A Brief History of the Hearts of Freedom Project

refugee researchers from Carleton University

On April 22nd, 2015, Dau-Thi Huynh, Treasurer of the Vietnamese Canadian Federation (VCF), and Minh Nguyen, an artist and volunteer in the Vietnamese community, arranged to meet Colleen Lundy, professor emeritus of social work at Carleton University, at a Bridgehead Café in Ottawa. The idea to approach the School of Social Work was approved and supported by Dr. Tri Hoang and Tuyet Lam, former President and Vice-President of VCF. Since Dr. Hoang and Ms. Lam were both living in Alberta, they were not able to join the meeting.

Minh Nguyen envisioned a community/university/museum led research effort and titled it the Hearts of Freedom project. The Federation had developed a website to store information on the immigration of the Vietnamese refugees to Canada and to gather other information from the public. They had obtained several supporting letters from different government offices, met with political leaders, and experts at the important museums in Ottawa in hopes of establishing a museum. They were seeking a partner who could join in their goal to secure funding for a project to gather the experiences of former refugees and those involved in their settlement in Canada. At this initial meeting, the three agreed to continue meeting to pursue the goal of a Canadian museum.

Shortly after Peter Duschinsky and Mike Molloy attended one of the meetings and joined the project. They both were members of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society and came with on-the-ground experience of the exodus of refugees. Peter is a retired immigration foreign service officer and Immigration Canada’s former director of International Liaison. Mike Molloy was senior coordinator of the Indochinese Refugee Task Force from 1979 to 1980. The scope was broadened to include the Cambodian and Laotian communities who were part of the refugee movement coming from the former Indochina during the 70s and 80s. It was also decided to shift the focus to interviewing former refugees and those involved in their settlement to ensure that their experiences will be preserved for generations to come and become part of Canada’s historical narrative.

Not long after Allan Moscovitch, professor emeritus of social work at Carleton University and Stephanie Stobbe, Associate Professor at Menno Simons College (a College of Canadian Mennonite University) at the University of Winnipeg also joined the project. We now had the expertise and resources to go forward. It was agreed that to begin, every effort would be made to preserve the life of experiences of a representative sample of refugees through videotaped interviews with them. Colleen and Allan began work on an application for funding for the Canadian South East Asia Refugee Historical Project: Hearts of Freedom. An initial application was submitted to the Canada History Fund at Heritage Canada but in 2017 it was caught up with applications to the Ministry for Canada 150 projects. After a meeting with Canadian Heritage staff in September 2017, it was agreed that we would have the opportunity to prepare a resubmission. With limited time to the deadline, a reapplication was prepared and submitted in October 2017. Happily, this time our proposal was accepted. We received notification in April 2018

Subsequently we formed a Management Committee for the project which included representation from all three communities, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian Canadians. We also have representation from staff from the Canada History Museum and the Museum at Pier 21 as well as members of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society. We rely on their wisdom and experience to guide us as we move forward in this exciting endeavor.

In the fall of 2018, we hired an Executive Director (Ginette Thomas) to help us coordinate the project and the work of three interview teams, and four community coordinators. We also hired a Digital Director (Mondy Lim) to assist us in creating a website to access the interviews and other materials we collect, and to carefully receive and store these materials. Four community coordinators were hired whose task it was to recruit former refugees from each of the three communities and to recruit Canadians who were engaged in assisting refugees to come to Canada. The purpose was to have interviewees tell their stories on video. To accomplish the task, we also hired three teams consisting of an interviewer and a camera operator to carry out the interviews. We were fortunate to find appropriate staff to form both a Vietnamese interview team and Cambodian team. Our third team was responsible for interviews with sponsors and other Canadians with an involvement in assisting refugees, and with Laotian Canadians.

During the fall of 2018, we had several training sessions with our interview teams while the Community Coordinators were busy trying to find people who were interested in being interviewed for the project. At the same time, we had to prepare and submit a detailed application for ethics approval for the project. We received ethics approval in early December, completed the training in early January and then began establishing interview times. The first set of interviews took place in the months of February and March 2019 drawing on people living in Ottawa or Gatineau. Later that year we conducted interviews in the Montreal and Toronto areas.  In 2020 Interviews in Winnipeg. Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver took place. Plans for interviews in Halifax were put on hold due to the pandemic. Interviews took place largely in English or French. There were also a few that were conducted in Khmer and a few in Vietnamese. A total of 170 interviews were completed with both women and with men who came to Canada as refugees between 1975 and 1985 or who assisted refugees during that period. We expect to conduct a further 11 interviews when the conditions make it possible. Using the 170 interviews and other materials we intend to put together both a book and a documentary film. The focus of both will be on the life experiences of refugees from South East Asia who came to Canada after the fall of South Vietnam, the removal of American military and the signing of a treaty.