 1979. After the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese fled their country by boat. Hundreds of thousands perished at sea in deadly storms and from diseases and starvation.

“I was ten and the older brother that escaped with me was eleven. The two of us were put on a boat with 20 other people.… We were at sea for 11 days. On the second day of our escape we ran into a pirate ship. [The pirates] took all of our fuel, jewelry, and food containers. We were left to drift at sea for nine days [until] we were rescued by the Macau Coastguard.”1   

Canh Bui’s experience leaving Vietnam was similar to that of the hundreds of thousands who fled the country beginning in 1975. That was the year Communist North Vietnam entered Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, and marked the end of the war between both states. As the Communist government established its rule in the southern part of Vietnam, former citizens of the Republic of Vietnam (also known as South Vietnam) were expected to conform to Communist values. For Bui’s parents, being business owners made them de facto capitalists which led to continual harassment and arrest. The problems the Bui family experienced under Communist rule led to the decision that the sons needed to leave the country for a chance at better opportunities elsewhere. Arrangements were made for the brothers to escape Vietnam. After the boat that Bui and his brother sailed on was rescued, they were processed as refugees in Macau and placed in a refugee camp.2 

Portrait of Canh Bui. Photo: CMHR.


At the conclusion of the war, Canada allowed 5,608 Vietnamese refugees into the country.3   However, the refugee crisis worsened in the following years.  In some cases, countries in Southeast Asia were unable to care for more refugees while others refused to take more Vietnamese citizens fleeing a Communist government.4  In 1979, the Canadian government agreed to admit another 8,000 Vietnamese into Canada but public pressure began to mount and Canadian religious organizations, citizen groups, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began to lobby the federal government to do more.5  


Boy happily running down the stairs of a plane.
A boy from Vietnam landing in Edmonton, 1979. Refugees known as “boat people” fled the Communist regime after the Vietnam War. Canada took in more than 100,000 of them. Photo: The Canadian Press, photograph by Bill Brennan


In July 1979, Prime Minister Joe Clark promised that Canada would admit an additional 50,000 refugees by the end of the following year.6 The government plan proposed that Canada would match each privately sponsored refugee. Churches, groups of five or more Canadian citizens, and other NGOs could participate in this private sponsorship scheme.7  

The Bui brothers were fortunate to be sponsored by a family living in Ontario and arrived in Toronto in December 1982. Their experience with their host family was very positive. As Bui stated, “I think my brother and I were ready to have a family and to have parents, and it felt comfortable for us.” Eventually, members of Bui’s family would come to Canada. Bui and his brother would spend the school year with their host family and summers with their immediate family. Bui would later attend university and receive a business degree while his brother went into medicine.8           

Between 1975 and 1992, over 100,000 Vietnamese refugees were admitted into Canada.9  The Vietnamese refugee story is one of the stories explored within the Canadian Journeys gallery of the Museum, in the alcove entitled “Who Gets In: Refugee Experiences at Canada’s Gates.”


1  Canh Bui, Personal interview, 24 Nov. 2011.
2  Bui interview, 2011.
3  Louis-Jacques Dorais, “Vietnamese Communities in Canada, France and Denmark,” Journal of Refugee Studies 11.2 (1998): 109.
4  Michel Mignot, “Refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, 1973-1993” The Cambridge Survey of World Migration, ed. Robin Cohen (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1995) 453.
5  Ninette Kelley and Michael Treblicock, The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010) 398.
6  Valarie Knowles, Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977 (Ottawa: Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2000), 8 May 2015
7  Nghia M. Vo, The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975-1992 (London: McFarland & Co., 2006) 179.
8  Bui interview, 2011.
9  Vo 179.