There were cheers and applause as Stephen Harper stepped on stage at a Mississauga convention centre in early February, facing a room filled with South Vietnamese flags and surrounded by Conservative parliamentarians.
Parliament was considering a new proposal, Mr. Harper told the crowd at the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration. Known as the Journey to Freedom Day Act, the proposed legislation would establish April 30 as a day to commemorate the acceptance of some 60,000 Vietnamese "boat people" in Canada after the end of the Vietnam War.
"It is a story that more Canadians should know," Mr. Harper said.
That bill came into effect last Thursday, to the delight of some Vietnamese-Canadian associations and the frustration of the government of Vietnam. On Friday, Vietnam's foreign ministry summoned the Canadian ambassador in Hanoi and publicly denounced the bill as a "backward step" in relations between the two countries.
Ottawa's support for the controversial legislation was widely viewed as an effort to win support from the members of Canada's 220,000-strong Vietnamese community, many of whom left their home country as refugees after South Vietnam was defeated. Such a strategy could become increasingly apparent as the Conservatives look to secure votes from immigrant communities in Canada ahead of an expected fall election.
Much of the bill's controversy concerns its choice of date and the language that was first used to describe it. Senator Thanh Hai Ngo introduced the bill as the Black April Day Act and said it was meant to mark the day South Vietnam fell "under the power of an authoritarian and oppressive communist regime."
The title was changed to the Journey to Freedom Day, and references to the communist regime were removed, but Hanoi still opposes the choice of April 30. Vietnam's government has said that April 30 – the day in 1975 when Saigon fell – should be celebrated as marking the end of the war and the beginning of reconciliation between North and South Vietnam.
Julie Nguyen, director of the Canada-Vietnam Trade Council, told a House of Commons committee earlier this month the bill could divide the Vietnamese community and impose a history that favours the former South Vietnam regime. She and other groups have called for the date to be changed to July 27, to coincide with the day in 1979 when the first planeload of Vietnamese refugees landed in Toronto.
Louis-Jacques Dorais, professor emeritus at the Université Laval, who has studied the Vietnamese community in Canada, said it is likely a majority would support April 30. That's because many who live in Canada today fled Vietnam after the war or have parents or relatives who did, he said.
James Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese Association Toronto, said he sees no reason to choose another date. "April 30 is significant because that's the date we lost our country and we fled for freedom. And that's what this bill is all about," said Mr. Nguyen, whose parents sent him to Canada in 1981, as a six-year-old refugee. Mr. Nguyen said he and others will travel to Parliament Hill on Thursday for an event to commemorate the first Journey to Freedom Day since the bill's passage.
Phil Triadafilopoulos, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said the Conservative government has been highly strategic in its efforts to gain new Canadians' votes. While no political party is going to win 100 per cent of a community's support, he said, "I think what the Conservatives are trying to do [with the bill] is compete for a part of that vote."
The strategy could become an increasingly prominent feature of federal politics as the next election approaches – even though researchers say it is difficult to assess whether the Conservatives' past ethnic outreach efforts have translated into votes.
"That doesn't matter," Prof. Triadafilopoulos said. "What matters is that the Conservatives think it's very important."