The Prime Minister of Vietnam has written directly to Stephen Harper to register his concern over a private member's bill that would declare April 30 an official day to commemorate the exodus of South Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung warned in his letter that the bill presents a distorted version of Vietnam's history and could damage the bilateral relations both countries have worked to build. The letter was provided to the Privy Council Office and delivered to the Canadian embassy in Hanoi in mid-December.
MPs are expected to start debate on the legislation, which has received Senate approval, on Thursday.
The bill was originally titled the Black April Day Act, and was introduced by its sponsor as a way of marking the day South Vietnam fell "under the power of an authoritarian and oppressive communist regime." The title was later amended to the Journey to Freedom Day Act.
A diplomat from the Vietnamese embassy in Ottawa says the intent of the legislation has not changed. Viet Dung Vu said the bill still includes a reference to April 30 – the day in 1975 when the North Vietnamese captured Saigon – as "Black April Day." The name Black April is often used by Vietnamese people overseas to refer to that day.
"We are not fighting against recognizing a day to commemorate the Vietnamese coming to Canada. But choosing April 30 hurts us," he said in an interview. He said his government uses that day to recognize the end of the war and the beginning of reconciliation. He added that ambassador To Anh Dung was denied an opportunity to appear as a witness during the Senate's consideration of the bill.
The tiff comes at a time when Canada is trying to grow its economic relationship with Vietnam and other Asian countries. The government has named Vietnam a priority market for investment, and is keen to show its interest in the region as it negotiates the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
The Prime Minister's Office referred a request for comment to the office of Employment Minister Jason Kenney, who is also responsible for multiculturalism. Mr. Kenney said in a statement that he supports the bill because it celebrates 60,000 people who "risked their lives in search of freedom, and found it in Canada."
"Canada continues to have respectful relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam," the minister added.
Thanh Hai Ngo, the Conservative senator who introduced the bill, insists it is not related to the current government of Vietnam. "My point of view is the bill has nothing to do with Vietnam, the bill has nothing to do with trade relations," he said in an interview.
He said the legislation is meant to recognize those who fled Vietnam after the war and to acknowledge Canada's decision to accept the refugees.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the bill's original text contained "a lot of negative language" but was changed significantly. He said he spoke with Mr. Ngo and the Vietnamese ambassador and hopes the bill will ultimately focus on the contributions of Vietnamese-Canadians to the country.
The bill is not the only irritant for Vietnam. Earlier this week, the ambassador contacted Canada's foreign affairs department to register his concern about the use of South Vietnamese flags at an event in Mississauga on the weekend that Mr. Harper attended.
"We are very surprised and concerned about the fact that the yellow flags with three red stripes of the former Republic of Vietnam were displayed side by side with the Canadian flags in public places in Toronto," the embassy said in a statement.
Mr. Kenney said the flag is a symbol chosen by Canadians of Vietnamese origin to celebrate their heritage.