Few government contracts have stood the test of time as well as a simply worded deal between Canada and its people that has not only lasted four decades but continues to bolster the country’s reputation for compassion.
The 11-page sponsorship agreement, signed between Ottawa and the Mennonite Church on March 5, 1979, in response to the “boat people” crisis, became the blueprint for Canada’s private refugee resettlement program that has allowed Canadians to play an active role in helping refugees start a new life here.
“My family and I wouldn’t be here without it,” said Ka Lee-Paine, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came here at age 2 with her family in 1979, among the first wave of people accepted under the private refugee sponsorship program.
“We had complete strangers helping us out. The sponsorship meant I could have a good life, get a great education and be a strong woman,” added the now 42-year-old Kitchener teacher. “Ninety-nine per cent of us do understand how fortunate we are to have made it to Canada and we strive to be productive citizens of this country.”
With the help of groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee serving as guarantors and administrators, Canadians have brought almost 350,000 refugees to Canada by providing the newcomers with at least one year of financial and social support.
Organizations that have sponsorship agreements with the federal government handle applications from individual community groups, who in turn are responsible for raising funds to support the refugees during their first year in the country as well as creating a social network to help them navigate their new lives and find housing and jobs. There are now more than 100 sponsorship agreement holders, mostly faith groups, across Canada.
The mass exodus of Indochinese refugees was sparked by the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. As American soldiers were evacuated from the South Vietnamese capital, Communist troops from the north swept in, hoisting their flags and spreading panic.
Hundreds of thousands of desperate people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fled to neighbouring countries by boat. Many didn’t make it, either drowning at sea or being attacked by pirates. Others ended up languishing for years in overcrowded refugee camps.
In 1978, Ottawa passed a new immigration law with a provision to allow private sponsorships if Canadians would accept full responsibility for the refugees for a year.
But there were no takers, said Mike Molloy, who was director of refugee policies in the Immigration Department at the time.
“Refugee advocates and churches were speaking against it and intimidating others not to get involved. There wasn’t a single sponsorship application coming in,” recalled Molloy, 74, who officially retired from the federal service in 2003.
“The Mennonite Central Committee was a gift. They came to us in late 1978 with a clear altruistic motivation. As a faith community that came here as refugees, they were confident and pragmatic. They played straight with us and we played straight with them.”
Canada had welcomed more than 21,000 Mennonite refugees from Russia in the 1920s and another 8,000 from Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and the community was eager to play a part in helping the boat people, said Bill Janzen, who was tasked by the Mennonite committee with negotiating the deal with Ottawa in 1979.
“Our community was experienced in helping refugees get settled with jobs and a place to live. We had been active with our aid work in Vietnam since 1954. We sympathized with those fleeing from Communist totalitarian regimes,” said Janzen, 75, who was MCC’s office director in Ottawa in 1979.
“It’s human nature to imagine the worst-case scenario and worry about any legal problems, health and financial needs of the people they sponsored. That’s why we decided to step up as an organization for them to fall back on and help them overcome the fear of liability.”
With a mandate from his board to make a deal with the government, Janzen asked for a meeting with senior immigration officials on Feb. 2, 1979. He arrived in Ottawa with a rough outline of what would later turn into the 11-page agreement.
Gordon Barnett, an experienced government negotiator, was Janzen’s counterpart at the bargaining table.
He said one of the sticking points of the negotiation was over the responsibility to provide language classes to privately sponsored refugees.
“It didn’t start out smoothly. Why should the government offer language classes to refugees sponsored by churches? That should be their problem,” recalled Barnett, now 75, who once belonged to a team on the Privy Council tasked with drafting the language rights for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and who retired from the Immigration Department in 1996.
“It was a time when the Indochinese boat people were filling the news and the government was under undue pressure to do something. We were negotiating with the Mennonites and they were so willing to help. We met a few more times and the deal was signed within weeks.”
The agreement laid out the eligibility of who could be a sponsor and the criteria to be sponsored, as well as the sponsorship process, roles and responsibilities — with Ottawa ultimately agreeing to pick up the tab for language training.
The Mennonite agreement inspired groups such as the Presbyterian Church of Canada and Council of Christian Reformed Churches to follow suit. By August 1979, 28 national church organizations as well as Catholic and Anglican dioceses were on board.
By the end of that year, 5,456 private sponsorships had been received for 29,169 refugees, surpassing the 21,000 goal set by the government.
In the end, Canada would roll out the welcome mat to 60,000 Indochinese refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s, half of them through private sponsorships.
“When I look back on my career, this agreement with the Mennonites was something I really felt good about. At the end, we had a really well-negotiated document because what we negotiated was fair,” said Barnett.
“I thought when the Indochinese refugee crisis was over, the agreement would become a historical document. I never thought it would go on forever. I’m just amazed that it stood the test of time and is still useful to this day.”
Brian Dyck, the Mennonite committee’s current national migration and resettlement program co-ordinator, said the private sponsorship program is unique in that it allows Canadians to be hands-on in helping refugees.
“You have a broad range of people in the community who bring together their social capital to the process. This has helped build Canadians’ awareness of refugee issues over the last 40 years,” said Dyck. “It helps build social cohesion and instills a stronger sense of volunteerism in Canadians.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung