Boat Peo­ple

The Southern Gazette - - Editorial - Harold Wal­ters Book Re­marks Harold Wal­ters lives in Dunville, New­found­land, do­ing his damnedest to live Hap­pily Ever Af­ter. Reach him at gh­wal­[email protected]

In a pre­vi­ous cen­tury, when Joey Small­wood was King of New­found­land, and tu­ition was free at MUN, I en­rolled in a So­ci­ol­ogy class that used “The Ver­ti­cal Mo­saic” as a text­book.

I was an un­formed scholar, ig­no­rant of the com­plex­i­ties of the Cana­dian Mo­saic — the con­cept that our coun­try is com­posed of nu­mer­ous eth­nic groups that form a na­tion as splen­did as a stained glass win­dow.

Hold the thought. Stump stund, heed­less, inat­ten­tive, I first as­sumed Sharon Bala’s novel “The Boat Peo­ple” [McClel­land & Stewart] must be about a boat­load of refugees seek­ing asy­lum in New­found­land be­cause …

… well, be­cause Sharon Bala lives in New­found­land.

I jumped to a con­clu­sion and missed the boat, eh b’ys?

I was still at sea when I even­tu­ally picked up a copy of the novel at Costco.

Turns out, the book’s set­ting is British Columbia with back­story set­tings in Sri Lanka.

Syn­op­sis: Five hun­dred plus Sri Lankan refugees aboard a rust-bucket freighter reach Cana­dian wa­ters off the coast of British Columbia — “They saw the leaf and a great re­sound­ing cheer shook the boat.” The Cana­dian govern­ment brings them ashore and starts the grind­ing pro­ce­dure of pro­cess­ing them for refugee sta­tus.

The end?

Cer­tainly not. Un­for­tu­nately, these asy­lum seek­ers ar­rive at a time “when the coun­try is in a sour mood.”

It’s post-9/11. The Cana­dian govern­ment — many Cana­di­ans-in-the-street, for that mat­ter — claims it fears terrorists (dis­placed Tamil Tigers?) slip­ping into the coun­try in the guise of refugees.

Con­se­quently, con­duct­ing de­ten­tion re­views and ad­mis­si­bil­ity hear­ings is gru­el­ing.

Sharon Bala’s novel is shock­ingly in­for­ma­tive re­gard­ing the rig­ma­role — the ticket-spools of red tape — the refugees en­counter.

For in­stance: Im­me­di­ately the Sri Lankans are cuffed and chained and in­car­cer­ated. Men and women are sep­a­rated. Chil­dren are kept with the women.

Mahin­dan, a wid­ower, is hor­ri­fied to see his six year old son, Sel­lian, handed off to one of the refugee women. He has to deal with Sel­lian even­tu­ally be­ing placed into a fos­ter home.

Tem­po­rally, Mahin­dan told.

Bala’s Cana­dian char­ac­ters — plucked from the mo­saic — are re­quired to strug­gle with their own so­cial/moral be­liefs when they be­come in­volved with the as­sess­ments of the asy­lum seek­ers.

Priya Ra­jakaran is an im­mi­gra­tions at­tor­ney, a Cana­dian whose Sri Lankan par­ents en­tered the coun­try for­mally a gen­er­a­tion ear­lier af­ter po­lit­i­cal

is upheaval in their home­land.

Grace Naka­mura, whose fam­ily ex­pe­ri­enced first-hand the Ja­panese in­tern­ment dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, is an ad­ju­di­ca­tor faced with mak­ing ul­ti­mate de­ci­sions on whether in­di­vid­ual Sri Lankans stay in Canada or are de­ported.

Need­less to say, there are puffed up politi­cians pon­tif­i­cat­ing and para­phras­ing the at­ti­tudes of the likes of for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Macken­zie King — “Canada should re­main a coun­try for the white man.”

Flip­ping the coin, Bala al­lows some­one to quote Prime Min­is­ter Brian Mul­roney, “Canada is not in the busi­ness of turn­ing refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of com­pas­sion.”

Priya Ra­jakaran vents her frus­tra­tion, ex­plod­ing in the face of what seems to be na­tional stu­pid­ity, es­pe­cially about re­mov­ing chil­dren from their par­ents — “Haven’t we learned our les­son on this? Steal­ing chil­dren from their Na­tive par­ents and putting them in white homes? What’s next? A spe­cial school run by pe­dophiles?”

There are two things I don’t like about “The Boat Peo­ple”.

Colour me old-fash­ioned, but I don’t like the fact that quo­ta­tion marks are not used to show speech. Colour me the deep­est shade of stund, but, for frig sake, it took me half the book to get used to this for­mat.

The other thing I don’t like is …

Sorry, ban­ish me with rocks if you want, but I’m not say­ing. It might be a spoiler.

“The Boat Peo­ple’s” epi­graph is a line from Mar­tin Luther King Jr. — “We may have all come on dif­fer­ent ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Speak­ing of boats … There’s a car­toon I’ve men­tioned be­fore. Noah’s ark, stogged to the gun­wales with two-by-two an­i­mals, is still at sea. The hull is pocked with holes. A wood­pecker is busily ham­mer­ing out yet an­other hole. The cap­tion: There’s al­ways an id­iot on a boat.

With Mar­tin Luther King’s line up­per­most, keep in mind — There’re al­ways wood­peck­ers aboard.

Back to So­ci­ol­ogy 101: Canada is an eth­nic mo­saic and for the most part it works. Re­mem­ber though, like stained glass win­dows, some­times mo­saics are made of frac­tured glass, or bro­ken peo­ple.

B’ys, that make a grain of sense?

Thank you for read­ing.

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