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As MPs debate how to balance kindness with sustainability for our immigration system, this week Conservative MP Peter Kent took Twitter followers back to the Fall of Saigon; where for Canadian officials on the ground, it became every man, woman and valuable for themselves.
“When other embassies were throwing procedural and bureaucratic regard to the winds, Canada flew in a Hercules,” said Kent, setting the scene for his April 1975 CBC report. “And it came to take out Canadian embassy staff, the chargé d’affaires, the vehicle and artwork and basically didn’t take out any of their Vietnamese staff.”
As Kent documents in his piece, even the embassy’s driver who brought the staff car to the airport and parked it on the plane was given a handshake and Canada’s regrets he could not join the exodus.
Twenty-five years later, then-Canadian chargé d’affaires in Vietnam Ernest Hebert still blamed his decision to abandon local staff and their families on diplomatic protocol.
“We were prepared to take any Vietnamese who could get out, but we could not obtain from the Vietnamese Authority, the exit permit, even (for) my own staff at the embassy—we had issued visas to every one of them, of course,” Hebert says in a 2000 CBC radio interview. “My heart was broken…I don’t know how many representations I made, but (exit visas) I could not obtain.”
Meanwhile that same day, according to Kent, “the Americans took out thousands.”
Covering the Fall of Saigon was Kent’s second trip to Indochina as a reporter—his first was as a freelancer in 1966, “when journalists had high access to military and officials.”
On the ground in Saigon that tumultuous April in 1975, Kent had barely arrived after being evacuated from Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Pehn.
Kent remembers leaving other journalist colleagues behind, including Sydney Schonberg whose writings about what happened after the U.S. abandoned Cambodia was adapted for The Killing Fields’ screenplay.
From the deck of the USS Okinawa where Kent and others had been evacuated by U.S. forces, it was on to Thailand and then Saigon where he reported on the final days of American involvement in the conflict.
“The North Vietnamese got closer by the day and on the 30th of April they played White Christmas on the Armed Forces radio and issued the code words ‘the temperature is 110 degrees and rising’,” Kent said. “And everybody went to their evacuation posts, and we went to the US embassy and left that night.”
Kent said watching the Canadian Hercules get packed with valuables as our officials turned away their Vietnamese staff, was his “biggest disappointment” covering the war.
“There was the tragedy at the end of the war with the loss of an imperfect democracy in South Vietnam but there was good news on the other hand with Canada’s generosity and the welcoming of boat people,” Kent said. “And the wonderful way they took advantage of that welcome to contribute so much for Canadian society.”