From 1975 to 1979, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (also known as the Khmer Rouge) was the ruling party in Cambodia. During this period, state atrocities and genocide had been committed throughout the Cambodian population. Approximately 1.7 million Cambodians died during this era due to executions, starvation, and disease. Large numbers were killed and buried in numerous sites which are known today as the Killing Fields.
In December 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia which led thousands of Cambodians to seek safety and food by crossing the Thai-Cambodian border. Sa Kaeo Refugee Camp was the first organized relief camp by the Royal Thai Government with support from the international relief agencies. Media exposure of the dead and dying refugees at Sa Kaeo led to international aid and sponsors to assist the refugees.
Marion Dewar, mayor of Ottawa during this period, launched the Project 4,000. The intended aim was to sponsor 4,000 Vietnamese refugees into Ottawa. Dewar’s initiative to arrange meetings with both private and public groups led to the rallying of thousands in support for Project 4,000. Project 4,000 was set up in several cities assisting Canadians in forming sponsor groups. Dewar’s commitment in rallying for the Vietnamese refugees sparked the awareness of the humanitarian crisis not only in Vietnam but also in Cambodia and Laos.
“It stuck in my mind: 4,000. We’ve got almost 400,000 in Ottawa. Surely we can handle that. Then I thought, I better get to the community.” – Marion Dewar
In July 1979, the government responded with a policy which raised the quota for South East Asian refugees to 50,000, introducing the one-to-one matching formula of sponsorship between the privately and government sponsored refugees. By January 1980, the number of sponsorship groups grew to 5,000.
The unified actions of these compassionate groups and governmental policies have provided families from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos “the gift of freedom.” Since 1979, over 200,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have immigrated into Canada.
From a project to initially sponsor 4,000 Vietnamese into the City of Ottawa has become a contributory factor in the sponsorship of more than 4,000 Vietnamese, as well, welcoming Cambodian and Laotian refugees to not only the capital city but to cities across Canada.
The legacy and power of sponsorship continues on, as seen during the Kosovo crisis.
“As a group of human beings we really rose to a level of excellence that we don’t usually challenge ourselves to achieve.” - Marion Dewar
From the Cambodian Association of Ottawa-Valley, we would like to thank all the sponsorship groups and government officials whom gave us the greatest gift of all, the gift of freedom.
- Neuwirth, Gertrud, and Lynn Clark. “Indochinese Refugees in Canada: Sponsorship and Adjustment.” International Migration Review 15.1 (1981): 131-40. Print.
- “The Resettlement of Indochinese Refugees in Canada.” Canadian Council for Refugees | Working Together on Behalf of Refugees and Immigrants. Canadian Council for Refugees, Aug. 1999. Web. 28 July 2011. <http://ccrweb.ca/20thann.html>.
- Ward, Bruce. “We’ll Take Them.” Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa] 30 Apr. 2008. Print.