Syrian Refugees Now and South Asian Refugees Then: Marion Dewar and the Legacy of Project 4000

By Deborah Gorham

In the biggest refugee crisis in decades, four and a half million Syrians have fled the civil war in their country.   As I write, the refugees from the Syrian civil war have become a continuing media event.   We can see refugees drowning; refugees boarding trains, or being prevented from boarding trains.  We see victims starving in Madaya, a besieged Syrian community near the Lebanese border.

Our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to bring 25,00 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015.  The number of refugees entering Canada has fallen far short of that promise.    Still, many Canadians believe the government is doing its best and they were proud when Prime Minister Trudeau met the first arrivals at Toronto airport.  “Welcome to Canada…You’re home now,” he said.

Almost 40 years ago, the world faced another refugee crisis.  After the Vietnam War ended, and Saigon fell, three million Southeast Asians fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.  The mayor of Ottawa was then the staunch progressive, Marion Dewar.  She launched Project 4000, one of the most ambitious local initiatives in Canada to resettle displaced people fleeing Vietnam.

Dewar’s aim was to bring 4000 Southeast Asian refugees to Ottawa.  As the leading voice for Project 4000, Marion Dewar displayed courage and compassion, as well as energy and skill.   She sponsored a rally held on July 12, 1979  at Lansdowne Park.   Three thousand enthusiastic people attended, and the rally ended with an inspiring speech by the mayor herself.  Many of those present volunteered to help.    Ottawa came close to the mayor’s target of 4,000 and per capita the city took in more refugees than any other Canadian community.  Canada took in 60,000 refugees.  Per capita, this was more than any other host country.

With Project 4000 Mayor Dewar meant to do more than rescue the boat people.  It was part of her wider effort to create a more open and caring civic culture.  She spoke out vehemently and often about the plight of the refugees, about the benefit they would bring to Ottawa and Canada, and about tolerance and the importance of diversity.

 Canada’s 1976 Immigration Act allowed for private as well as government sponsorship of immigrants.   In 1979 and 1980, many of the refugees who came to Ottawa were privately sponsored by non-sectarian groups and religious communities.    In the present Syrian refugee crisis, private sponsorship remains important.    Readers of Active History will be well informed about the refugee project sponsored by the University of Victoria.  Here in Ottawa, private sponsorship groups are playing an important role in aiding the Syrian refugees.    Some, like Refugee 613, are secular.  Some are associated with religious congregations.  There is one, for example, sponsored by the Jewish Reform Congregation, Temple Israel.  (I know about this one, because I am involved with it.)  Privately sponsored refugees, it is said, do better than those brought here solely by the federal government.

But there are disquieting signs.  In November 2015, a mosque in Peterborough Ontario was torched.   In a debate held shortly before the Federal election, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair vigorously defended the right of Zunera Ishaq to wear the niquab when taking her oath of citizenship.  It is said that he lost votes in Quebec because he took this stand.  Moreover, since the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13th, polls suggest that a majority of Canadians have come to disapprove of the government’s refugee policy.

Immigrants who are not “old stock”—to use ex-Prime Minister Harper’s unfortunate phrase—have made Canada more tolerant, more interesting and more genuinely diverse.  But fear of “the other” continues to play a major role in Canada today, as it did in the past. Today in North America ”the other” is most likely to be an Arab and a Muslim and is feared as a possible terrorist. In the 1970s and 1980s, many Canadians were hostile to the South-East Asians. One such opponent wrote to Mayor Dewar asserting  that “these people are not our people and they are not our responsibility.” Mayor Dewar’s son Paul, MP for Ottawa-Centre from 2006-2015, remembers hate calls made to his mother at home.

The refugee crisis is not going to end soon.  The Syrian civil war continues, and peace is not in sight.  But the fickle media may lose interest.  The tragedy of deaths, dislocation and starvation will continue even if it fades out of the news.


Deborah Gorham is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of History, Carleton University. Her most recent study, entitled Marion Dewar: A Life, will be published by Second Story Press as a Feminist History Society book in fall, 2016.

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