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.
Working as a crew member on what we called "The Boat People Charters" was without a doubt one of the highlights of my 32 year career as a flight attendant with Air Canada. Not only did I get to visit some amazing places like Tokyo, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, I also got to meet some of the most wonderful people.
As Canadians we are so fortunate. We have never been told to leave our country simply because we were born here. This was, however, the fate of many my passengers in the early 80's. I remember being struck by how little they had as they walked on board my aircraft with the clothes on their backs and a very small bag given to them by the Red Cross. That was it. That was all they owned. There were doctors, lawyers, university professors, professional people of all kinds who had been driven out of their country of birth simply because they got caught up in a war that did not make sense. But then again - when does war ever make sense.
As cabin crew I am not sure we knew what we were going to experience. The layover points were all important as we are all addicted travelers. None of us appreciated how we would be affected by the stories we were told. I remember listening to one gentleman tell me that he had to sit back and do nothing as he watched his wife being raped by the Thai fishermen on the boat they used to escape.
Another lady recounted how they could only throw the bodies of their deceased family members over board as there was no other method of burial. At the end of one flight my colleague and I were standing across the aisle from one another saying goodbye and as we looked up we both realized we were crying. On a flight to Edmonton we looked after a lady who was catatonic. We tried to find someone among the passengers who could communicate with her but our efforts were in vain. In those days, international flights were always met by a doctor in Edmonton and our flight was no exception. I remember being so relieved when we opened the aircraft door and our favorite Doc was standing there to clear the passengers. He took our lady by the hand and I knew she would be looked after. Once again I realized I had tears in my eyes. I think I remember the children most of all. Small hesitant faces with the most beautiful eyes. On one flight I was in the aisle serving meals. I was down on my haunches getting a tray from one of those hideous DC 8 meal trolleys and I realized that a lovely little girl who was sitting in the aisle seat was ever so gently running her fingers up and down my arm to feel my arm hair. She had never seen anything like that. On another flight we were tidying the cabin for landing. All of the kids wanted to help so we explained how they could pick up pillows and blankets. Before we knew it blankets were being whisked away from sleeping passengers and pillows were being brought into the galleys. They were picking up minuscule pieces of paper from the floor so that by the time we landed the aircraft was spotless with little left for the cleaning crew.
Very early on in the process we realized that our passengers needed clothing that would prepare them in some small way for the harsh weather conditions in places like Edmonton and Winnipeg. We were after all operating these flight in the middle of a Canadian winter. So the word went out to our colleagues and we started collecting winter clothing. Hats, gloves, scarves, coats, anything we thought would be helpful. We would pack them into large boxes and load them into the cargo hold of the empty aircraft we used to get to our pickup point and then bring these huge boxes of clothing into the main cabin of the aircraft for the trip to Canada where they would be opened and the contents would be distributed to our passengers. To this day I am not sure if they knew at the time how necessary our "gifts" were but I like to think they were grateful when they got to their destination and realized how cold it was. Last year I went to Vietnam and Cambodia and I got to see firsthand where my passengers came from. Things are of course quite different now but it gave me pause to think about those trips in the 80's when I got to be an ambassador for Canada.
I will remember it always and can only hope that I provided a warm welcome.
Story by: Air Canada Flight Attendant Barbara Dunn, Vancouver, Canada.