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Scattered across the world, the Boat People shaped unknown and alien places, into their new homes. Hear their stories of adjusting to their new surroundings.

Air Canada Airlift: Sigrun Cowan

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.

A Coat
Of all the stories generated by the Vietnamese Refugee Charters, here is a favorite encounter from my own experiences.

We had ferried a DC-8 aircraft from Vancouver to Tokyo and since we had no passengers and knew that the Vietnamese refugees had little or no luggage or warm clothing, we organized and collected appropriate clothing. I had noticed the young children in flips-flops and pyjamas on previous flights. This particular flight was headed  to Edmonton... and winter was approaching.

After the meal service, we filled the rear galley with children’s clothing and the front  gallery with items for the adults. Both galleys looked like a bazaar! We invited the  female passengers to pick out something.

I had brought along a very warm wool coat that I had originally bought for Montreal winters, but since living in Vancouver, I no longer wore it. I decided it should go to somebody ‘special’ so I found a middle-aged woman sitting in a middle seat half-way through the cabin.

I approached her and asked her to follow me to the front of the aircraft. Initially she did not want to move, but I insisted. Only later did I realize that after all she had been through, she was very apprehensive about being singled out for some reason.

I brought her into the galley, closed the curtain and gave her the coat. At first she did not know what to do. Using sign language and smiles, I convinced her that this now was her coat. She now smiled broadly, opened the curtain and like a runway model, strolled  back into the cabin. As she made her way back to her seat, she stopped and posed so others could feel the coat. Returning to her own seat, she sat down keeping that coat on for the rest of the journey.

It was an experience I’ll never forget as I will forever cherish that look of pure happiness on her face. I often think of her and wonder if she stayed in Edmonton. Perhaps she still has the coat!

The Story of David
Following a layover in Tokyo, our crew picked up the in-bound charter flight. As the In-Charge, I was informed that one of the refugees spoke English very well and could act as an interpreter during our flight to Canada. David Lam introduced himself and proceeded to translate all my announcements, as well as interacting with the passengers when needed.  He made my job on that particular flight much easier.

Prior to landing in Edmonton, I gave him my home address and asked him to stay in  touch. Not knowing where he would be living, David promised to contact me in the future.

A few months later, I received my first letter from David. He was now living in a small  town outside of Halifax, but was not happy in Nova Scotia. His intent was to relocate to Toronto, where his mother and sister had moved from Hong Kong. Over the years, whenever in Toronto on a lay-over, I would visit the family.  All were working at several jobs and appeared to be happily settled into the Canadian way of life. During these visits, the family was always so hospitable and introduced me to Vietnamese cuisine.

In 1984, my husband and I received an invitation to David’s wedding.  His bride-to-be was from the U.S.A. While we happily accepted the invitation, my biggest dilemma was what to give the young couple for a wedding present!  My husband suggested that we ask Air Canada if we could purchase the large model of the DC-8 aircraft on display in our local office. Air Canada agreed.  

The gift was appropriately wrapped and we set out for the wedding. The wedding was a large one, but we were made welcome as the families were so gracious to their Canadian guests.  Our gift was soon opened and admired by all. David appeared to be thrilled with this memory of his initial journey to Canada on a DC-8. He assured us it would occupy a place of honor in his home.

My last Christmas card from David was posted from San Bernadino, California, where he now works as a successful real estate agent. This young man has made a very good life for his family by being given a second chance in Canada.

Written by Air Canada In-Charge Flight Attendant Sigrun Cowan.