A Difficult Journey to Freedom

The Vietnam War (1955-1975) was a terrible battleground of the Cold War. For many, knowledge of this conflict comes through an American perspective in movies and other sources. For our Vietnamese friends and neighbours, this tragedy was intensely personal and represented the loss of everything dear to them.

In those final days of the war, as the outcome became increasingly clear, many families in the South Vietnamese military and those with the means to travel fled the country to find safety abroad. Those who left in 1975 represented the first major wave of Vietnamese immigrants to arrive in our country.

Doctor Kien Le, President of the local Vietnamese Association of Toronto (VAT), was part of that first wave at age 12. Though many years have passed, Doctor Le still has vivid memories of the war’s final days, “My father was a high ranking officer in the South Vietnamese Fleet. On April 29, 1975, the day Saigon fell, my family was aboard a battleship. When we heard word that the presidential palace was overrun, we knew the country was lost.”

That day, Doctor Le’s ship and many others regrouped at an American base in the Philippines. From there, families boarded a cargo ship headed to a military camp in Guam where they would wait for months as the international community decided their fate.

In July 1975, Doctor Le’s family arrived in Toronto, first living in a downtown hotel where he keenly remembers the excitement of seeing his first Caribana Festival. His family moved to the city’s east-end where they rented the second floor of an Italian-Canadian family’s home and enrolled in the local catholic school. He still recalls the support his family received from a Canadian family, the Catholic Church and other community organizations during their transition into a new life.

Today, Doctor Le is an accomplished medical doctor and an active volunteer within the Vietnamese community. In February, the VAT co-hosted a special Lunar New Year event at our local Northwood Community Centre that memorialized the 50-year anniversary of the Tet Massacre where the Vietnamese communists’ violation of a ceasefire led to the deaths of thousands of civilians. Through his efforts with the VAT, Doctor Le hopes to make a difference in the lives of Vietnamese-Canadians while speaking for human rights and freedom in Vietnam.

The second wave of Vietnamese immigrants began in the late 1970s. Fleeing the communist regime, families risked their lives in small boats on the open seas.

Andrew Dang, a volunteer with the local North York Vietnamese Canadian Seniors Association, was part of this second and much larger wave of Vietnamese immigrants. At age 6, Andrew’s family sold everything they had to pay for a cramped trip on a camouflaged fishing boat, “There were 91 of us on a small boat. We spent three days at sea without proper food and were robbed clean of our few remaining belongings by pirates. Most families who attempted this dangerous journey never reached shore. We were the lucky ones.” he recalls.

His family arrived in a refugee camp in Thailand. For six months, they lived on the generosity of the locals and international donations until landing in Montreal in 1980 and moving to Toronto shortly thereafter. Andrew recognizes the sacrifices made by his parents, “They worked long hours in factory jobs so my brother and I could have a better future.”

The North York Vietnamese Canadian Seniors Association meets on the weekends at Grandravine Community Centre to socialize, exercise and play chess. They are also taken on field trips to enjoy the natural beauty of our province. Andrew is a proud volunteer of this association of which his father was a former president, “Our older generation sacrificed everything for their children and grandchildren. It is their time to relax after so many difficult years.”

In 2015, the dangerous journey that millions of Vietnamese families undertook following the end of the Vietnam War was commemorated in Parliament as Journey to Freedom Day Act. This worthy recognition received all-party support and celebrates both the role Canada played in welcoming refugees as well as the important contributions that the Vietnamese community has made here in their new Canadian home.

 

Our Grey Cup Champion

On November 28, 2017, the Toronto Argonauts won the 105th Grey Cup. Our community’s very own Jamal Campbell was an offensive lineman on the team, and he proudly brought the cup to our community on January 23, 2018, sharing a message of hope and perseverance with Elia and C.W. Jefferys students.

In 2009, I helped kick-start the creation of a football team at C.W. Jefferys by securing support from the Ford Foundation and interest from the school administration. I had hoped to give students a new opportunity for mentorship and access to a new sport that required strong teamwork and discipline. The Toronto Argonauts helped put the final pieces of the puzzle together and a new high school football team was born in our community. The team played for an exciting four years, but ultimately ended in 2013. I often wondered what came of this team, so full of hope. Enter Jamal Campbell.

Our new local hero, Jamal was a 16 year old student at C.W.J. at the time. Athletic and at a towering 6’4″, he played basketball on the school team. He still remembers the surprise and excitement at the school when the chance to try out for a football team was announced, “I watched football on TV but I was never really exposed to the sport until then. There was no way I would pass up the chance to play.”

Jamal says that opportunity to play football was a blessing, “High school football taught me discipline, time management, and healthy living. Playing on the team was a reward and not a right, so we had to keep our grades up and attend practices. We were reminded that we were students first and athletes second. Less than one percent of athletes make it pro, so you need an education to fall back on. What I gained from football opened a door for me to go to university.”

Jamal was granted admission to York University in 2011 and tried out for the York Lions, “I met players who had been playing since they were 8 years old so I had a lot of catching up to do. I was red-shirted in my first year and used the time to build and strengthen my body. I really pushed myself to excel and became a starter on the team in the next year.”

In March 2016, Jamal’s years of football were put to the test at the CFL Combine, an important event where top Canadian university talent compete at a camp in front of CFL scouts and coaches. On May 10, 2016, Jamal was drafted by the Toronto Argonauts, beginning his professional career in Canadian football.

Jamal won the Grey Cup in 2017, and on his day with the Cup he brought it home to his old schools, Elia and C.W.J., York University and even the corner of Jane and Finch. He spoke proudly of his tour here with the Grey Cup on January 23, “I brought the Cup back to the place I started. This is a win for our community and all of those who supported me. I want the youth in our area to know you can overcome any obstacle and reach your dreams through determination and perseverance.”

Current C.W. Jefferys Athletic Director, Tracey Galbraith, rejoiced in Jamal’s success and is interested in exploring football again at the school. She discussed some of the challenges the earlier team faced such as sustaining the morale of forty players during a rigorous schedule in the starting years of a team. Tracey is hopeful for the future and believes Jamal’s achievements will galvanize student interest.

Congratulations to Jamal, our local hero. His win is a shining example of what can happen when we give our students new opportunities and invest in their success.

Our Subway Finally Opens

Growing up in our community, the rest of the city felt so far away. As a child of the suburbs in the 80’s, most of my life existed within a few square kilometres. Often, I would find the right spot to gaze at the CN Tower; it seemed as far away as the moon.

My mother would take me to Ontario Place in the summers. We would get on the subway at Wilson and stand at the front of the train looking down the dark tunnel beginning at Eglinton, waiting for the light of the next station. Getting out downtown was like entering another world. A place full of sounds and smells and lots of people, with towering buildings all around.

When our community was built in the 1960’s, Line 1 of our subway system came only as far north as the current Eglinton Station on Yonge Street. From there, it headed south to Union Station on Front Street before looping north to St. George Station on Bloor. In the 1970’s, downtown inched closer to us through the openings of Finch station under Yonge Street (1974) and Wilson station at Allen Road (1978). It was another 18 years before the futuristic looking Downsview Station (now called Sheppard West Station) opened its doors in 1996.

Throughout the years, new bus routes were created through our community and more buses were added to the system. Today, when I groan at a 15-minute wait for a local bus, I often forget what it was like during my teenage years when an hour wait was not uncommon.

The plan to bring the subway through our community became a reality after I began working with Councillor Anthony Perruzza at City Hall in late 2006. The news was like a dream come true. Contracts were awarded in 2008, associated infrastructure work (moving sewers, etc.) began that same year, and drilling was commenced in 2011 and completed in 2013. Throughout the construction, my work afforded me the great privilege to be a part of this incredible project. There were years of setting up consultations about everything from station designs to traffic patterns, meetings with engineers, tours of tunnels and stations at various stages of construction, and much more. On December 16, we held a special open house at Finch West Station where members of our community explored the station. The feeling of anticipation was palpable.

Sunday, December 17, 2017 will forever be a special day in history, for it was the day that the subway through the heart of our community entered operation. On that day, we truly became one with the rest of our city and beyond, and thousands upon thousands rode for free and shared in the feeling of wonder and excitement.

I think for all of us though, the most important day was the Monday after the official opening. On that day, and for the first time ever, I walked a brisk 20 minutes to a subway station to get to work. It was a day that my daily life got a little better, and my smile lasted all the way to Queen Street.