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Vietnamese people fleeing a Communist dictatorship crowd the deck of a freighter in Manila harbour during the 1979 refugee crisis.

The Associated Press

In 1979, as thousands of Vietnamese boat people sought to escape from a Communist regime, deputy immigration minister John Manion brought the manuscript of None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948, to Ron Atkey, the immigration minister in the new Joe Clark government. The manuscript, written by academics Irving Abella and Harold Troper, documented how Canada had largely shut its doors to Jewish refugees from Europe before, during and even after the Second World War.

"This should not be you," the late Mr. Manion told Mr. Atkey.

Mr. Atkey took that message to the Progressive Conservative cabinet table. There was some resistance, he said in an interview this week. But prime minister Joe Clark and external affairs minister Flora MacDonald were in support.

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"He drew the parallels to our attention, was moved by it himself and we all were," Mr. Clark said in an interview on Friday. Another influence on Mr. Clark was U.S. president Jimmy Carter. The two men had had a long talk at a G7 conference in Tokyo about the need for Western countries to do more for the refugees.

The government then stunned the country, and the world, by upping its target for resettling the refugees to 50,000 from 12,000. Through a program to allow churches and other private groups to sponsor refugees, with the numbers to be matched by the government, the financial concerns of some cabinet ministers were eased, Mr. Clark said.

"It was a rare time in Canadian history," Mr. Atkey said. "What permitted this to go ahead was a genuine change of heart by the Canadian community."

As Canada's bar to Jewish refugees influenced the opening to the Vietnamese, so too is the successful Vietnamese resettlement a reminder that massive refugee rescues can be undertaken.

The government pledged in 2013 and in January of this year to take in a total of 11,300 Syrian refugees, and Mr. Harper promised during the election campaign to bring in another 10,000 from Syria and Iraq over four years. But just 2,347 have been resettled in the past three years, and the current process has so many bureaucratic stumbling blocks that refugee advocates doubt the target will be reached. For every 60 refugees sponsored by private groups, the government says it will sponsor 40.

On Friday, former Progressive Conservative MP and senator Pat Carney called on the Conservative government to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees. "In the Irish famine of the 1840s, 100,000 left Ireland for Canada, and 90,000 were admitted," she said in an interview. Those people included her forebears.

She told Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in a letter to act from his gut and his heart rather than what campaign managers and pollsters are telling him. "Otherwise, the Conservative government should be swept out of office by a tsunami wave of anger that your government is so unresponsive to a humanitarian crisis of Biblical proportions."

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Mr. Clark said his government was surprised at how widespread the support became for the massive resettlement plan, spreading from big cities to small rural communities, and how little opposition or animosity there was. "You're never really sure where public opinion is," he said. "We were frankly surprised there was so much support and it was so practical and so deep.

"We were at that time a nation with increasing Asian immigration. But Vietnamese were not a prominent part of [Canadians'] view of who constituted the country. We weren't sure what kind of a reaction there might be among publics. I don't want to say this was a major issue … but I think there was some apprehension that there might be more negative reaction to this than there was. It's a real testament to the character of Canada that people who were – I'm sorry to use the phrase – 'not like us' were so enthusiastically accepted by Canadian citizens."

One lesson of that time, repeated throughout Mr. Clark's career, is that Canada's public servants are responsive and creative when political leaders make it clear they want a problem addressed.

"There might be an expectation that people who have been serving the status quo will find ways to frustrate that interest. We found the exact opposite. It's in the nature of things like this that the people who get public credit for this are the elected ministers, but the people who made this happen were public servants. These were people who were much more familiar with the nature of the red-tape obstacles than the ministers could be. Their instinct was to find ways to solve them, and they did."

Mr. Clark did not wish to endorse a call for a particular number of refugees, but said in light of what he sees as a strong surge in public support, Mr. Harper and other political leaders have an opportunity for a "suspension of fire" in the election campaign and to sit down together with church and other community leaders for an emergency meeting to address the crisis.

"There is a growing understanding that the operational problems are more complex than they should be. There needs to be that sort of attitude, 'Go out and solve it,' that existed in 1979."

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Mr. Atkey said the lesson of the Vietnamese resettlement is that "government has to lead and stay out in front of an issue, instead of catching up and reacting."

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