ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – A handful of Tamil refugees who were found starving and nearly without hope aboard open lifeboats 30 years ago off Newfoundland returned Thursday to visit the rescuers who helped bring them to safety.
Organizer Sarujan Kanapathipillai said the 30th anniversary commemorations were not only for the four refugees who returned with their families.
About 85 of the 110 people who came to Newfoundland this week have no direct connection to the events of August 11, 1986, he said.
It was a key moment for all Tamil Canadians.
“It touched all of us … most of us came as refugees,” said Kanapathipillai, 29, who wasn’t even born when this group of refugees arrived and has no familial connection to the event. He was simply moved by the story.
The two 10-metre-long open lifeboats carrying about 150 refugees were found in St. Mary’s Bay by fishing boat captain Gus Dalton. He, and other Newfoundland captains who joined him, threw out their catches to make room for the men, women and children who had been drifting for three days after being dropped off by a larger ship.
Kanapathipillai said Tamils say the generosity of Newfoundlanders — and the federal government’s willingness to take in the refugees despite opposition among some Canadians — are part of “what we identify as Canadian values.”
“You form a culture by the stories you celebrate and this is a story we celebrate,” said Kanapathipillai, a Toronto IT consultant.
Kanapathipillai said the Tamils had lost hope after being adrift and without food, and expected to die. One woman talked of throwing herself and her newborn baby overboard to bring a quick end to the misery, before Dalton arrived, he said.
“We want to celebrate and encourage the kindness and generosity the fishermen showed. The fishermen and so many others, but it started with the fishermen.”
The Tamils sought refugee status because of persecution in Sri Lanka, and told the RCMP they paid $3,000 to $5,000 US to be taken to Canada or the United States.
On Thursday, a group of former refugees and their families went to Holyrood, where one of the lifeboats is still being used. There were tears as two of the onetime refugees sat in the boat and remembered the harrowing journey.
They visited Dalton at his Admiral’s Beach home, and also visited the Canadian Coast Guard ship Leonard J. Cowley, which brought them to St. John’s.
Kanapathipillai, the son of a Tamil refugee, said the recent arrival of 25,000 Syrians in Canada as of Feb. 29 had particular resonance for his people.
“It’s almost the same story,” he said. “The faces have changed but the story’s the same.”
— By Rob Roberts in Halifax