While “Laotian” is used in this article, the usual adjectival form is “Lao”, not “Laotian”. However, to avoid confusion with the Lao ethnic group, “Laotian” is commonly used to describe the people of Laos.
The history of the southeast Asian nations of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are both shared and unique. Events in one nation often spilled across mutual borders, affecting people throughout the region, as was the case with the Vietnam War. In addition, all three countries have been influenced by outside nations such as France and China. At the same time, each country consists of different peoples and cultures. For example, while Laotians and Cambodians are predominantly Buddhist, Vietnamese traditionally hold a mixture of Confucian and Taoist beliefs. Moreover, each country has large ethnic minorities living within its borders. For this reason, it is best to treat each nation as individual. However, when it comes to exploring the history of immigration to Canada, the three nations share more similarities than they do differences.
Immigration from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to Canada is a modern occurrence. The first southeast Asians to journey across the Pacific were Vietnamese students in the 1950s. These students were awarded scholarships by the Roman Catholic Church. Due to France’s long involvement in Vietnam, many Vietnamese spoke French; consequently; most of these students chose to study in Quebec. While some returned home, many continued to live in Canada upon graduating. Until 1975, scholarship students (some also won scholarships through the Colombo Plan) made up the small stream of immigrants from southeast Asia.
The year 1975 was important in the histories of all three southeast Asian nations. It was in that year that Communist parties gained control of all three countries. After years of fighting with first France, then the United States, the Communist North Vietnamese finally took control of South Vietnam. In the same year, Laos’ monarchy was overthrown by Communist forces and the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, led by the despotic Pol Pot.
These dramatic changes led to widespread migration from all three nations. As it became obvious that South Vietnam would soon fall, the first immigrants left during the first half of 1975. Many South Vietnamese fled, fearing punishment for having been affiliated with the American government. These immigrants fell into two groups: (1) businessmen and government officials and (2) younger students and military personnel. These immigrants fled not only to Canada but also to the United States, France, and Australia. Of those who settled in Canada, the majority chose Quebec because of their proficiency in French. These immigrants’ settlement was assisted by both Canadian and provincial governments and by the small numbers of established Vietnamese. Support systems, combined with the immigrant’s language skills and education, meant that southeast Asians adapted well to life in Canada.
The next wave of immigrants came from all three countries. These people would become known as the “boat people.” The change in governments in Laos and Cambodia also caused massive migration and displacement.
In Laos, many of the skilled and educated population fled, fearing persecution and a poor economy. In 1977, the number of people fleeing Laos increased even more as the result of a drought.
In Cambodia, the desperation was even more acute. Three days after capturing Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire city. This forced evacuation was duplicated across the country in all the major cities as the government moved people into farming the land as part of a larger goal of completely overturning Cambodian society. People escaped to neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand, driven by terror and knowing that remaining in Cambodia would likely mean death, either by starvation or at the hands of Pol Pot’s henchmen. During the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, a total of 1.7 million Cambodians (out of a total population of 7.1 million — almost a quarter of the population) lost their lives. Another wave of refugees fled Cambodia in 1979 after Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge and replaced them with leaders dependent on Vietnam.
While the members of Vietnam’s communist government were not as brutal as their Cambodian counterparts, policies of nationalization turned the country’s economy upside-down. Hardest hit were the ethnic Chinese who, in addition to having their businesses nationalized, were discriminated against because of their ethnicity. Many of the Chinese population left the country; they were joined by an even larger number of native Vietnamese.
It is these people who gained fame as the “boat people”: they left Vietnam in rickety, overcrowded ships. They sailed for Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, and many lost their lives along the way. In these countries, they were placed in refugee camps, some overseen by the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Although these people’s harrowing boat journeys brought them world-wide media attention, many people from Cambodia and Laos left on foot. These refugees ended up in Thailand — again in refugee camps.
From these camps, the refugees were selected for permanent immigration to various countries, including Canada. Canada’s commitment to the refugees stemmed from several sources:
1. Many Canadians felt great sympathy for the “boat people” and the terrible hardships they were enduring.
2. There were those in the Canadian government who wished to upstage the United States and the United Kingdom.
3. Government ministers were haunted by memories of Canada’s refusal to allow Jewish immigrants in their time of need prior to and during World War II.
The culmination of these factors was the Immigration Act of 1976. This act contained a unique provision that allowed for the private sponsorship of refugees. Charities, non-profit organizations, or groups of five individual adult citizens could sponsor a refugee family by providing family members with a place to stay, finding them employment, or enrolling them in studies, and by becoming financially responsible for their needs for up to one year. The Canadian government announced it would match the number of private sponsorships. However, the number of private sponsorships announced was so overwhelming that the Canadian government was unable to match it one for one.
The sponsorship program was aimed predominantly at those arriving from Vietnam. Cambodians and Laotians were seen as temporary residents who would eventually return to their native countries. As such, the same sort of energy invested in assisting the Vietnamese was not invested in helping all three groups, and Cambodians and Laotians had to rely on private sponsorships.
Compared to the earlier Vietnamese immigrants, the newer wave of refugees (from all three countries) had a harder time adapting to life in Canada. Many were uneducated and spoke little of either official language. Because of a lack of government support, the Cambodian and Laotian refugees had the hardest time adapting to life in Canada. The majority of their difficulties were tied to problems finding employment. Those most likely to find work were the young and those who spoke English. Of these, most refugees found work in factories, in restaurants, and in other unskilled jobs.
Between 1979 and 1980, over 70,000 refugees from southeast Asia entered Canada. Of these, there were 58,000 from Vietnam, 7,700 from Laos, and 7,000 from Cambodia. Originally, these refugees dispersed among the different provinces on the basis of population. For example, British Columbia accounted for 12 percent of Canada’s population; thus, 12 percent of the refugees were placed there.
This distribution did not last. Many immigrants placed in smaller centres gravitated toward larger cities where immigrant communities were already established. This led to an uneven distribution of immigrants: most Cambodians moved to Montreal, while Vancouver became home to mainly Vietnamese immigrants and Toronto became home to both Vietnamese and Laotians.
Employment also played a role in cross-Canada migration. Centres in which there were jobs teneded to attract the recent immigrants. Edmonton and Calgary both saw increased numbers of immigrants as a result.
The wave of immigrants known as the boat people ended in 1981; however, this did not signal the end of southeast Asian immigration. The period from 1982 to 1991 became known as the “continuous flow wave”. Many of the immigrants from this wave arrived not through a classification as refugees, but rather, through the family-reunification part of Canada’s immigration policy. The numbers of immigrants arriving dropped after 1991 as economies in southeast Asia began to improve.
Today in Alberta, most southeast Asian immigrants live in Calgary and Edmonton. Of the three nationalities, Vietnamese make up the largest group and account for over 90 percent of Alberta’s Southeast Asian population. All three groups promote their cultures through celebrations of their food, dance, and costumes. These celebrations take place cultural organizations, celebrations of traditional holidays, or participatiion in Edmonton’s Heritage Festival.
Beiser, Morton. Strangers at the Gate: The ‘Boat Peoples’s’ First Ten Years in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Dorais, Louis-Jacques. The Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese in Canada. Translated by Eileen Reardon. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 2000.
Palmer, Howard, and Tamara Palmer, eds. Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.
Multicultural Canada: Vietnamese
Multicultural Canada: Cambodians/Khmer
Multicultural Canada: Lao
BBC Country profile: Cambodia
BBC Country profile: Laos
BBC Country profile: Vietnam
Edmonton Heritage Festival