Ottawa (Ottawa Citizen, March 12,2017):Can Le has a quick smile and exudes energy as he shows a visitor around. The retired economist and president of the board of directors of the Vietnamese Canadian Centre on Somerset Street has spent the past 40 years growing and nurturing the Vietnamese community in Ottawa.
“He’s a determined one,” says Ha Quyen Nguyen, volunteer coordinator for the centre. “For everything he plans to do, he will go until the end.”
When Le arrived in Ottawa, there were few people here of Southeast Asian descent. Today, about 9,000 people of Vietnamese origin live in the city. Most have him to thank for the support systems that have allowed their community to thrive. And Ottawa, which continues its tradition of taking in refugees right up to the present day, owes some of its welcoming mindset to Can Le’s work.
Liem Duong, a software engineer for the Department of National Defence who has known Le since 1983, says he is known across Canada “from Vancouver to Halifax.” But “if you ask him, he won’t say much about himself.”
So we’ll tell you about him.
From engineer to economist
Can Le came to Canada from Vietnam as a chemical engineering student at École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1963. He met his future wife, another Vietnamese student, through a group of Southeast Asian expats who got together outside of school to cook and socialize.
Le won a scholarship for the master’s chemical engineering program at McMaster University but one day as he worked in the lab, a drop of chemical flew into his eye, nearly blinding him. The damage wasn’t permanent, but Le no longer felt safe with his career choice. He completed his master’s, then transferred to economics, going on to earn a PhD at the University of Toronto – where his wife worked as a lab assistant.
While Le was still completing his thesis, a professor sent the names of some students to different federal government departments looking to hire economists. Le got an informal interview with one, which took place at the Château Laurier, where he barely drank the martini ordered for him – it was strong and he didn’t drink much.
But he got a position, and the Le family – Can Le, his wife and their first two sons (he would have three children in total) moved from Toronto to Ottawa.
A refugee crisis
At the fall of Saigon in 1975, refugees started pouring out of Vietnam, now under Communist government. Many desperate families sold their possessions, spending all they had to flee the country. Men, women and children crammed onto small fishing boats and set out toward Malaysia and the Philippines. Most ran out of food before arriving; many died en route. Some were attacked by pirates and some lost their way, never making it to land.
Thousands were stranded in refugee camps in countries that could barely manage the large numbers of people suddenly on their shores. They didn’t have enough food or medical supplies, even with help from the United Nations and the Red Cross. Boatloads of refugees were turned away, although they had nowhere else to go.
Distressed by the TV footage of so many people in need, Ottawa’s mayor of the day, Marion Dewar, began to organize Project 4000, an initiative to take 4,000 refugees into the city – half of the people the Canadian government had initially agreed to accept.
By now, Le was president of the local Vietnamese association in Ottawa. The organization welcomed the newly arrived Vietnamese people, helping them find housing and jobs. Dewar asked Le to join Project 4000 and bring his expertise to the table.
Le was working as an economist for the ministry of science and technology. When the new arrivals needed jobs, he would call up people he knew at tech companies and see if they could use any of the refugees for manual labour, janitorial work or other tasks that didn’t require fluent English.
He believed it would be easy for the immigrant and refugee children to learn English at school, on television and in their everyday Canadian lives. But while he and his wife spoke Vietnamese with the children at home, he thought it would be difficult for the children to remain fluent once they started school. In 1977, he began to offer the first Vietnamese classes in Ottawa.
Meanwhile, Duong says, Le didn’t want the Vietnamese community to be isolated from the rest of Ottawa. Le, he says, wanted to bring the Vietnamese “into the mainstream.”
Look around the city today, and you feel the success of the community. Ottawa has dozens of language schools offering Vietnamese classes. There are pho restaurants in every corner of the city and people of Vietnamese descent work in every industry, some high-profile: Ottawa-born Nam Nguyen is a Canadian national champion figure skater and Charles Chi is Carleton University’s chancellor.
The next challenge
In all weather, she stands on the street corner at Preston and Somerset, holding tightly to her child. This statue of a Vietnamese mother and her young one, looking straight ahead, are part of the work Can Le has accomplished.
Ha Quyen says that when she, Le and other members of the Vietnamese Canadian Centre decided to raise money for the monument, they called people in the community. They had few problems gaining support, and they raised about $100,000 from private donors.
Across the street, however, is a project he’s not finished with. But the Vietnamese Boat People Museum the group hopes to build is “not an easy one,” says Ha Quyen.
The members sold the house that served as their centre on Rochester Street so they could make a down-payment on the land for the future museum. Their new location on Somerset is small and narrow, crammed with all the paperwork, certificates and photos collected over the past 40 years. There’s room for two desks in the front room and space for a table and an altar in the back. They hold community events elsewhere.
Led by Le, members have been talking with people even outside Ottawa, hoping that the larger Vietnamese diaspora will contribute for the museum. They’ve raised about $860,000 but still need $4.2 million to make the project happen.
That’s a long way to go, but somehow the project seems likely to succeed with Le at the helm.
“I don’t think we’ll see someone else like Can Le in this community,” says Duong.”Not just in Ottawa, but in Canada as well.”