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New Calgary park and monument honouring Vietnamese community unveiled

Hundreds of people gathered at the grand opening of the Journey to Freedom Park in southeast Calgary on Friday.

The park, which has been under construction since April 2021, was built to honour the journey of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who fled to Canada after the fall of Saigon in 1975. 

Tu Lien Thurston, whose family was one of the major sponsors for the project, was at the unveiling ceremony on Friday.

“It’s important to our family because I want my children and their future generation to understand where we have come from and the sacrifices that my parents have made and my grandparents have made,” she said.

“That’s why we’re here today, is to honour them.”

A new monument was unveiled in southeast Calgary on Friday in honour of those who fled Vietnam by boat starting in the 1970s. (Helen Pike/CBC)

A new monument commemorating the Vietnamese “boat people” sits at the entrance to the park on International Avenue. The park is built on land leased by the city, overlooking Calgary’s skyline.

Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s were referred to as “boat people” because many who fled post-war Vietnam did so in over-crowded boats across the South China Sea to refugee camps in Southeast Asia.

The United Nations estimates up to 250,000 people died attempting to make the perilous journey at sea.

Thurston said her family tried to make the journey out of Vietnam twice in 1978. The first time they tried, they were unsuccessful. But the second time, they made it by boat safely to the coast of Malaysia.

“It was frightening because there was 500 people on this wooden boat … in a rough sea.  And we were lucky enough to avoid the pirates and the Vietnamese navy,” she said.

‘I think it’s important to have a monument like this in Calgary and also across Canada to commemorate all the sacrifices our grandparents have made and our parents have made,’ said Tu Lien Thurston. (Helen Pike/CBC)

“I think it’s important for people to come here and to reflect and to honour those who didn’t make it through the rough seas.”

Her family spent a year in a refugee camp before they were sponsored by a church in the village of Linden, about 100 kilometres northeast of Calgary. 

Thurston said the monument and the park, conceived by The Calgary Vietnamese Canadian Association, will hopefully help people remember the history of Vietnamese refugees and the dangerous journey many faced.

“We were labeled when we first came as FOBs — fresh off the boat. A lot of people don’t understand that, and some people might feel even ashamed of it, but we shouldn’t be, because we made it. And Canada is a great place for new immigrants to settle,” she said.

According to the 2016 census, Calgary has the fourth-largest Vietnamese population in Canada.

The $1.2 million project was mostly funded by the community. It also received a $300,000 contribution from the province.

“This is a fantastic project in memorial to what makes Canada great, a place of freedom and refuge for people who have faced persecution,” said Premier Jason Kenney.

“The Vietnamese boat people story is an amazing one. This is a spectacular monument to them, to Canada.”

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