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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: Leslie Nelson

Written by: Air Canada Flight Attendant Leslie Nelson, Vancouver BC.

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. 

Louise's phone call last week, and the sound of her voice, opened a flood of memories that had been safely put on a shelf marked “special times”.

These trips to Asia were far more than that for me and I will try to recall why.

I had never been to the far East, and so this seemed very exciting. We would be gone longer than any previous flights, and being together as a crew in a far more intimate way. We would be more dependent on each other, and represent not only Air Canada, but the country of Canada.

The fun of deadheading on another airline into Tokyo and staying in a wonderful Japanese hotel, tasting sushi, taking in the excitement of a crowded street which moved ballet-like. Even the “ring ring” of bicycle bells was musical.

My first introduction to the passengers, who would become my fellow Canadians, was one of the most moving and emotional experiences of my life, and remains active. The sense of hope and optimism was always evident to me in spite of family separation, no personal possessions, and no way of knowing what was in store for them in their new country. This was not to be a “try it on for size” visit to Canada, but a commitment to the offer of a new home.

Many people, especially the children, had never seen a Caucasian. Blue eyes and blond hair were frightening for a while, until a smile and a hug replaced fear. Such bravery, in the face of family left behind, without knowing if they would be seen again.

My fellow crew mates have described their personal experiences, and these can all be threaded together to form a very powerful story. We all had very private moments to reflect on the events we shared.

I think the most powerful was appreciating what being a Canadian meant to me. I really did not relate to being a “newcomer”, as I was a fourth generation Canadian on both sides of my family. My fellow crew members – “family”, experienced such raw emotion, as they knew what it felt like to be an immigrant. Looking different, not speaking the language and having nothing look familiar. It shook them to their core, and only when they were comforted by our passengers, upon departure,did it really hit home.

This is what Canada is. People caring and sharing each other.