ebook, 363 pages.
Read from March 6, 2018 to March 12, 2018.
The Boat People is inspired by a real refugee crisis as detailed in the author’s notes. The MV Sun Sea incident happened in 2010 when a boat docked in British Columbia carrying nearly 500 illegal refugees who were trying to escape the Sri Lankan civil war. The journey took three months…three months of squalor and close living quarters, three months without a proper bath or meal, three months of nightmares from the horrors they left behind. Yet the intentions of the refugees were questioned when they were detained at the harbour. This work of fiction tries to capture what may have gone on during that time, not only for the refugees but the works, lawyers and politicians working with and against them.
According to the author, in the real incident, there was a man who was a mechanic back in Sri Lanka that had to work with the Tiger terrorist group and it was this man that inspired the main character, Mahindan. After Mahindan’s wife dies in childbirth he becomes the sole provider of his son Sellian. As civil war tensions rise, Mahindan is left with no choice but to try and get aboard a smuggling ship to save the life of his young son. The horrors and death that Mahindan had to live with in order to board the boat are shocking and graphically detailed but when he and his other refugee countrymen are received in Canada they are detained and chained, placed into a prison, where Mahindan is separated from his son. The story also follows the perspective and family lives of the adjudicator, Grace, a Japanese-Canadian who is responsible for deciding the fate of the refugees, as well as Priya, a young Tamil-Canadian student lawyer who has found herself defending the refugees. The novel encompasses all perspectives and opinions on immigrants and refugees making you empathize with every party and giving you an encompassing image of the stresses and issues surrounding the story and the real-life issue itself. Grace is an example of a stressed and broken system in which people with no experience or right to making such hefty decisions are making and breaking them. Fred, Grace’s boss, represents the narrow but well-meaning persona of a conservative politician.
I saved this book to read last out of the five Canada Reads 2018 shortlist candidates because it has the best reviews. I have to admit, the first 120 pages were a slog. I felt disconnected from the characters and the story and felt bogged down in politics and details. I was baffled as to why people were in love with this book. However, that quickly changed. After I passed the quarter mark of the book the stakes got higher and I was soon enraptured in an emotionally gripping story. And that ending! I was not prepared for it. Looking back, however, I feel it was the best way to end the story as it leaves the reader with the decision based on their own views of Canada.
This book opened my eyes and will open many others who read it on what the real realities of refugees. In today’s world, especially in a Trump era of fake news, it is imperative that stories like this exist. Even for a fiction, it may be the only voice that some refugees get that someone will listen to.
The real incident changed Canada, for better or for worse, depending on who you ask, making it harder for refugees to come to Canada. The situation is worse in America with Trump’s reign and in the UK with the major vote of Brexit being based on the false belief that immigrants are stealing jobs. I hope that Canada will always be a safe place for those seeking refuge. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said it best, “Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion.”