The Boat People







Author: Sharon Bala
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Read: Feb. 2018

Oh my goodness, I feel like this book took forever to finish! Between going on a ski trip last weekend and the Olympics stealing all of my attention, it took me a bit longer than anticipated to get through The Boat People. But I finally finished!

This was the first book of my February Reading Challenge and I am a little concerned I might not fit them all in this month because I am just completely obsessed with the Olympics! This month I challenged myself to read 3 books about Canada and this was my pick from the Canada Reads 2018 shortlist.

The Boat People is written by Sharon Bala, who fascinatingly was born in Dubai, raised in Ontario, and currently lives in Newfoundland, and it’s about a ship full of refugees from Sri Lanka who landed on Vancouver’s shores in 2010. It was a bit of a thrill to read a book about the place where I currently live, as I don’t read that much Canadian literature, and this was a fascinating bit of history about an event I knew shockingly nothing about.

Sri Lanka has been torn apart by war for decades, driving many people to desperation to escape the violence in any way they can. These 492 Sri Lankan’s board a cargo ship bound for Canada in an effort to seek out a better life. Fortunately everyone survives the journey and they are thrilled when they first see the coast of Vancouver Island, but the welcome party is cut short when they are promptly separated and detained in two prisons while the government fumbles to try and decide what to do about them.

I knew very little about the process for migrants who show up un-announced at the border and this was very eye-opening. Refugees must first seek permission to request asylum and then go through admissibility hearings for their request to be granted. In this case, the government was worried about terrorists being on board and wanted to delay the process as much as possible to assuage the public’s fears. The adjudicators had very little information to go on outside of the refugee’s testimony and because the government wanted to delay the process to dissuade copycat voyages, the refugees were forced to remain in these detainment prisons for months while their hearings were repeatedly denied and postponed.

I did struggle a bit with this book as there’s a lot of legalese in it, a lot of (slightly confusing) Sri Lankan history, and a lot of character names and stories that I struggled to keep straight, but I really liked how Bala wrote this book and she was not shy in tackling a lot of different issues.

The story is told from 3 perspectives: Mahindan, a single father who made the journey from Sri Lanka with his 6-year old son Sellian; Priya, an articling student (of Sri Lankan heritage) who’s firm takes on 5 refugee cases pro bono and has her help out on the cases; and Grace, an adjudicator (of japanese heritage) who is assigned by the xenophobic Minister of Immigration to adjudicate the detainment hearings.

This is a morally-gray book and I appreciated Bala for not making this a straight-forward morality tale. She tackles so many issues in this book; the xenophobia of the Canadian public, the refugee diaspora, the immigration process, Canada’s past failings, the importance of history and remembrance, reconciliation, culture shock, and the list goes on.

The novel first presents us with the refugees, ecstatic to arrive on Canada’s shores, and the brutality of their arrival and immediate imprisonment. In my opinion, you can’t help but empathize with them and think the government harsh. But then Bala gets into the morally gray areas of war and how good and innocent people can be forced and coerced into participating in what western countries view as terrorist organizations.

Are we right to studiously evaluate every refugee who comes into Canada for terrorist affiliation? I think yes, but do we need to steal their humanity from them in the process? No. Do we have the right to deport people when deportation will mean certain torture and death? People may be split on that opinion, but it’s a question that requires empathy and understanding that we will never have by “othering” people and fearing them.

Innocent people are forced to do bad things in wartime, but how to we evaluate those acts and decide if the intent was forced or malicious? What’s direct involvement in acts of “terrorism” and what’s proximate? These are impossible questions to answer and as much as I often disliked Grace’s line of thinking, I could appreciate the pressure that was put on her in these quasi-legal proceedings. All she has to go on is the migrant’s story and how is she to know what is truth? That said, she was an adjudicator appointed by the government in power, which begs the question if she should have the power to make those decisions at all.

However, I liked the contrast of Grace’s story and how Bala demonstrates how cyclical history can be. Grace is the grand-daughter of Japanese immigrants and takes a hard line on border safety and who should be permitted to enter Canada. She is determined to safeguard her daughters freedom to move around without fear, while at the same time struggling with her mother’s declining health. Her mother, Kumi, has Alzheimer’s and is slowly regressing into the past. Her parents had been interned during WWII and lost everything. They never spoke up about the injustice and kept their heads down to give their children a chance to become “true” Canadians. However, now she worries that the apathy of her parents has been passed down to her daughter and grandchildren and that Grace has forgotten the injustices of the past, perpetuating the cycle of oppression.

I thought it was an interesting theme on how people who were once oppressed and othered can learn to be oppressors themselves. And on how important reconciliation is, not just for righting our wrongs, but for protecting against repeating them, to keep fresh an empathy for others.

So while I did feel like it took me forever to get through this book, it was worth it. The Boat People made me think a lot and while it definitely was more ‘liberal-leaning’, it wasn’t a straight forward good vs evil narrative. It’s complex, gritty, and heartbreaking. A fabulous and meaningful debut for a Canadian author.


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