New heritage minute on ‘boat people’ highlights country’s inclusivity

‘What an advantage it’s turned out to be’

TORONTO — The makers of Canada’s latest Heritage Minute say featuring the country’s acceptance of Vietnamese “boat people” in the short film was the ideal way to keep current events in perspective and usher in a landmark national birthday.

The short clip, now among others highlighting key moments in Canadian History, was released by Historica Canada on Tuesday and shines a light on Canada’s admission of more than 100,000 refugees fleeing war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s.

Crafted with the aid of neuroscience research and cast with “boat people” or their descendants, the video tells the story of a family jumping off a sinking vessel and being warmly welcomed as they begin a new life in Montreal.

Historica Canada President Anthony Wilson-Smith says the clip encapsulates a period and a project that helped shape Canada.

He says the country is a more diverse place than it was when it celebrated its centenary in 1967, adding the Heritage Minute acknowledges that increased diversity in the leadup to celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday.

He says the video also serves as a reminder of the value of welcoming refugees at a time when those fleeing violence in Syria look to Canada for aid and support.

The arrival of the Vietnamese “boat people” took place against a different cultural backdrop and exemplified Canada’s approach to welcoming newcomers, he said.

“We were a different kind of country then. We were less diverse than we are now,” Wilson-Smith said in a telephone interview. “It was actually quite remarkable … given the context of the times, how welcoming people were, and what an advantage it’s turned out to be to have them all.”

Canada’s history of welcoming immigrants spans most of its existence as a country, but its particular connection to refugees began nearly a decade after centennial celebrations came to a close.

The federal government tabled a new Immigration Act in 1976 which, for the first time, recognized refugees as a special class of immigrants. It created a refugee determination system, provided for admission on humanitarian grounds of designated classes of people and enabled the private sponsorship of refugees.

By mid-1979, the plight of Southeast Asian “boat people” fleeing Vietnam, which had fallen to communist control years before, had become a crisis driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Many escaped in rickety fishing boats that became cesspools of illness and were easy prey for both pirates and the elements.

That June, the Canadian government announced that 50,000 of those refugees would be resettled by the end of 1980. Historica said thousands more made it to Canada safely as a result of a successful private sponsorship effort dubbed Project Lifeline.

The Heritage Minute tells the story of a typical family and depicts their terrified leap from a crowded, sinking boat into the ocean.

It tracks their progress through a Malaysian refugee camp where the family shows anxiety as they’re interrogated by a visa officer. After considering their responses, the officer pauses before declaring “welcome to Canada” and clearing their way for arrival in Montreal, where scenes depict one of the newly arrived children being given a piece of Canadiana by one of her new peers.

Wilson-Smith said Historica turned to science when crafting the latest Heritage Minute, which will be one of two exploring immigration themes in 2017.

Brainsights, a company that analyses the way the brain responds to various forms of communication, screened two versions of the video to more than 600 people over several months.

The company measured viewers’ brainwaves at two-millisecond intervals as they watched, and was able to develop quantitative measures of how effectively scenes were grabbing someone’s attention and forming an emotional connection.

Brainsights Co-Founder Kevin Keane said current events drove his eagerness to partner with Historica and make sure the video’s message was communicated as effectively as possible.

“The impetus to partner with them became stronger because we started seeing and worrying about broader macroeconomic developments — Brexit, the election of (U.S. President Donald) Trump,” he said. “We started asking ourselves, ‘if people had a greater understanding of history, would these things happen? How can we contribute in our limited way, in Canada, to improve that education and improve that shared understanding?”

Keane said data from the viewings prompted Brainsights to recommend some tweaks to the finished clip, including adding a slight pause before the central “welcome to Canada” message for added impact.

Wilson-Smith said Historica also tried to make the minute as authentic as possible by consulting people who worked as visa officers in refugee camps and casting only boat people or their children in the finished product.

He said it was important to accurately document a moment that helped shift Canada in a more multicultural direction.

“One of the great differences between Canada at 100 years in 1967 and Canada now is the diversity of the country,” he said. “(The Heritage Minute) is about people who came here who have made great contributions since, but it’s also about the welcoming attitude and atmosphere of the country.”

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