I listened to The Boat People during my daily commute; as I drove along Les Boulevards des Marechaux in Paris. Les Boulevards des Marechaux run parallel to the Peripherique, around the perimeter of Paris, and are constantly criss crossed by over passes and on-off ramps to the highway. They are full of the places where the recent influx of migrants and refugees to Paris have congregated. They stand on the ramps and at intersections, where traffic is slowed or stopped, holding signs and asking for change. They sleep under the bridges, rows of them lined up on the sidewalk. As you drive past them in the early morning darkness, it is sometimes difficult to tell if they are alive. I am certain that on some mornings, some of them are not. Occasionally, the crowd is bigger, when a few groups pull up and serve soup out of the backs of vans.
These people are not wanted in Paris. They are not wanted by the government, who didn’t agree to take them, but, because of geography, the proximity to the Mediterranean and land borders, didn’t have much of a choice. They are not wanted by most Parisians, who note the absence of children in the groups as evidence that these people don’t care about their families. French bureaucracy has built walls of paperwork around them, and they’ll be wading through it until they are relocated or they give up – or until they scale a building and get a photo op with the President.
This is the context in which I read The Boat People, and I hoped for a better vision, for some hope as I drove through these crowds. I did not get it.
The titular Boat People, Tamil refugees coming in on a boat from Sri Lanka, see Canada as a beacon of hope. Refugees to Canada do not have the geographical benefits that refugees in Europe have – they must come across the Pacific Ocean, are spotted long before they arrive, are met and detained as soon as they hit Canadian waters. Still though, Mahindan and his compatriots are relieved to be picked up by Canadian border agents. Our reputation precedes us, even if it is one we perhaps do not always deserve. Almost immediately, their hope and relief is dashed, as Mahindan is forcibly separated from his son, first while he is housed in the women’s prison, which is set up to receive children; later, as he is fostered with a white Canadian family (not, as Mahindan dumbfoundedly noted, with one of the many Tamil families in the area – they were not approved as foster parents). This immediate and cruel separation sets the tone for what we can expect for these hopeful, optimistic refugees for the rest of the book. It is a timely empathy check for current events.
We meet, also, Priya and Grace, second and third generation immigrants themselves. This boat, this problem, is not the first time this has happened.
Grace’s parents and grandparents were caught in the Japanese Internment camps of WWII, and she, and her children, still live with the conflicting emotions, the financial consequences, and the fractured and complicated identities that internment caused. Now, Grace lives with her angry, bitter mother, whose Alzheimer’s brings her consistently back to the camps, while she works as a judge in the deportation trials for the 500 Tamil refugees. One of her fellow judges describes Canada’s government as being schizophrenic in its approach to immigration and refugees – nobody embodies this more than Grace herself, determined to do her job well and keep her family and Canadians safe, conscious of repeating past mistakes, not sure who to listen to. She is hyper aware of her own inadequacies – she doesn’t know anything about Sri Lankan culture, or how to tell if someone is a terrorist. She doesn’t understand how people in trauma behave. And she certainly can’t empathise, two generations on and living comfortably, with the priorities of people who flee.
Priya’s family is Sri Lankan themselves, but resentful of these new boat people. They had to do it the right way, they say, the slow way. They came in legally, why couldn’t these new refugees? Priya is Mahindan’s lawyer, a student, learning about the refugee laws and processes even as he does, and we do. The laws that are subjective, changing, political. That can hinge on a single person on a single day, a person who may be working for a politician, who may have read the wrong newspaper article that morning, who may be swayed by anti-immigration rhetoric and populism. As Mahindan’s desperate months in detention, separated from his son, stretch on, we learn with him, and with Priya, that the shining beacon of hope Canada represents to the world may not be that shiny after all.
Sharon Bala has presented us with some serious dilemmas in The Boat People, some of which, as a Canadian, are hard to face. She holds up a mirror, and not everything in it is something I want to see. In it I see good people, the Canadians I am proud to be counted among: Priya, empathetic and determined; families who step up and take in children; lawyers who fight for the rights of immigrants. This is a Canada I recognize. But the mirror also shows us a government as hypocritcal and fractured as Grace’s colleague described, who can’t decide if it wants to be a haven for refugees or to put Canadians first. This has real consequences for real people – it has in the past and it continues now – and this, too, Ms. Bala asks us to confront. That we are not always all we want to be proud to be.
The Boat People rightly earned a place on the shortlist for Canada Reads. This Canada day, I think we should take the time to look the Grace’s and the Mahindan’s of our country in the eye. We need to recognize how much of them is in us, how much they make up the fabric of our society. And then, we need to take a hard look in that mirror, and decide how much to be proud of.