The last of 60,000 Cambodian refugees to enter Canada in 1980: memoir melds public history with personal testimony

Y-Dan Troeung’s memoir ‘Landbridge’ is the first book published by Dionne Brand’s new imprint: ‘It felt as if this story was waiting to be told’.

The two mirrored images, captured 35 years apart at airports in Montreal and Toronto and both widely disseminated in the press, are uncannily similar. In the first, taken in 1980, a smiling, bent-necked Pierre Elliott Trudeau reaches out to rub the head of an infant girl in the arms of her father. In the other, from 2015, a smiling, bent-necked Trudeau fils reaches out to rub the arm of a tiny girl in pigtails in the arms of her father.

Politicians have forever tried to capitalize on feel-good scenes like the ones above (with newly arrived refugees from Cambodia and Syria, respectively) to burnish their images. And we Canadians are generally happy to bask in the glow. It feeds our sense of ourselves as benevolent and welcoming; more so, even, than the country south of us, which hasn’t always lived up to the values embodied in the giant green lady standing in its eastern harbour.

The family of Y-Dang Troeung, the baby girl in the PET photo op named for the Thai refugee camp where she was born in 1979, were the last of 60,000 refugees brought to Canada under the federal government’s “Indochinese Refugee Program.” Decades later, Troeung would become an English literature scholar specializing in Cambodian refugee history, credentials that put her in a unique position to give the perspective from the other side of the head- and arm-patting.

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