By: Khanh Vu Duc

A bill introduced in the Canadian Senate to commemorate the struggle that began for refugees on the day Vietnam fell to the communists is generating friction between Hanoi and Ottawa. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has written directly to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to register his concern over the measure, which would declare April 30 an official day to observe the exodus of South Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Dung warned in his letter that the bill presents a distorted version of Vietnam’s history and could damage the bilateral relations both countries have worked to build. The letter was provided to the Privy Council Office and delivered to the Canadian Embassy in Hanoi in December.

The bill was first introduced in April last year by Sen. Thanh Hai Ngo, a 68-year-old Conservative Party lawmaker as “Black April Day” the term the refugees use for South Vietnam’s capitulation. The measure’s name was changed to the “Journey to Freedom Act” and the language was moderated to make it somewhat more palatable.  It is now before the House of Commons Canadian Heritage Committee for study after its second reading

The measure is causing waves at a time when Ottawa is seeking to improve its economic relationship with Vietnam.  The government has named Vietnam a priority investment target and is seeking to become a partner in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement now under review.

Although of faint consequence to Canadians, the bill, however symbolic should it come to pass, carries with it great meaning for the 60,000-odd Vietnamese who now live in Canada.  It would designate the day each year as a day to remember the journey of Vietnamese refugees following the fall of Saigon. Ngo himself is a former officer in the Vietnamese army who fled Vietnam as the country collapsed.. He is the first Canadian of Vietnamese descent to serve in the Canadian upper house.

The bill is not, nor has it been proposed to be, a holiday. Its language has been softened to the point where it is not an attempt to condemn anyone or any government. It is, if nothing else, a day on the calendar to reflect on events that, however tragic the circumstances, gave birth to Canada’s small but thriving Vietnamese community. Its proponents say it is a day to recognize the generosity of Canada but most especially those Canadians who opened their hearts and doors to so many Vietnamese refugees – an act of humanitarianism that today has largely been forgotten save for those whose lives were touched.

Much has been said and written on the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Yet, due perhaps to the unsavory nature of the conflict, there is little understanding of the consequences faced by South Vietnamese citizens in the wake of their country’s capitulation to North Vietnam. From political persecutions to re-education camps to famine, those who had opposed the North Vietnamese regime during the war faced a bleak future should they remain behind.