Courage and Compassion

It was four o’clock in the morning on December 20, 1978. Cradling her sleepy children in her arms, Rebecca Trinh clambered up to join five others on the hood of an old and overcrowded truck. Her husband Sam stuffed himself into the back, clutching a large backpack that contained all they now owned. The truck joined a convoy that was soon bouncing along in the dark on bumpy dirt side-roads.

            Rebecca, Sam, (their Anglicized names) and their two small daughters had been a middle-class family living as happy a life as possible in Saigon while the Vietnam War had raged in far aways jungles and parts of the city far from their home. Now, however, their Chinese heritage had deemed them enemies of the splintering state. They were among thousands on the run for their lives. Weeks after leaving their home with two backpacks and hope for better, they were on an overcrowded, leaky ship approaching Malaysia.

            Rebecca and Sam clutched each other and held their children tight. There were screams as ten pirates armed with axes, machetes, knives, and handguns yelled that all were to board the pirate ships now lashed to the gunnels. The pirates roughly groped their victims and anything of value was taken. Rebecca and Sam had their wedding rings ripped from their fingers. The boat was ransacked with bags torn apart, secret compartments slit, and gold and personal mementos stolen. Finally, after three harrowing hours, the petrified passengers were shoved back aboard and the pirate ships disappeared over the blue horizon. 

            That night, the captain shouted that another pirate ship was approaching. He tried to outrun it but was soon overtaken. Pirates again came aboard but while stepping on some passengers and striking others they quickly realized that there was nothing left to steal. Shuddering women and girls were relieved when, miraculously, a second crew of pirates left them unmolested.

            At about eight the next morning the ship entered Malaysian territory. Salvation appeared in the form of coconut trees on the far shore. But a Malaysian naval vessel approached and through loud speakers announced that they would not be allowed landfall. A chain was thrown and attached and the boat crammed with pleading people was towed back out to international waters. Like all ships under tow, it listed to and fro with waves and spray drenching all aboard. Twice it nearly capsized. After two hours of perilous hauling, the chain was released and the Malaysian captain shouted over the speaker that they were to sail straight ahead for two or three days where they would find Indonesia.

            Towing was a common occurrence. By the middle of 1978, the Malaysian government had decided that it had accepted enough Vietnamese refugees and could handle no more. Over the next couple of years about 40,000 desperate people were towed away. Thailand’s government had made the same decision and posted its army on the Cambodian border. At one point, a squadron of Thai soldiers aimed their weapons at thousands of starving people who had walked for weeks to escape their country’s madness. They were turned around and forced down a mountain trail. Several hundred were killed and others mutilated as they walked through a minefield that the soldiers must have known was there.

            The captain knew that no one had enough food or water for another three days at sea. People were falling ill and more children had died. He wanted to save his passengers and crew as well as his own family members who were on board. He conjured a plan, moved further up the coast to avoid naval vessels, and then tacked back along the Malaysian coast.

            The captain picked his spot and under the cover of a moonless sky maneuvered the boat as close to shore as possible. Shouts rang out and everyone scrambled to their feet. They were told to grab their possessions and yank boards from decks or walls and anything else that could float. They were abandoning and scuttling the boat.

            Rebecca  stood at the rail holding her two crying girls and watched others leaping into the dark waves. Sam yelled that he would go first and that she should then throw Judy to him. She watched him jump and for a terrifying moment he was gone until, sputtering and waving, he resurfaced and yelled up to her. Rebecca sat Helen on the deck and held her with one foot while she picked Judy up with both hands and with all her might threw the screaming child into the darkness. Judy plunged into the water just in front of Sam and in seconds he had her. Rebecca then picked up Helen and planned her move. She tossed her crying baby high into the air and at the same moment jumped, smacking into the water and then frantically scrambling back to the surface where she threw her hands into a splash beside her and astonishingly caught her howling daughter. Treading water with one arm and pulling Helen close with the other, she thanked God for having saved them all.

            Sam was quickly beside them and they turned toward the shore, several hundred yards away. Screams for help pierced the night but they had to keep swimming. Rebecca praised God again as she crawled, exhausted, onto the sand. The children had become too cold and wet and scared to cry. But now, safe and on the huge, desolate beach, their mother did.

            Rebecca’s family eventually made it to Canada. The majority of Canadians did not want them or the others escaping the madness of post-war Vietnam. But enough Canadians listened to their hearts. Enough Canadians saw that the Vietnam War, in which Canada had been involved from the beginning, was asking just what a Canadian was and should be.

(Rebecca Trinh’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It was published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, and is available now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

My Shame and the Shameless Racist

An interesting part of being an author is being invited to address groups about one’s books. You shake off the office, library, and archive dust and meet those who share an interest in books and ideas. Sometimes, though, you meet folks who are not curious but angry. They seek not to learn but profess. Last week, I encountered one such gentleman and wish I had handled him differently.

Last Wednesday I addressed a group of 60 or so folks about my book, Last Steps to Freedom, which addresses the history of racism in Canada. I said that at racism’s core is the belief that in creating some people, God made a mistake. I explained the book’s idea that racism is like a ladder we ascend, climbing the rungs of stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, state-sanctioned discrimination, and, finally, genocide. In Canada, I explained, we have been on every rung, including, with respect to Indigenous peoples, attempted cultural genocide. I illustrated the point with stories of Ukrainian-Canadians, thousands of whom were locked up during the First World War, and Black Canadians who endured slavery and then discrimination that persists today.

The two most important rules in public speaking are to be brief and be seated. I did both. Then came the question period which is always my favorite part. But last Wednesday was different.

He thrust his hand in the air. I nodded his way and he leaped to his feet. The slight man, in his late sixties, asked if I knew the meaning of a hate crime. I began to answer when he cut me off and said that it was hateful to attack another person’s opinions. He then said that according to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, all slave ship captains were Jews. There was a gasp in the audience. I began to respond when again he cut me off asking if I had heard of Ernst Zündel. Yes, I began to reply, when he said that, according to Zündel, the Holocaust never happened. How can I prove, he asked, that the Holocaust happened and that 6 million were killed?

A microphone is a good thing. You can pull it close to increase your volume while moving toward a speaker. All but the truly crazy usually fall silent. He did. I said that, yes, I had heard of both Farrakhan and Zündel and knew them both to have been rejected by all real historians. He began to speak again but I kept going. As for those men and you holding opinions, well, in my opinion, I am Robert Redford’s virtual twin. But no matter how fervently I believe it does not make it true.

Racism

He began to speak again but I said he had made his point and now it was time to allow others to pose their questions. I pointed to a gentleman in the back and as he started his question, our friend huffed from the room.

The questioner continued but I was only half listening, noticing the heads turning to watch our angry friend go, and seeing the nudges and whispers. With the question posed, I said thanks but paused. I said, now that was interesting. Opinions and facts are not the same and are seldom friends, I said. There were smiles and shoulders sank back down as people relaxed. I then answered the second question, well, really the first question.

There I was, having written a book about the horrors of racism and speaking about how we need to atone for our collective crimes and ignorance to work together in building an egalitarian, non-racist society and yet I had allowed an obvious racist to hold the floor for what I believe was too long. I should have challenged him sooner, harsher. I should have said more directly that his sources were known anti-Semites and that the bile he was spewing was anti-Semitic hooey. But I didn’t. Was I too polite? But then again, would my moving more aggressively have simply employed the same ugly weapons as his hate-based tribe? We must always confront racism and I should have done so quicker, firmer, perhaps ruder – polite be damned.

We are now enduring a moment in which too many people see political correctness as weakness, compromise as lacking principle, and critical thought as elitism. This challenge to the post-1960s liberal consensus has invited racist, sexist, homophobic, nativist, bigoted talk to be dragged from the shadows and waved like a flag. Those confused by complexity find solace and community in dividing the world into me and you, us and them. Facts can then not be sought to learn but cherry-picked to confirm. It’s sad and dangerous, but I sincerely believe we’ll be OK.

History used to evolve in spans but now leaps in spasms. This moment will pass. It will pass quickly. The racists and bigots will return to their shrinking circles of confusion and fear. Love will trump hate and that which gave rise to Trump will fall. The better angels of our nature will again sing.

I believe it. I have to. The alternative is too frightening. Next time, I’ll do better.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others through your social media of choice. If you wish to read the book that brought the folks together on a cold, snowy evening and made one gentleman so angry, you can find it here: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html

 

 

Imagine a Man Like John F. Kennedy

Today would be John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday. Those of a certain age remember him for the hope that he inspired. For many, just the idea that he was in the White House meant that things would get better. His horrible, public murder gashed a generation. JFK’s assassination defined the precise moment between then and now, between what could have been and what was. Kennedy visited Canada four times. Let us consider one that helped change our history and helps define the man.

Imagine a Man Like John F. Kennedy

JFK Addressing Canadian Parliament (CBC photo)

In late 1953, Kennedy was the junior Senator from Massachusetts and forced to consider Canada for the first time. After decades of debate regarding whether the United States and Canada should cooperate in the building the St. Lawrence Seaway, Canada had decided to go it alone. The decision put the thirty-six-year-old Kennedy in a tricky spot. During his Senate campaign, he had listened to Boston longshoremen, businessmen, and lobbyists, and opposed the seaway based on the old worry that it would divert significant traffic from New England ports to the St. Lawrence. To support it would jeopardize his re-election and stymie his presidential aspirations. But he had his staff complete a careful study of the matter and had become convinced that to oppose the seaway would hurt the United States. So, would he vote for himself and his constituency or for his country? Was the book he had written, Profiles in Courage, was just a cute title or a definition of his character?

With pressure building, Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak at the Université de Montréal. It was his first trip to Canada. The senator and his wife of three months, the twenty-four-year-old Jacqueline, arrived on a cold December 4, 1953, at Montreal’s Windsor train station. Only two men met them: an American consulate representative and a Canadian Pacific Railway photographer who quickly snapped two pictures and went home. The glamorous young couple were guests of honour that evening at the annual St. Mary’s Ball, where the city’s who’s who mingled, dined, and raised money for the local hospital.

Before donning his tuxedo, Kennedy addressed the students and faculty of the university’s Literary Society. He said that Canada and the United States were fighting communism together. He explained that 20 percent of American exports went to Canada and that America was Canada’s best customer. Kennedy then explained the difficulty the American Congress was having in coming to a decision regarding the seaway. He detailed the American system of checks and balances and quoted Sir John A. Macdonald, albeit somewhat out of context, who once called the American system a “skilful work.” He quoted eighteenth-century Irish nationalist and conservative political philosopher Edmund Burke. Burke had said in his 1774 “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” that political representatives should be free to vote their conscience. Kennedy’s reference to Burke was a strong hint that he was preparing to do just that.

A few weeks later, on January 14, 1954, Kennedy rose in the Senate chamber and delivered a courageous speech. He began by noting his state’s current and long history of opposition to the seaway. His vote, he said, would rest on the answers to two fundamental questions. The first was whether the seaway would be built regardless of American partnership. “I have studied the Act passed by the Canadian parliament authorizing the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway by Canada . . . and the official statements of the Canadian government make it clear that Canada will build the Seaway alone and cooperate on the power project with New York, although the door is left open for American participation if we should so decide at this session of Congress.” A solely Canadian project, Kennedy continued, would inflict enormous costs on America, as Canada could dictate tolls, traffic, and admission of foreign shipping.

The second determining question, he argued, was whether the seaway would make America safer. Kennedy explained the degree to which American participation in the project would be part of the continued development of an integrated North American defence strategy. He concluded: “Both nations now need the St. Lawrence Seaway for security as well as for economic reasons.

He concluded, “I urge the Congress promptly to approve our participation in its construction.”

Finally, after decades of opposition, the Senate approved the daring measure. A number of Boston and Massachusetts papers attacked the young senator. Two months later he was warned by a member of Boston’s city council not to march in the city’s large and boisterous annual St. Patrick’s Day parade lest he be abused by dockworkers angry that the seaway would kill their jobs. Kennedy ignored the advice and marched without incident.

Imagine a politician with the political courage to put country over party and principle over popularity, risking re-election for what is right. Imagine a politician who bases decisions on facts rather than gut reactions, polls, or a blind adherence to ideology. Imagine a politician with an ability to speak that is clear, almost poetic, and that demands that we rise to meet him rather than pandering to the least articulate and educated among us. Imagine. And then take a moment today to celebrate John Kennedy’s life and grieve his loss.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with other. For more on the many ways that Canada was effected by JFK and that we affected him, consider reading Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front. It is available at bookstores and online through Chapters Indigo and Amazon.