HOF175: The Right Honorable Joe Clark

When the newly elected government of Prime Minister Joe Clark came into power on June 4,1979, Canada had already accepted refugees from the first wave escaping Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975. However, by 1979, as the political crisis in these countries was deteriorating and the world was witnessing the plight of an increased exodus of refugees, media coverage in Canada of the crisis encouraged many community organizations and citizens’ groups, like the Mennonite community, Operation Lifeline in Toronto and Project 4000 in Ottawa, to participate in the resettlement of the refugees.

The new government quickly jumped into action. A few days before attending the July 1979 UNHCR Geneva conference on refugees and displaced persons in Southeast Asia, the Secretary of State for External Affairs Flora MacDonald announced that Canada would accept 50,000 refugees by the end of 1980, half of them through its new private sponsorship program. In collaboration with government officials and community grass-root organizations, Canada made this happen. It strengthened immigration assistance in camps on the ground in Southeast Asia to bring refugees to Canada, and it increased arrangements with community groups to sponsor the refugees on their arrival. 

Mr. Clark believes that this collaboration among all levels of government and Canadians from all walks of life changed the way of doing things by involving people. Reflecting on what lessons were learned from Canada’s response to this crisis, he sees the experience as: “a very legitimate and constructive expression of a particular desire of a community that has a positive impact upon the whole community; the experience is chock-full of examples for the future if we wish to take a look at them.”

Citing a phrase from the book Running on Empty that “bold policy inspires bold implementation”, Mr. Clark reminds us that Canada’s response to the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia is an example of a policy that combined strong and timely political leadership, operational risks by our immigration officers abroad, and the unwavering support of Canadians who came to the aid of refugees once they arrived in Canada.