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The Boat People by Sharon Bala

We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now. ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

The refugee crisis is an ongoing challenge. There are two sides to the equation. One perspective is from the refugees' viewpoint. A lot of refugees coming into Canada are innocent people, fleeing persecution from their war torn homelands. But there also may be some bad apples in the crowd, masking their true identity to seek refuge in a country that has been known to be "too soft" on refugees. How do you differentiate between the two types of claimants? 

Based on real events, The Boat People focuses a lens on an illegal refugee journey into Canada. It was 2010, when a boatload of Sri Lankan refugees arrived on the shores of Canada, and were received with a icy cold reception from the Harper Conservative Government. 

On the boat is Mahindan and his six-year-old son. They have endured brutal hardship on the boat, but hope for a better future have kept their spirits up. 

They never thought about what would happen after the boat docked. Perhaps they assumed they would be free to go their own way. But reality sinks in quickly as they realized that arriving was just the beginning, and there was going to be another long journey ahead.

The government is hell bent on ensuring that they weed out the terrorists on board the vessel. Their solution, detaining everyone in jail and employing a rigorous screening procedure to vet out those they deem dangerous. 

Generally refugee claimants do not face detention upon arrival into Canada, and those that are, are usually released within days. But with the MV Sun Sea passengers the government was being extra vigilant, demanding proofs of identity, and trying to connect the dots with any weak arguments that the refugees narrated to possible with connections to the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

Caught in the middle are people like Mahindan, who after docking is estranged from his son and detained in a prison. The language barrier is only one of the many challenges that the Sri Lankan refugees face. The other is just adjusting to a life that is foreign to them. Even the smallest things like having a proper shower seems remarkably alien to them. 

What did these people think? Mahindan wondered. They got on a rickety ship and nearly killed themselves crossing the ocean for a holiday?

On the other side of the battle is Grace, who's been brought in to arbitrate their fitness to enter the country. She feels the political pressure to diffuse the world's view of Canada, as a country that attracts and harbours terrorists because of the nation's laxe immigration laws. Mahindan's fate is in her hands and as evidence mounts against him, tension builds in the book. 

Grace is a third-generation Japanese Canadian, who finds herself in the middle of a political vs. human issues conflict, and is struggling to maintain an unbiased stance. There's a breakthrough when her mother unexpectedly opens up and begins sharing stories of their internment during World War II. 

This in itself is a reminder that a lot of immigrants coming into the country try to bury pain and suffering endured in their past,  as they assimilate into their new country and try and offer their children a life that they were not accustomed to. While on the surface it seems like their willingness to adapt to their new surroundings may seem like a positive tactic in the short term, it is important to remember that we cannot (and should not) hide our history, no matter how divisive it may be. It's also the reason that we need to incorporate such diverse stories in the history of Canada. They are after all, part of our history. We are used to hearing of only one perspective. It's time we listen to new voices that are vital in what makes us Canadian. 

The Boat People is Sharon Bala's debut novel, already winning the Journey Prize. It is quite a feat for this first-time novelist and a story that needs to be illuminated more, as it is a big part of Canada's history. 

There was a sign overhead, black with red lettering. Mahindan examined the exotic characters, all squared off and linear. This was Canada -- clean with straight lines. A promising country to make a new start. 

Blog post by @ShilpaRaikar 

Instagram: @SukasaStyle @Shilpartistry

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy in exchange for an honest review.