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.
This was such an emotional time for all entire crew. These people had been through so much and had to leave virtually everything behind. We wanted to help in any way we could so we brought them as many clothes and personal items as we could. They were sincerely appreciative and thankful. Such warm people. I remember one sweet lady who was fascinated with my watch. I couldn’t but give it to her. It was if she had just won the lottery. We corresponded a couple of times and then sadly lost touch.
These amazing families treated the row of seats they occupied as though it was their new home in Canada. They were so clean and tidy and were so warm and tender with each other.
The children were so sweet. They were constantly offering to help us serve food or clean up. The babies were so beautiful we couldn’t help taking pictures of them. We took many children (and adults) to the cockpit. The cockpit crew patiently showed them all the switches and gauges. They were so thrilled and fascinated with it all.
Many women told us about the horrible experiences they had endured and of friends and relatives they would most likely never see again. There were happy stories too like that of a pair of newlyweds.
We had to change crews in Tokyo as a new crew would take the plane on to Canada. This was a very emotional time for them and us. We were their first Canadian contact and I guess we had bonded with them. I remember this photo because there were tears from all of us as we got off the plane as they all gathered at the door to say goodbye.
We brought one group to Edmonton and it was below zero. Most of them did not have suitable warm clothes so we wrapped them in all the Air Canada blankets we had on board. The buses were waiting for them on the tarmac. I think the pictures tell it all.
While still filled with the beautiful emotions of the experience, I had a rather unfortunate experience with Customs upon arrival in Vancouver.
The customs officer asked me where I was coming from and I told him we were bringing Vietnamese refugees to Canada. He replied rather contemptuously, “I’ll bet the airplane was a pig sty”. I told him on the contrary; they were so neat and tidy and if he wanted to see a pig sty to come and see some of our other flights. I said further he would be amazed to see how these folk treated their seat areas and how respectful they were. I guess he did not like my answer so my baggage was checked that day.
That episode stayed with me and I hoped so much that these wonderful people would not experience such ugly prejudice.
Written by Viviane Lacoste from Vancouver, Canada.