Canada's history in SE Asia

Context for Canada's responses to events in Vietnam in the 1970's


Canada's policy in SE Asia from 1945 had three "legs":

1. Self-determination

Canada signed on to to the UN charter in the summer of, 1945 and parliament agreed to it in October. (Canada HC Debates, 1945-10-19, p.1334).[396] Chapter XI article 73 of the charter requires nations "to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions." (UN, 1945)[395] Thus began Canada's expressed opposition to colonialism.

At that same moment in time, Vietnam was declaring itself free of its French colonial masters.[1] But the French did not give in, and thus began a battle to regain full control of Vietnam. It happened that the most powerful Vietnamese nationalist group had linkages with communism and so as the cold war emerged, what had begun as a local fight for freedom from colonial oppression, became of worldwide interest.

In the cold war Canada was clearly aligned with the Western nations, dedicated to communist containment. Canada did not, however, see Vietnam in that light. Canada saw the fight in Vietnam not as an issue of communist containment, but as an issue of self-determination for Vietnam. Since this was diametrically opposed to the US view, Canada had to tread carefully throughout the years of US involvement in Vietnam. Canada did not join the US effort, but it did not publicly oppose US involvement.

Ross summed it up:

[Canada] saw both French and American interventionary efforts [in Vietnam] as terrible misallocations of strategic assets in the global struggle for both peace and containment. But having disagreed with US priorities and methods, Ottawa was not going to forsake its entrée to the corridors of power in Washington by publicly calling for unilateral us retreat from the Asian mainland. (Ross, 1984, p. 383).[260]

2. Prevention of nuclear war

Canada watched Vietnam closely in the interest of preventing nuclear war and when Canada did speak to the US about Vietnam it was in that context.

Canada’s location astride the bomber and missile flight paths between the Soviet Union and the United States dictated that this objective had to be the highest priority of Canadian policy and diplomacy. Acting in support of this objective required regular access to senior decision-makers in Washington. And regular access depended on American perceptions of Canada as a sympathetic ally. Hence, the limits to Canadian dissent [in Vietnam]. (Ross, 1984, p. 9).

A strategy of denunciation of the neo-colonial aspects of the war was not realistic. (Ross, 1984, p. 64).

3. Economic aid

Canada believed that the best way to get small nations to develop good government was through economic aid. Canada thought that positive reinforcement would be more effective than punishment.[2] Force was off the table because of the US charter.

In 1950 Canada was one of the founding members of the Colombo Plan. One of the early beneficiaries were Vietnamese students who were given scholarships to study in Canada.

At a critical time for Vietnam near the end of the war, when the US was thinking about long-term embargoes on Vietnam, Canada was focused on non-partisan aid to Vietnam. This later turned into non-partisan support for refugees.

The articles that follow describe how Canada followed through on its starting principles through the Vietnam war, the fall of Saigon, and the refugee crisis that followed some years later. Next: 1945-1973 Canada and Vietnam

Beginning in 2008, the Harper government retroactively reversed all of this thought and declared that the fight against communism should override the wish for self-determination. The boat people in Canada, whose admission to Canada had been guided by the self-determination principle, are now being told that they must identify with the remnants of Saigon military regime now in Canada.