Vietnamese boat people museum back on track

(Ottawa Citizen:) Regular passersby along the northeast corner of Somerset Street West and Preston Street, kitty-corner to the Plant Recreation Centre, probably barely even register the large tilting sign anymore, the one that for years has promised a shiny new building on the site that is otherwise occupied by a community garden, a couple of picnic tables and, at least on a recent visit, numerous weeds, a broken pail and three discarded boots.
But Can Le, president of the Vietnamese Canadian Centre that owns the property, is confident that the Vietnamese Boat People Museum, a project that was put on hold for eight years following an unholy trinity of setbacks, is on track again, with a design competition expected to take place this fall, followed by shovels in the ground in 2023 and a grand opening in 2024, almost a decade after its initial expected completion date.

All he has to do in the meantime is raise about $4 million.

“(Former Ottawa mayor) Marion Dewar used to say that ‘Can Le has lots of ideas. All he needs now is money,’” Le jokes. “But when you have a right cause, the money will come in. And I think the interest in the museum is very strong.”

It was Dewar’s Project 4000, a promise she made in 1979 to welcome 4,000 refugees, or “boat people,” from Southeast Asia — Vietnam, mostly, but also from Laos and Cambodia — that pried open Canada’s doors and kick-started one of the nation’s greatest humanitarian efforts. Her pledge amounted to exactly half of the 8,000 refugees that Canada said it would accept, with newly elected PM Joe Clark’s government subsequently raising that quota to 50,000.

Le, meanwhile, who came to Canada on a scholarship in 1963 and has lived in Ottawa since 1973, was instrumental in bringing Project 4000 to fruition, helping newcomers find jobs and housing, and organizing language training. Even before that, he was involved in welcoming the few hundred Vietnamese refugees who had been trickling into Ottawa since the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The notion for a museum, Le says, was born in 2005, a year after celebrations were held to mark Project 4000’s 25th anniversary. “So many people came that we realized we needed something more permanent,” says Le.

Its purpose is two-fold: to present the facts of the Vietnamese refugees’ search for freedom and the receptions they received worldwide; and to showcase the contributions of Vietnamese communities in those countries where they resettled.
“It will give future generations an idea of why and how their ancestors came here. That’s an important foundation for them, to understand their roots. It will be a legacy of the first-generation of refugees to their children.”

But beyond that, Le adds, the museum will reflect “one of the shining chapters of Canadian history. It will show how people were so generous, so kind.”

The VCC bought the parcel of land in 2009, selling the Rochester Street house where its office was located to come up with most of the $600,000 asking price. The organization now rents office space on Somerset Street, a few doors from the museum site.

The first misfortune to befall the project was a stroke that Le suffered in 2014, putting him out of action for months.
Soon after, a group of Vietnamese Canadians challenged Le’s stewardship of the VCC and tried to claim the organization’s assets, including the museum site, forcing Le and other petitioners to launch a proceeding through the Supreme Court of British Columbia to quell the matter. They eventually won, but the affair consumed five years, during which their assets were frozen.

Then, only months after the window for an appeal had finally closed, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, shelving the project until now.

At the moment, Le is considering two options for the museum. If the capital costs of between $4 and $5 million can be raised by the fall, the structure will be a largely standalone one with some ground-floor retail space that would provide funds for the museum’s operating expenses.

If that funding target isn’t met, apartments will be included in the plan to more easily facilitate getting a mortgage.

In either case, Le says there will be a competition among Ontario architects to come up with a design for the building, which will include a memorial wall, exhibition halls, library, gift shop, auditorium and multi-purpose spaces for gatherings and social events. A consultation with area residents will also occur.

And while the chasm between the $200,000 that the VCC currently has in the bank and the millions more it needs may appear to be a bridge too far, Le, whose other projects over the years include the non-profit housing Van Lang Centre, and the Vietnamese Commemorative Monument, insists he hasn’t a shard of doubt that the museum will be built.

“We have friends,” he says, “in the U.S., in Europe, in Australia, and when we say we’re going to build this next year, they’ll send money in. I’ve raised a lot of funds in the past, and I know that if there’s a good cause, I can get money.

“This will happen.”