It was July 19, 1999, four months after Nunavut was declared Canada’s newest territory, and Jean Chrétien was prime minister. A boat arrived on the coast of B.C. from Fujian, China, the first of four that summer that brought a total of 599 migrants without documentation. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the arrival of those four boats, which sparked a national debate on immigration and refugee policy.
Passengers disembarked from each ship expecting to plant their feet on U.S. soil, the intended destination, where some had family members waiting. Others had different reasons for escaping their home country, including economic, social and political pressures, and religious persecution.
“A lot of them thought that North America glittered with gold, that if you come here, you get rich,” says author and community activist Lily Chow, who acted as an interpreter at the migrants’ refugee hearings.
The ships never made it past B.C. shores, a shock only second to the conditions found on board: no toilets, showers or beds, little food and water and absolutely no personal space. But they had already agreed to pay tens of thousands of dollars to the smugglers, also known as “snakeheads” in China. In a CBC fifth estate documentary, a former RCMP officer –
on the scene after the second boat’s arrival – recounted sights and smells worse than a sewer. On top of the unpleasant conditions, upon arrival most of the migrants were incarcerated.
Rough conditions but high hopes
Michael Lin was among the five per cent to eventually receive refugee status. He was 17 years old when he arrived and avoided jail here due to his status as a minor. The eldest of four children to farmer parents with little money, Lin left his family in Fujian in search of opportunities to help them.
“I just remember it [was] hard,” said Lin in a phone interview. “But it’s okay, it’s old past.”
Lin owed more than US$63,000 to the snakeheads, which he worked to pay off in his first seven years in B.C. These days, he spends most of his time working as co-owner of a granite and stone business in Port Coquitlam. He is also reunited with his whole family, who are now in Canada.
“Yeah, it’s better, way more better,” says Lin of his life today compared to when he first arrived in B.C.
Thousands of people arrive in the country every year requesting refugee status, but when the Canadian public heard about the boat migrants, the general reaction was not one of welcome. Criticism around immigration law, joined with fears that Canada could become a doormat for illegal entry, spurred newspaper headlines like “Go Home” in Victoria’s Times Colonist.
Waves of controversy
On the other hand, some advocates spoke up for the migrants as victims of human trafficking. Proponents of refugee rights also continue to disapprove of the government’s practice of criminalizing and detaining refugee claimants.
Chow was president of the Prince George Chinese Benevolent Association when she was contacted by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada to act as an interpreter at refugee hearings. For some migrants, the process took up to two years. Chow says that hearing the case for one refugee would take more than ten sessions. “You have got to phone the immigration in Beijing to find out their backgrounds and Beijing has got to phone the village. Sometimes we directly phoned the parents [of the migrants]. It’s a very involving procedure,” explains Chow.
Chow also worked as a cultural consultant with 200 migrants kept at a correctional centre in Prince George (the rest were split between other facilities). She facilitated activities such as arts and crafts, organized celebrations of the Chinese Moon Festival and Chinese New Year, and coordinated religious services.
“There were language differences, cultural differences, so there was a lot of conflict and misunderstanding,” she says.
“The times I felt overwhelmed was when I saw those migrants suffering mentally, emotionally,” says Chow, who recalls verbal abuse between the migrants themselves and from the correction officers, some of whom she reported for poor conduct.
Officials also brought in a psychologist, says Chow. Given that a young Fujianese woman had committed suicide in the correctional centre, this was a clear need.
She adds, “Because of the stressful situations on both sides, actually the government was very humane. They realized it was a cultural thing that was in conflict so they [knew] that they needed to consult Chinese people because [the migrants] are Chinese cultural persons.”