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.
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.