Air Canada Vancouver-based crews were assigned to airlift Vietnamese refugees from various points in South-East Asia to major Canadian cities in 1979-1980. This refugee resettlement program would become one of Canada’s largest and most ambitious, bringing over 50,000 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ to our shores and throughout the country.
Trying to remember 40 years ago, my first flight to Kuala Lumpur. We were so excited to be able to fly there and ferry a flight to that part of the world. What to encounter - we knew relatively little about the Vietnamese boat people except that they escaped from their homeland by boat and ended up in a refugee camp. Our first set set of passengers - we were surprised how many young children there were. Most of them had been split up and only the wife with children, or an Uncle with his sister's children, and so on. Very few were couples. I remember counting 30 babies on laps. The amazing thing was they never cried and they were such sweet children. To our amazement all they had a small Red Cross bag and that was their worldly possession; coming on an Air Canada flight to start their new life in Canada and now Saskatchewan of all places, coming from a tropical paradise.
We were so traumatized by these poor refugees that we realized we had to something more than just work the flight. For our next encounter, the whole crew went around their neighbourhood and gathered donated clothes of good quality! We realized that they would be going into winter, so we collected hats, gloves, pajamas, shirts and shoes. My husband who is 6 ft 2" - I raided some of his golf shirts and sweaters as I did see the odd tall Vietnamese. I loved seeing them on the next flight in his clothes.
The next flight was out of Singapore. We loaded the aircraft with bags of clothes and locked them into the washrooms so they would not get stolen. On that flight I was in charge of all the children. I collected them into the back galley. It was so much fun fitting the children for hats, gloves and pajamas. I remember one little guy wearing his pajamas back to his seat and getting off the airplane with them on. Years later he must have thought what was she thinking? We finally coaxed one mother who had three children to come into the front galley, as we had only one full winter coat.
You could see she was so scared and wondering what we were going to do. Finally, she put on the coat. It fit beautifully and we thought she would sit down as she was in the first row of the DC8. Oh no she paraded that coat up and down the aisle so everyone could see her treasure! I remember Sigrun Cowan (In Charge) had brought that coat.
We all cried when they got off the aircraft. It was such a heart-warming experience in all our years of flying and will never forget their anxious looks on their faces when we landed in Canada. What a sight it must have been as I had the pleasure visiting Vietnam years later; can only imagine the culture shock, of climate, food and strange people in a new land. It will be interesting to read in the museum how these people fared in their new life and experiencing their first winter in Canada, learning English and new customs, as I was an immigrant myself but coming from Europe it was not quite as dramatic. But having said that, as a child, one adapts a lot better than an adult in a strange country and learning English at an early age.
I have often wondered what happened to our passengers and their new life in Canada. It will be fabulous to read all the experiences and now a lot of those babies are adults and they have made themselves a good life in a new country.
Story by Air Canada Flight Attendant Monika Hilson from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.