Gus Dalton, the fishing captain who saved the lives of 155 Tamil refugees who were adrift in lifeboats off southern Newfoundland in August, 1986, died on Jan. 15 at the age of 87.
Mr. Dalton's rescue made international headlines, earning him a spot on the cover of Maclean's magazine and an invitation to Front Page Challenge.
It was 1 a.m. on Aug. 11, 1986, and the weather was calm and foggy, when, 10 kilometres off St. Shott's on the southern tip of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, the 55-year-old captain saw "a blip on the radar," according to CBC. It was two 24-foot fibreglass lifeboats, constructed to hold 35 people each, now packed with more than 150 Sri Lankan Tamils – mostly men, along with three women and five children. They were adrift in a treacherous region of the North Atlantic.
Captain Dalton, who fished out of Admiral's Beach, thought at first that the Tamils had been shipwrecked, but it turned out they had been deliberately dropped from the vessel Aurigae by a human trafficker. That cargo ship had sailed from Brake, West Germany, where the Tamils, living in refugee camps near Hamburg, had paid about $3,400 apiece for their journey.
Capt. Dalton and his three-man crew, which included his brother, reacted quickly. They dumped their catch – 1,050 kilograms of cod and flounder – and took as many people as they could, about 60, on their 45-foot Atlantic Reaper. Securing the rest by rope, they alerted the Leonard J. Cowley of the Canadian Coast Guard and local longliners Mary Theresa and Mona B.
Capt. Dalton also shared what stores he had aboard, 11 loaves of bread and 75 litres of water, with the refugees.
"They were talking a lot," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "They were right excited." A few of the castaways could speak English; they thanked and thanked him, and wrote out the name of their home country: Sri Lanka. Capt. Dalton had never heard of it.
The Tamils were first reluctant to reveal the name of the ship that had dumped them. They also initially said they had embarked from India, not Europe, and were vague about the time they had spent at sea, but they seemed in good health – well able to stand, for example. They later confirmed that they had been set adrift in the boats two days earlier.
After they were taken to St. John's, for the first few days they were housed in residences at Memorial University, aided by the Red Cross. Despite the mystery of their voyage, they were quickly given one-year residency permits. Under Canadian law they could not be deported to their homeland because of civil unrest, as the Tamils, who were Hindu, feared violence from the governing Sinhalese Buddhists. Thus they were allowed to work right away, a benefit that would have been denied to them for two years if they had stayed in Germany.
Those refugees all left Newfoundland for Ontario or Quebec, but many kept in touch with Capt. Dalton over the years, returning most recently to mark the 30th anniversary of their rescue.
Piragal Thiru of the Canadian Tamil Congress called Capt. Dalton and his crew "national heroes." But Capt. Dalton always said it was the calm weather, not him, that really saved those people, and that anyone who came upon them would have acted as he did. "We were lucky to have them come here," he told the Newfoundland Herald in January, 2007. "Any man who would sit on the water like that deserves to be here."
Capt. Dalton leaves his wife, Margaret (née Walsh); daughters, Bernadette, Diane and Arlene; grandchildren, Sandi and Steve; and sister, Teresa; and many friends in the Canadian Tamil community.
Augustine Leo Dalton was born Sept. 15, 1930, to James and Gertrude (née Doody), the second-youngest of five boys and two girls. The Daltons lived in Reginaville on Great Colinet Island in St. Mary's Bay, and he attended school in Mosquito before starting fishing when he was about 16.
In August, 2016, five of the refugees who arrived on the lifeboats travelled back to Newfoundland for their first reunion with Capt. Dalton. As the Toronto Star recently reported, most of those refugees learned English and became businesspeople and professionals. They were accompanied by documentary maker Cyrus Sundar Singh, who is making a film about Capt. Dalton and the Tamils, who, upon being placed in the open ocean water, "were told they would be in Montreal in four hours," Mr. Singh told CBC News.
Their arrival in 1986 did meet with some controversy. There were grumblings from within Brian Mulroney's federal Conservative government, as well as the existing Tamil community, who worried about the perception of immigration queue-jumping. Mr. Mulroney advocated for the refugees, who, today, mostly live in Toronto, where a Tamil enclave was already established in the city's Cabbagetown neighbourhood in the 1980s.
"So most of the 155 people stayed, they became citizens, they became part of our fabric," Sundar Singh told CBC. "I would say a third have done extremely well, a third has done quite well and the other third are, you know, maybe, struggling with what they had faced and continue to face."
Capt. Dalton's rescue was also the inspiration for the 1989 feature film Welcome to Canada (directed by John N. Smith).
"I'm glad they all got into Canada," Capt. Dalton told The Telegram in 2011. "Picture yourself coming up on a terrible scene of people in those boats trying to get to Canada. They need to be here."