Thirty years ago amidst the thousands fleeing Sri Lanka seeking political asylum and refugee status, were 155 Tamils heading to Montreal, Canada. My father was one of them.
143 men, 4 women, and 5 children boarded a merchant vessel, the Regina Maris, in West Germany believing in the promises of a better life. Although they had initially traveled to Germany with the same hopes most of the refugees were made to live in camps and treated like second-class citizens. The captain of the Regina Maris, meanwhile, promised the refugees that they would be put up decently on the ship and that Canadian boats would be waiting for them.
Tides took a drastic turn when they were abandoned by human smugglers and told to get off the ship. They were forced onto two 35-foot lifeboats—one of which had a motor which was not installed. With nothing but a small knife, screwdriver and their mouths two fishermen in the group attempted to install the boat motor to no avail. In the end the one boat which had the fully functional motor towed the second onward.
For four days many had nothing to eat and containers of fresh water were used up sooner than planned. Halfway through their journey, they ran out of fuel and drifted aimlessly. The shores of Newfoundland at this time were blanketed with heavy fog and the refugees couldn’t see much around them.
When the fog lifted for a brief period on August 11th, Captain Gus Dalton, spotted the boats six nautical miles from St. Shott’s on the South Eastern coast of Newfoundland, a sight he says he will never forget. The refugees in the lifeboats were packed in like sardines, with no space between them. 155 hungry, cold and confused men, women and children.
Thirty years ago my father landed off the coast of Newfoundland, where he was saved. He was given the chance to call Canada home; He was given the opportunity to raise a family in a place where they could all be safe and work to be whatever they hoped to. This was made possible by individuals who fought to make sure he wasn’t turned back.
At the time Prime Minister Mulroney said, “I can tell you this – that Canada was built by immigrants and refugees, and those who arrive in lifeboats off our shores are not going to be turned away.” Thankfully such sentiments, though challenged at times, remain prevalent to this day.
Learning about my father’s story has made me realize that as a Tamil Canadian, not only is it important to be grateful for the opportunities I have, but to raise awareness about this journey which has impacted so many lives and policies. Through initiatives like Tamil Journeys ’86, a series of events organized by the Canadian Tamil Congress, these stories of resilience will continue to inform and inspire.
The CTC will be launching the series commemorating the 30th anniversary of this historic rescue, on Thursday, August 11th, 2016 with a press conference. The events will strike a balance between thanking Canada for welcoming these refugees and noting the many contributions refugees themselves make, reinforcing the importance of Canada keeping its doors open.
Tamil Journeys ’86 Press Conference:
Date: August 11, 2016
Location: Leonard J Crowley in St. Johns Harbour (the ship on which the coastguard picked up the refugees in 1986)
Tamil Journeys ’86 Gala:
Date: August 13, 2016
Location: The Rooms, St. John’s NFL
Featuring special guests Gerry Weiner, Minister of Immigration and Citizenship in 1986; Captain Gus Dalton and the other fishermen and families who helped the refugees, Judy Foote, MP of Newfoundland and Labrador