A new Immigration Act for Canada in 1976 included a provision for private sponsorship of refugees. A Mennonite Member of Parliament, Jake Epp from Steinbach, Man., had been advocating this option in order for church and community groups—the private sector—to become involved in settling people in Canada.
Along with changes in Canadian immigration policy in the late 1970s, the international scene changed dramatically and there was a huge exodus of people from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. They were fleeing persecution and unstable political and economic conditions. Hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing, some over land, others crowded onto boats and became known as the “boat people.”
Across Canada that year—1979—churches, community groups and others were offering to sponsor refugees. There were more than 7,000 groups involved, primarily church groups. During this time, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ottawa office initiated discussions with the government to draft a refugee sponsorship agreement. The purpose of this agreement was to make the process easier.
MCC would assume the overall responsibility for all Mennonite churches and groups that wanted to sponsor refugees. These churches and groups would not have to deal with the government bureaucracy; MCC would do that. It was a remarkable innovation. MCC became the first official sponsorship organization. The Canadian minister of immigration at the time, Bud Cullen, attended a signing ceremony at the MCC offices in Winnipeg.
Mennonite churches sponsored almost 4,000 refugees from Indochina in 1979 and 1980, which was more than 10 percent of all private sponsorships. Almost half of all Mennonite churches across Canada sponsored a family.
From an article by Tim Wichert in Ontario Mennonite History, November 2003.
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