More than 12,500 refugees have been resettled in Canada by Mennonite Central Committee since it negotiated a historic agreement with the government on March 5, 1979. The agreement established the framework for private agencies to sponsor more than 327,000 refugees for resettlement to Canada in the past 40 years.
In the late 1970s, the plight of the “Vietnamese boat people” was highly covered by international media, propelling conversations about refugees and resettlement into public awareness. The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 caused millions of Vietnamese people to flee the country, seeking refuge anywhere they could find it. During the peak of the refugee crisis in 1978, Canadian Mennonites were growing deeply concerned.
The enormous outflow of refugees from Vietnam and Southeast Asia struck a chord that was familiar to Mennonite communities, many of whom were themselves descended from refugees fleeing persecution.
From its creation in 1920 to the late ’70s, MCC had worked to pay forward that kindness, assisting thousands of European Mennonites seeking resettlement in Canada and the U.S. after the Second World War and other conflicts and disasters.
Told to play hardball
Under new legislation in the 1970s, interested groups of as small as five people could sponsor refugees directly. However, the sponsoring group would also have to accept financial responsibility for the first year of expenses for whomever they sponsored — a daunting obligation that many were unable to risk.
“The request at the MCC annual meeting that year was that I arrange a method or mechanism so that Mennonite congregations could bring in refugees,” said Bill Janzen, then-director of MCC’s Ottawa Office.
Janzen and his MCC colleagues began to meet with officials from the immigration department to set in place a master agreement that would allow MCC to bear the burden of responsibility institutionally.
According to Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975-1980 by Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert Shalka, government officials had been told to play hardball and to establish that government supports, like language and job-skills training, would be for government refugees only — that MCC would have to create those supports themselves with no assistance.
Shortly after negotiations began, Gordon Barnett, the Department of Immigration’s chief negotiator, realized an aggressive approach was not the solution.
“As negotiations progressed and the goodwill of MCC became evident, this approach changed, and both sides readily accepted to do what each would do best,” recalled Barnett, as quoted in Running on Empty.
“Bill [Janzen] negotiated in such good faith it was embarrassing to play the cards I had been given. . . . Negotiating with MCC demonstrated only their complete commitment to help against our reluctance to give anything up and our meanness. I thought we should adopt a different, more cooperative approach.”
The signing of the agreement on March 5, 1979, marked an extraordinary moment in MCC’s history. While there had been broad agreements in place to support refugee resettlement between MCC and the government of Canada, this deal formed the foundation for how faith communities directly support those seeking refuge.
Shortly after its signing, dozens of church bodies across Canada signed virtually identical agreements.
Over the next 18 months, half of Canada’s 600 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches sponsored some 4,000 refugees for resettlement to Canada.