In June 1979, Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar, met with officials of the Department of Manpower and Immigration and leaders from a cross-section of community groups, and pledged that she would mobilize the the city to bring in 4000 Vietnamese refugees to Ottawa, a campaign that later gained national attention as “Project 4000”. Her pledge later earned the support of the entire City Council.
But even before Project 4000 began, Ottawa had, the previous November, already seen the arrival of several Cantonese-speaking families. They were part of 2,500 predominantly ethnic Chinese “boat people” trapped on the boat “Hai Hong” that was anchored outside Port Klang in Malaysia. The boat was experiencing engine problem; food and water was running out. Malaysia, which at that time had already received 61,000 Vietnamese refugees into its refugee camps, absolutely refused to allow any passengers to land, thus creating a huge international humanitarian crisis. Canada was one of several Western countries that came to the aid by agreeing to take 600 refugees from the boat. Due to the urgency of the refugees’ plight, the normal immigration processing was bypassed. These 600 refugees would eventually be dispersed to communities across the country. Some families arrived in Ottawa and were temporarily housed in a local hotel downtown.
At the time our agency, the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre (OCCSC), a tiny ethnic community service organization newly created only a few years before, was called upon by the local office of the Department of Manpower and Immigration to assist in the settlement of the refugees because our two workers and the refugees spoke the same language. We made contact with the families; they felt completely lost and had no idea what was going to happen to them. This first contact with Vietnamese refugees, in retrospect, led the way to the eventual active participation in Project 4000 by the Chinese community in Ottawa.
Responding to the mayor’s call for private sponsorship, community groups in the Chinese community including some local churches immediately jumped into action by forming sponsor groups. There was general consensus that OCCSC would play a central role in assisting the sponsored refugees once they arrived in Ottawa. OCCSC, along with other community groups, also formed a sponsor group and began fundraising efforts. In the end, a total of 7 Cantonese-speaking refugee families came to Ottawa as a result of this community wide sponsorship effort.
In the meantime, Project 4000 succeeded in bringing in more refugees than its original target. OCCSC’s two workers were kept busy throughout the 1980’s because the federal government decided to sponsor more Vietnamese by matching one-for-one every refugee brought in by private sponsor groups. By 1980, the federal government decided to raise the quota to 60,000.
Fast forward to 2016, Canada was challenged once again by the magnitude of the Syrian refugees tragedy. Canadians from across the country passionately responded to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appeal to lend a helping hand. OCCSC again took on the challenge by launching our Services for Syrian Refugees Program (SSRP). Before we even received any government funding, we managed to recruit several Arabic-speaking volunteers to work alongside our settlement workers in the delivery of settlement service at our downtown office. These early efforts have demonstrated to IRCC both our ability and commitment to engage and integrate Syrian refugees into the Ottawa community as successfully as we did back in the 1980’s. Currently, we have created two satellite service locations in the city to help Syrian refugees who have settled in two Ottawa neighborhoods.