20 years later: Migrants who landed on Vancouver Island risked lives for their families

Michael Lin is a hard-working guy.

The 37-year-old lives in the Lower Mainland, but on this day is reached up in 100 Mile House, preparing to log five acres to make way for a self-storage business he’s opening.

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That’s in addition to the tourism-related enterprise he launched four years ago. And that’s in addition to his other company, Port Coquitlam’s Stonehenge Marble and Granite. He says 12- or 13-hour days are typical. Days off are rare.

In short, Lin is living the dream -- the dream he had when, as a desperately poor 17-year-old, he fled China, only to be abandoned on a remote Haida Gwaii beach by gun-waving people smugglers.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Summer of the Migrants, when the arrival of four ghost ships crammed with 599 Chinese caused at uproar on Vancouver Island.

It was one of the biggest stories of the decade, made headlines across Canada — and has been the subject of debate ever since.

Authorities apprehended the first boat off Gold River on July 20, 1999. The second, Lin’s vessel, came in early August. By Sept. 8, two more had been intercepted off Vancouver Island.

By May 21, 2001, when the saga was finally over, 330 migrants had been deported and three dozen allowed to stay in Canada. Most of the rest simply melted away, pressured by the smugglers into finding their way to low-wage jobs in the underground economy of New York, San Francisco or some other big U.S. city where the newcomers could, eventually, earn enough to pay off their passage.

Our provincial and federal governments ended up doing a lot of soul-searching over their handling of the migrants. Islanders and other Canadians were left to reflect on their own reactions, which ranged from open-armed generosity to angry xenophobia, or at least alarm at the sudden appearance of entire boatloads of people who were seen as trying to sneak past the queue to the Canadian gravy train.

That latter perspective still frustrates those who advocated for the migrants. It wasn’t greed that drove the Fujianese here, they argue. It was desperation. It’s hard for plump, safe, comfortable Canadians to appreciate the kind of grinding poverty and oppressive conditions faced by people like Lin. That they would agree to the smugglers’ fee -- $30,000 US, a huge amount in the rural parts of Fujian province, where villagers were lucky to scrape together $1,000 a year -- showed how bleak their lives, their futures, were there.

That’s why, even after Canada deported them to China, some of the migrants fought their way back to this side of the ocean. Do you recall the little seven-year-old girl whose photo appeared on the front page of the Times Colonist in August 1999? She’s in New York City now. The 12-year-old boy with whom she shared a Port Moody foster home, and who was deported on the same day, managed to return, too. He’s married, has two kids and runs a Chinese buffet in Nebraska.

Remember how harrowing those ocean journeys were, too. By the time Lin jumped into the surf at Haida Gwaii, he was starving and weakened by thirst after spending close to two months sardined in the hold of a rustbucket ship with more than 130 others. They got one meal a day, one bottle of water a week. The body of a woman who died during the clandestine crossing was dumped in the ocean. “It was terrible,” Lin says. “It was really, really tough.”

But what else could he do but make the journey, he asks. In Fujian he was just another mouth to feed in a house with no food. “I just wanted to help my family.”

Driven by desperation, migrants sought a better life

How harsh was the world the migrants fled?

When Michael Lin’s parents couldn’t pay the fine for breaking China’s one-child policy, government officials took the only things of value his family owned: the doors to their house.

“It’s so bad there,” Lin says today. The rich and powerful twist the laws to their advantage. The poor have no way to get ahead.

In 1999, Lin’s family was poor. They were farmers with no land to farm. The 17-year-old, the eldest of four siblings, felt like a burden. So, seeing no other choice, he agreed to pay smugglers $30,000 US — an unimaginable sum for people who might earn $1,000 in a good year — to spirit him to America, where he could earn money to send home.

The snakeheads — that’s the name given to smugglers — promised a 23-day voyage on a cruise ship with a pool. Instead, Lin Rui Chu, as he was then known, was among 131 people herded at gunpoint into the crowded hold of a 50-metre boat that would take almost two months to cross the Pacific.

He spent the whole trip lying beside an old man who coughed non-stop. They were allowed one bowl of rice and salty vegetables each day, one bottle of water a week — until the food and water ran out. The ship broke down for 10 days. One woman died, her body sent overboard. “It was terrible,” says Lin, now a successful businessman in the Lower Mainland.

As tensions neared the breaking point, the Chinese snakeheads ordered the Korean crew to land wherever they could. That turned out to be Kunghit Island in Haida Gwaii. The ship ground to a halt in waist-deep water at about 4 a.m. All Lin could make out was a steep, densely forested shore.

“Jump!” the gun-waving snakeheads ordered, though they need not have brandished their firearms. The passengers didn’t want to spend one more minute in that floating prison. They conjured up what little life they had left and plunged into the water. “You used all your strength,” Lin says.

Start walking, the migrants were told, there’s a big U.S. city on the other side of the mountain — but after 12 hours of climbing, all that was visible was the other side of what they realized was a desolate island.

Lin lost hope. “No energy anymore.” They lit beach fires and tried to ease their hunger by eating tiny crabs and whatever else they could find under the rocks.

That’s where the Canadian Coast Guard found them, during the Summer of the Migrants.

Public opinion opposed migrants

Maybe Canadians would have greeted the migrants with more understanding had we heard their stories from the beginning.

Every tale was the same, says immigration lawyer Doug Cannon. All 599 of the rural Chinese smuggled to the B.C. coast in the summer of 1999 had one thing in common: “Every single one of them was desperate.”

As it is, the history books might not look back on this episode kindly. In retrospect, our reaction was often out of proportion to any threat. Our indignation overwhelmed our humanity.

The first of the four rusting vessels that brought the migrants from Fujian province was seized in Nootka Sound 20 years ago this week. By Sept. 8, three other ships, including Lin’s, had been discovered.

It was a man from the Sunshine Coast who spotted the first boat. Blane Hagedorn, on Nootka Island for a weekend of fishing, was barbecuing on a buddy’s deck around 8 p.m. one night when this decrepit little coastal freighter chugged into view, drunkenly listing as it weaved its way through the sportfishing boats.

“It had absolutely no markings, no flag,” Hagedorn recalled last week. No one was visible on board, but he figured the old tub might carry a crew of 10. He never dreamed there could be 123 seasick Fujianese stuffed below the deck.

The old tub had to be bringing in drugs, right? He reached for the VHF radio and called the Canadian Coast Guard station in Ucluelet — not that his alert set off any alarm bells, he says.

“They didn’t take me that seriously.” He later heard the Coast Guard had hailed a yacht, wondering if it were that vessel he had spied.

As it turns out, the first officials on the scene weren’t even Canadian.

Three policemen from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, holidaying at Nootka Sound’s Critter Cove resort, were up bright and early on July 20 for some salmon fishing. One of the Washington officers, Capt. Rick Cothern, described their experience in a written statement to the RCMP:

“During the early morning, sometime before 0700, Det. [Barry] Fagan and I observed two Asian males on a poorly constructed raft. The raft was made from two 50-gallon plastic drums with some boards lashed to them. There was a portable camping cooler in the middle of the drums. The two males were paddling the craft with the two boards.

“As we trolled by them, I asked if they ‘needed rescuing.’ Due to the language barrier I was unable to determine what their response was. It was my belief that the two males were from the tramp steamer that was located a short distance away at the head of Tahsis Inlet.

“When we trolled back by the two individuals on the raft, I asked words to the effect of ‘Are you OK?’ The youngest of the males displayed a large wad of U.S. currency, placed his hands near his ear and stated ‘Phone, phone, get phone.’”

The Americans took the pair aboard — “the youngest of the two tried to converse using a Chinese-English translation book” — and headed over to the freighter. It bore no name, no flag, no port of registry.

The sportfishing boat returned to Critter Cove, where staff called Gold River RCMP, who asked the Americans to hang on to the two Asians. Close to an hour later, an inflatable boat showed up with a Coast Guard member and Fisheries officer, who handcuffed the pair.

The American cops stood guard until the Mounties arrived: “We purchased the prisoners some oatmeal, which they ate with ketchup.”

The first group of migrants was brought to CFB Esquimalt and spent a couple of weeks at the Work Point Barracks gym before most were released. All applied for refugee status. A few stayed in Victoria, some at UVic, but most went to the Lower Mainland. Ten minors were taken into the care of B.C.’s Ministry for Children and Family Development.

Public sentiment was not on the side of the migrants, who were portrayed as queue-jumpers skipping the immigration process while others patiently waited their turn. People acted as though the Chinese were out to take advantage of the soft-hearted Canadian welfare state, when in reality all they wanted to do was find work and start paying off those $30,000 bills before the snakeheads got antsy.

The uproar was just starting to abate when, on Aug. 9, an Aurora surveillance aircraft out of CFB Comox spotted a vessel heading for Haida Gwaii. That was Lin’s boat, the Hueg Ryong Pusan No. 705.

'You'd do the same damn thing'

Lin recalls the kindness of his rescuers. The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Gordon Reid gave each migrant a blanket and a bit of food — their stomachs couldn’t handle more than that — before taking them to Port Hardy. From there they were bused to CFB Esquimalt.

Just as that happened, word spread that a third ship was on the way. When the Times Colonist conducted a phone-in poll, 97 per cent of respondents — 3,362 people — said the migrants should be sent back to China. “Go home,” read the resulting front-page headline.

New chain-link fences, metal huts and portable toilets arrived at Work Point. So did more migrants after two more ships arrived off the west coast of the Island. By mid-September, neighbours were growing restive: It was unsettling to see people penned behind the wire in the middle of their nice residential neighbourhood.

The decision to incarcerate adult migrants came after many of those from the first ship vanished while awaiting refugee hearings. Ottawa locked away the adults first at Work Point, then in a variety of prisons — including Victoria’s Wilkinson Road jail — before reactivating a mothballed Prince George jail in September 1999.

As the months dragged on, depression set in among those incarcerated in Prince George. There were periodic disturbances, including an eight-day hunger strike by women prisoners in October 2000.

Minors fared better, being placed in the community (pause here to contrast their treatment with that of the children being locked up at the southern U.S. border today). Lin ended up apprenticing in a Lower Mainland kitchen countertop company while working through the refugee process. Still, he wondered if he should do like other claimants and bolt for a job in the underground U.S. economy.

For one day in 2000, he got a troubling call from his family: The snakeheads had come for their money, had stuck a gun in his father’s head and beat him. His parents came up with the cash, but only by borrowing elsewhere at 25 per cent interest, the loans based on Lin’s earning potential. It took Lin 6 1/2 years (including a period when a workplace accident blinded him in one eye, cutting off the flow of cash) to pay off a debt that climbed to $56,000 by the time he was done.

That illustrates what many of us failed to appreciate at the time: how much pressure was being exerted on the migrants, children included, to get out and start paying for their passage. The snakeheads didn’t care if you were trapped in a jail or group home, or if you were in the U.S. or Canada. They just wanted their money, so put the screws to the migrants’ families, who in turn put pressure on the migrants to get free and get earning.

That’s why so many migrants disappeared to the U.S. at the first opportunity, Lin says. They thought they could earn more money there. By August 2000, it was reported that Canadian authorities had released 184 migrants, three-quarters of whom then disappeared.

Even the youngest would hit the road; most of the 134 minors taken into government care slipped away. “All the kids wanted to stay in Canada,” Lin says — but when they phoned their families in China, they were urged to bolt for jobs in the U.S.

Port Moody foster mother Penny Lipscombe knows how much weight was on those children. She housed a 12-year-old boy named Jun and a seven-year-old girl called Yan, whose photo ran on the front of the Times Colonist after she arrived on the same boat as Lin in August.

“She was really sweet,” Lipscombe said. “She learned English really quickly.” Really, the girl had no choice but to learn after being enrolled in an elementary school with few other Asians. Jun was slower to pick up the language, as his middle school had many Chinese speakers.

One day in May 2000, after the children had been with her for several months, Lipscombe was told they were to be deported to China. “They gave us less than two days’ notice.”

Lipscombe fought the decision, but lost. “Everybody was trying to stop it, but we couldn’t do anything.”

So, on the night before the kids were to leave, she threw them a farewell party with teachers, friends and neighbours. At one point she had the children call their families in China to let them know they were coming.

Later that night, at 2 or 3 a.m., Lipscombe got out of bed to check on the children. “They were gone.”

She called the RCMP, who soon called back to say they had spotted the kids and picked them up. Lipscombe says they were trying to contact someone who could help them go to the U.S. “Somebody in China had made arrangements for someone in the Lower Mainland to get the children and take them away.”

News vans were parked outside when immigration authorities arrived to take the children away in the morning. Three days later, Lipscombe got a call from the airport, telling her to come get the children’s luggage; they hadn’t even been allowed to take their belongings back to China when deported.

What greeted migrants on the other end of the flight wasn’t great, either, despite the Canadian government’s assurances that there would be no repercussions in China, Lipscombe says. “The kids said they got off the plane and all the adults were arrested.”

What crushes Lipscombe is that Yan never should have been deported. Canada’s policy was that unaccompanied minors could remain. Jun and Yan got bounced because they arrived with their mothers — or so the authorities thought. Yan’s “mother” was not related at all. “She never would have been sent back if she had told us the truth,” laments Lipscombe.

The thing is, even after being booted back to China, both of the children made it to the U.S. anyway. The boy, Jun, runs a Chinese buffet restaurant in Nebraska now. Yan ended up in New York City. Lipscombe last spoke to her a year and a half ago.

As those kind of stories began to come out, feelings toward the migrants began to moderate. On one hand, many Canadians agreed with the judge who sentenced three Chinese crew members from one of the boats to four years in prison. “She said Canada is entitled to select migrants that it believes will reflect the values of Canadian society, rather than those delivered by profit-driven international smugglers whose choices would ‘unlikely be considered desirable or acceptable immigrants to this country,’ ” the Vancouver Sun reported.

On the other hand, it became harder to demonize the migrants as they took on a human face, particularly when that face was trapped behind a fence at Work Point or gazing out from a prison in Prince George. It gradually dawned that Canada, which might see 20,000 refugee applicants annually, was not about to be brought to its knees by 600 poor Chinese farmers.

In the end, only three dozen of the migrants were allowed to stay in Canada. By May 2001, a total of 330 had been deported.

Most of those who were allowed to remain were women accepted as refugees due to China’s then policy of limiting families to a single child. That wasn’t what drove them here, though. They came because they were poor, couldn’t afford to eat, to live. “Money was the reason why they were desperate,” says Cannon, the immigration lawyer. Canada didn’t recognize that as a valid reason, though. Refugees were accepted on the basis of politics, not economics.

If there was a lesson to be learned from 1999, Cannon says, it was that if Canada is to live up to its commitment to hear all refugee claims, it must have policies and practices in place to ensure those claimants are assessed fairly, quickly and in a way that treats them humanely. “Do the job, and do the job with dignity.”

Instead, we often treated the Fujianese as a problem, a threat, which still bothers him. “I’ve yet to see a news report, not one, of any of these migrants committing a crime,” he says.

Mostly, Cannon says, they just wanted to put their heads down and go to work. The adults, or the ones who were older teens like Lin, had the hardest time adapting to the language and culture. The younger ones, or the children who joined their parents later, did just fine. “They are very well integrated and they are proud to be Canadian.”

Eventually those kids will have kids who, like so many second- and third-generation Canadians, won’t be able to identify with their past. Most of us can’t relate to the kind of desperation that drove many of our own ancestors to claw their way to Canada by whatever means they could, Cannon says. “It’s really hard to get across to people who have been born and raised in a country that has so much. … If it were you, you’d do the same damn thing.”

Much has changed in the 20 years since that first migrant ship appeared in Nootka Sound, just around the corner from where Capt. James Cook and another boatload of foreigners first dropped anchor in 1788.

Canadian law now distinguishes between human smuggling — paying someone to slip you into the country — and human trafficking, in which a person is essentially enslaved. With the exception of two boatloads of Tamils intercepted off Vancouver Island in 2009 and 2010, we never did see the waves of marine-borne migrants that many expected after the Summer of the Migrants.

As for Lin, who brought his parents from China a few years ago, he’s grateful for the life he leads today. “One hundred per cent happy.”

Was it worth the struggle of 1999? “Of course.”

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