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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Review of THE BOAT PEOPLE by Sharon Bala

4 Stars 
This story is narrated from three perspectives.  Mahindan, a Tamil, arrives in Vancouver aboard a rusted cargo ship (along with 500 other refugees) seeking asylum for himself and his six-year-old son, Sellian.  Priya, a second-generation Sri-Lankan-Canadian, is an articling student who wants to specialize in corporate law but is reluctantly coerced into helping the firm’s immigration lawyer who has Mahindan as one of his clients.  Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, is a political appointee who is charged with adjudicating refugee cases and will determine Mahindan’s ultimate fate.

The theme of the book is that, except for Indigenous Peoples, all Canadians are the descendants of immigrants who came to the country seeking refuge and hoping for a better life. The epigraph is a Martin Luther King quotation:  “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”  All the major characters are refugees or the children of immigrants.  Grace, for example, tells her daughters, “If your great-grandfather hadn’t gotten on that ship a century ago, none of us would be here” (106).  The problem is that people forget that their ancestors were like Mahindan; Grace’s mother points out that Grace is in danger of repeating racist actions of the past:  “Certain people felt too rooted, too comfortable.  They took it for granted that they deserved to be here more than us.  Entitlement closed their hearts” (275). 

Mahindan is a very nuanced character.  He, like all the refugees on the ship, is considered the enemy until he can prove that he is innocent and so worthy of protection.  The problem is that he did work for the Tamil Tigers whom the Canadian government has designated a terrorist group.  As a mechanic, he worked on vehicles for the Tigers because he had no choice:  “If I had refused, [the Tiger cadre] would have beaten me.  If I had refused again, he would have killed me. . . . My wife was pregnant at the time. . . . With my son.  The cadre would have set fire to our house, allowed my wife to burn inside” (198).  To get himself and his son to safety, he had to do things that went against his morals, but he was desperate. 

Mahindan may not be innocent, but Priya’s situation emphasizes that no one is.  She ends up learning about some hidden family history which shows that members of her own family had made choices like Mahindan’s.  Priya’s uncle says, “Priya, what do you think happens when you terrorize a people, force them to flee, take away their options, then put them in a cage all together?  Will they not try and break down the bars? . . . It is very convenient, no?  These labels.  Terrorist” (230).

Grace is the weakest character because she is used by the author, rather heavy-handedly, to make a political statement.  Grace is appointed by Blair, a cabinet minister, and is ill-equipped for her position.  An immigration lawyer describes people like Grace:  “Half those adjudicators are patronage appointments.  Do you think they’ve studied the Act?  Done their due diligence?  Or do you think they just let Blair drip his poison in their ears?  Illegals.  Snakeheads.  Terrorists.  You scare people stupid and then you pull their strings” (119).  At the beginning, Grace comes across as very unfeeling.  When Mahindan is separated from his son, Grace thinks, “of all the times she had spent working late or away at conferences when the girls were small.  These little absences were only short chapters in long parent-child histories” (90).  Blair, her boss, seems as clueless:  “We have to encourage people to go through the proper channels and not just jump on the first boat that sails into the harbour” (339).  Initially, Grace seems to have difficulty seeing connections between her actions and those of government officials who during World War II designated her family as enemy aliens.  Fortunately, later she questions her superior so there is hope that Mahindan’s admissibility hearing might have a positive outcome.

The book really does show the complex situation in which refugees find themselves.  They flee horrific situations and are often take desperate measures to find a safe haven.  Even if they do make it to supposedly safe shores, they face a long process of reviews and hearings.  Though the book was quickly eliminated from Canada Reads 2018, I do think that the book is one that can open people’s eyes.