Skip to main content

An obscure private member's bill from a Conservative senator has sparked a diplomatic spat between Canada and Vietnam.

But despite Vietnam's dark warnings that the bill will have an adverse impact on relations between the two countries, the Harper government appears determined to pass it.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Thanh Hai Ngo, would recognize April 30 as a national day to commemorate the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and their acceptance in Canada after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese communist forces.

The bill was originally entitled the "Black April Day Act", as April 30 is known among many, including Ngo, who fled South Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam war.

In a nod to the vociferous objections of the Vietnamese government, the title was changed to the "Journey to Freedom Act."

But the intention remains unchanged.

"For Canadians of Vietnamese origin and the wide Vietnamese diaspora now living abroad, April 30 depicts a day when South Vietnam fell under the power of an authoritarian and oppressive communist regime that pays no heed to human rights," Ngo told the Senate when he kicked off debate at second reading last spring.

"We remember April 30 as a black day because it represents the sad day we lost our country, our families, our friends, our homes, our freedom and our democratic rights. It commemorates a day of loss and grief."

When the bill was sent to the Senate's human rights committee for study in October, Vietnam's ambassador to Canada wrote to the committee chair to express his government's "serious concerns" about the bill, and asked to be a witness.

The Conservative majority on the committee refused to invite the ambassador, suggesting instead that he send a written submission. However, after hearing from only three witnesses, including Ngo, the committee wrapped up its study of the bill before the ambassador's submission, which had to be translated into French, could be tabled.

In that submission, which the committee did not consider, the ambassador accused Ngo of dredging up the past, painting a distorted view of his country's history and ignoring its positive bilateral relationship with Canada over the past 40 years.

"The government of Vietnam disagrees with this negative and selective portrayal and has expressed its concerns privately and publicly," To Anh Dung wrote, adding that his government has made "many representations to the most senior levels of the government of Canada and leaders of Parliament expressing our serious concerns about the language and intent of this bill."

"If passed, this bill will have an adverse impact on the growing bilateral relations between our two countries. Despite claims of being non-political, this bill clearly incites national hatred and division, not unity."

Vietnam's deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, Pham Binh Minh, wrote to his Canadian counterpart, John Baird, back in June to voice his concerns.

"While we understand that this is technically not Government of Canada policy, we believe that passage of this Senate Bill S-219 would send the wrong message to the international community and the people of Vietnam," he wrote.

A spokesman for Baird emphasized that this is "not a government bill" and that senators and MPs are free to introduce private member's bills.

"Vietnam is a strong and valued partner in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, a country of focus for Canadian development assistance, the International Education Strategy and the Global Markets Action Plan," Adam Hodge told The Canadian Press in an email.

"Canada and Vietnam have strong mutual interests that guide our bilateral relations."

Nevertheless, the government's leadership in the Senate, not known for defying the wishes of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seems determined to whisk the bill through.

It was to have been put to a final vote in the Senate on Thursday but Liberal Senate leader James Cowan questioned why the governing party is in such a rush.

"We were allowed to hear only one side of the story (at committee), from those who support the bill," Cowan told the Senate.

In the absence of a "serious and balanced study" of the bill, Cowan said he doesn't know whether it deserves support.

"This is not how legislation should be passed in this country. This is not the right path for any so-called 'journey to freedom,"' he said.

The Conservative majority thwarted Cowan's attempts to adjourn debate on the bill or to refer it back to committee for further study. However, Liberal senators insisted on a recorded vote, which deferred the final vote on the bill until next week.

The bill appears to have divided Canada's Vietnamese community. While the committee heard supportive testimony from the Vietnamese Canadian Federation and the Canadian Immigration Historical Society, the chair received letters from a number of others — including representatives of the Canada-Vietnam Friendship Association and the Canada-Vietnam Trade Council — who said it would create tension among Vietnamese Canadians, many of whom have put the past behind them and now want cordial relations with Vietnam.

Interact with The Globe