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The Hearts of Freedom Gala

The Hearts of Freedom Gala

The 30th Anniversary of the People of Canada’s Nansen Award.

June 5, 2016 at the Canadian Museum of History

The Reception and Exhibition

With the sponsorship of the Canadian Museum of History, the Vietnamese Canadian Federation, the Cambodian Association of the Ottawa Valley and the Laotian Association of the Ottawa Valley have collaborated to organize an evening gala to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the award of the Nansen Medal to the people of Canada by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The event was attended by prominent personalities in the Government of Canada, leaders of  religious, of non-profit organizations and humanitarian groups active in helping the Southeast Asian refugees settlement of the 1980s, some of those organizations are still active today in helping the refugees from around the world find a safe haven in Canadian society.

The Medal is named after the first High Commissioner of Refugees at the League of Nations, now the United Nations, Fridtjof Nansen, and is awarded each year to a person or persons of outstanding service to the cause of refugees. In 1986, it was the first and only time the Medal was awarded to the people of a country, Canada, for their exemplary role of people to people aid and for their inspiring heart to heart action in assisting Boat People refugees.

The Organizing Committee of this Anniversary celebration is proud to mention that the gala event was co-organized, for the first time, by three groups of Southeast Asia refugees, namely, the Vietnamese Canadian Federation with the active support of the Vietnamese Canadian Community of Ottawa, the Cambodian Association of Ottawa Valley and the Laotian Association of Ottawa Valley, to thank the Canadians who came to their rescue in the most difficult moment of their lives. The Organizing Committee of the Anniversary celebration event  had an Advisory Board which included two important members who played key roles in the implementation and success of the resettlement of the Boat People refugees in Canada: Dr. Howard Adelman, Professor Emeritus at York University and Founder of Operation Lifeline and Mr. Michael J. Molloy, presently President of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society, formerly the Coordinator of the Indochinese Refugee Resettlement Program for the Canadian Government .

The Gala event opened with a reception for invited guests who were treated to delicacies of Canada, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam while reminiscing about the actions of 30 years ago. The distinguished guests and the representatives of the invited organizations viewed the Nansen Medal on loan from the Governor General Office and exhibited in the River View Salon of the Canadian Museum of History. They also viewed poignant photo exhibits selected from private collections of former sponsors, community organizations, faith groups, refugees themselves to illustrate the kindness and compassion of the Canadian people for the Southeast Asian refugees. The photos showed the difficult journey of the refugees in their search for freedom: from the mass exodus to life in the refugees camps and their arrival in their adopted country. As well, the faces and successes of the second and third generation show how kindness and hope have helped the Southeast Asian refugees contribute to the richness and pluralism of Canadian society.  Among the numerous and generous groups offering precious assistance, the following groups were instrumental in the rescue and resettlement operations: the Mennonite Central Committee, the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, Project 4000, the Ottawa Community Immigration Services Organization, Operation Lifeline, Air Canada Airlift Operations, the UN Commission for Refugees, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Canada. and the Department of External Affairs

Greetings from special guests

Mr. Adrian Harewood, Anchor of CBC News Ottawa, was the host for the evening gala and the cultural concert with Ms. Ngoc Vo as the French speaking hostess. They had the honour to introduce the Executive Committee members of the Vietnamese Canadian Federation (VCF): Dr. Tri Dinh Hoang, President,  and Ms. Tuyet Lam, VP of External Affairs, Mr. Darren Touch, President of the Cambodian Association of the Ottawa Valley, and Mr. Siphay Boulommavong, President of the Laotian Association of Ottawa Valley.

After the welcoming remarks made by Mr. Mark O”Neill, Dr. Tri Hoang, Mr. Darren Touch and Mr. Siphay Boulommavong, Ms. Anita Biguzs, Deputy Minister of Immigration  of Canada, and Mr. Furio de Angelis, Representative of UN High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke about the refugees crisis facing the governments today, in particular, the Syrian refugees. Knowing that all over Canada, Vietnamese-Canadians have reaching out in many ways to help Syrian newcomers is gratifying and shows that history is repeating itself and everything goes in full circle. Ms Else Kieven, deputy head of mission of the Norway Embassy, also spoke about her country’s humanitarian values, personified by Mr Nansen, a humanist in whose honor the medal is named.

Senator Thanh Hai Ngo and MP Anne Minh-Thu Quach also greeted the audience. Their life experience and personal stories and values are reflected by their current work in office, made possible by the openness of the Canadian society and its people.

The Keynote Speakers

After viewing a video on the Southeast Asian Refugees and Canada’s response, Mr. Michael Molloy, President of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society was introduced as the host for the keynote speakers.

Mr. Molloy had a long career as a diplomat in the Canadian government. Prior to his posting as Canadian Ambassador in Jordan, he was instrumental in carrying out complex policies adopted by Canada to solve world refugees’ problems. Quite a speaker in his own right, Mr. Molloy captivated his audience by retelling his own experience at various times when he was assigned monumental tasks with limited resources and short staff. He worked closely with the Immigration Ministers of Canada during the time of the Southeast Asian refugee crisis: Hon. Ron Atkey, and Hon. Barbara McDougall, who are two of the keynote speakers for this evening’s gala.

Hon. Ron Atkey recounted his challenging days as Minister of Employment and Immigration in the Government of Prime Minister Joe Clark. This was the time when the Indochinese refugee movement was beginning to become a human tragedy because it was the fist time in modern history that mass exodus was done by high seas with enormous life risks for those who undertook the journey in search of freedom. Canada was taking steps to do its part to alleviate the refugee problems and minimize the loss of human lives at sea. Hon. Ron Atkey delivered a very emotional presentation in recalling his work as Minister of Immigration.

Hon. Barbara McDougall also spoke about the challenges she had as Minister of Immigration, ten years after Mr. Atkey. This was the time when the refugees camps in Asia were overflowed, the living conditions in those camps were intolerably below acceptable standards, and most of the countries accepting refugees were over fatigued, and there was still a very large number of refugees awaiting for a country to accept. Hon. McDougall recounted moments when she worked with Mr. Molloy to take care of the backlog of refugees in the camps upon her return of an inspection trip to a refugee camp in HongKong. Ms. McDougall showed a lot of compassion in her work as Minister of Immigration and she let her audience see through her recounted feelings that she shared passionately the aspirations of the refugees for a better life.

Prof. Howard Adelman, the third keynote speaker and founder of Operation Lifeline, was inspirational to the Vietnamese community in Toronto. His ideas, his thoughts and his actions spoke a lot about Canada accepting a good share of Southeast Asians refugees through private sponsorship organizations.

During the height of the influx of Southeast Asian Boat People admitted to Canada and arriving in Ottawa, three persons, played key roles in the smooth integration of the refugees to their new life in Ottawa. These three outstanding persons were Barbara Gamble of Project 4000, now with Refugee 613, Pat Marshall of Ottawa-Carleton Immigrant Services, and later on as UNHCR resettlement Officer and Bill Jansen, formerly Ottawa Office Director of Mennonite Central Committee. The audience had the privilege to hear these three persons interviewed by Adrian Harewood. They told how they became involved with the refugees and how satisfying they were for being able to help the new arrivals find housing, work, medical care and school for children; adjust to new customs in Ottawa, to help them rebuild their life in Canada’s capital city.

The event was very emotional for the invited guests, the speakers, the general public, the former sponsors who are mostly old today. For many of the event attendees it was a reunion after more than twenty-five or thirty years.

Some voices of the young generation

A video entitled Voices of the Next Generation was shown. It was produced by a young Vietnamese Canadian showing how the next generation of young Vietnamese Canadians in their early twenties cope with the two cultures of their life: the western mainstream culture of their academic and professional life, and the eastern culture of the upbringing by their parents. It is a struggle of values and customs which the younger generation will adjust to and adapt as it sees fit depending on each individual circumstance.

Musical Concert and Traditional Dances presented by the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian Communities

A musical and cultural performance closed the gala. Mr. Duc-Thanh Pham, a Vietnamese world-renown musician played the monochord instrument with adaptation to jazz and to other modern styles of music to the delight and surprise of the guests. The audience also get introduced to the beauty and grace of the traditional Cambodian and Laotian dances, as well as a group performance of classical Cambodian music.  The evening ended at 9:30pm, and many in the audience were delighted by this unique event and its meaning to both the Canadian and their Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian friends.