Cambodian Canadians

Immigration of Cambodians to Canada is relatively recent. From 1980 to 1992, Canada welcomed more than 18,000 Cambodia refugees who were fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime. They settled in Canada’s major urban areas. In the 2016 Census, 38,490 people reported being of Cambodian ethnic origin. Over the years since Cambodians began immigrating to Canada, many Cambodian Canadians have become distinguished in their fields; examples include actress Ellen Wong, journalist Chan Tep and graffiti artist FONKi.

Cambodian refugees
Situated on the sparsely wooded plains in eastern Thailand a few miles from the Cambodian border, Khao-I-Dang Holding Center was established in November 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Administered by the Thai Ministry of the Interior and the UNHCR, it was intended to serve as a temporary holding centre for refugees who would either be repatriated to Cambodia or resettled to third countries.
Cambodian refugees, 1981
Children at Khao I Dang camp, Thailand, 1981.
A Cambodian refugee camp, 1983
Aerial view of Khao I Dang camp, Thailand.

Overview

The Kingdom of Cambodia is a Southeast Asian nation of approximately 181,000 km². It borders Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, with a short coastline on the Gulf of Thailand. The largest ethnic group in the country is the Khmer, who make up approximately 90 per cent of the population. The remaining 10 per cent are of Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham ethnicity. Khmer people also live in neighbouring Thailand, as well as in a part of South Vietnam that formerly belonged to Cambodia, called Kampuchea Krom (Lower Cambodia).

Cambodia gained independence in 1953 after nearly a century as part of the French colony of Indochina. The country experienced an extended period of turbulence beginning in the late 1960s, when it became involved in the Vietnam War. On 17 April 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, also known as the Khmer Rouge, took over the capital city of Phnom Penh. In so doing, it secured its hold on Cambodia as a whole.

Over the following four years, the new regime engaged in a campaign of extreme violence against the people of Cambodia. Under the leadership of Communist ideologue Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge abolished private property, sent the majority of the urban population to forced-labour camps in the country, and persecuted Cambodia’s ethnic and religious minorities. Estimates of the number of deaths during this time range from 1.4 to 2.5 million people — the result of executions, forced labour, famine and denial of medical treatment.

Cambodian Refugees in Thailand In the late 1970
Thailand became the country of first asylum for refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. These Cambodian children at a camp in Aranyaprathet were among the tens of thousand who hurried towards Thailand, driven by famine and fear of the Khmer Rouge soldiers who were emptying the cities at gunpoint
Cambodian refugee, Kao-I Dang camp, Thailand, 1979
Kampuchean refugees, Thailand, 1980
Refugee child at Tracing Office in Sakeo camp
Cambodian refugees, Aranyaprathet, Thailand
Cambodian refugees camp in Thailand
A general view of Sakaeo camp where Cambodian refugees have put up temporary shelters until more adequate lodgings are built
Cambodian refugees receive food rations in Thailand, 1979
At Sakaeo camp, Cambodian refugees receive their food rations every day. Many of them have started smiling again
Cambodian refugees in Khao I Dang camp, Thailand, 1988
Situated on the sparsely wooden plains in eastern Thailand a few miles from the Cambodian border, Khao-I-Dang Holding Center was established in November 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Administered by the Thai Ministry of the Interior and the UNHCR, It was intended to serve as a temporary holding centre for refugees who would either be repatriated to Cambodia or resettled to third countries.
Cambodian refugees in Khao I Dang, Thailand, 1979
Situated on the sparsely wooden plains in eastern Thailand a few miles from the Cambodian border, Khao-I-Dang Holding Center was established in November 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Administered by the Thai Ministry of the Interior and the UNHCR, It was intended to serve as a temporary holding centre for refugees who would either be repatriated to Cambodia or resettled to third countries.
Cambodian refugees in Khao I Dang, Thailand, 1979
Situated on the sparsely wooden plains in eastern Thailand a few miles from the Cambodian border, Khao-I-Dang Holding Center was established in November 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Administered by the Thai Ministry of the Interior and the UNHCR, It was intended to serve as a temporary holding centre for refugees who would either be repatriated to Cambodia or resettled to third countries.
Cambodian refugees
Situated on the sparsely wooded plains in eastern Thailand a few miles from the Cambodian border, Khao-I-Dang Holding Center was established in November 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Administered by the Thai Ministry of the Interior and the UNHCR, it was intended to serve as a temporary holding centre for refugees who would either be repatriated to Cambodia or resettled to third countries.
Kampuchean (Cambodian) refugees arriving in Khao I Dang camp, Thailand, 1980
Cambodian refugees in Khao I Dang camp, Thailand, 1988
Situated on the sparsely wooden plains in eastern Thailand a few miles from the Cambodian border, Khao-I-Dang Holding Center was established in November 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Administered by the Thai Ministry of the Interior and the UNHCR, It was intended to serve as a temporary holding centre for refugees who would either be repatriated to Cambodia or resettled to third countries.

In December 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. The new, pro-Vietnamese government proclaimed the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in January 1979. By the end of the year, nearly 500,000 Cambodians had escaped to neighbouring countries. The conflict between the new Vietnamese-backed government and Khmer Rouge supporters continued until 1989.

Currently, Cambodia is a multiparty democracy with a constitutional monarchy.

Immigration to Canada

The majority of the Cambodians in Canada arrived in the 1980s as refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime. From 1980 to 1992, Canada accepted 18,602 Cambodian refugees (25 per cent of whom were of Chinese origin) who had been living in camps in Thailand under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These refugees were resettled in urban areas across Canada, primarily Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Gatineau and Montréal.

Prior to 1975, there had also been a small number of Cambodian business people and students living in Canada, mainly in Québec. (About 200 Cambodians who had come to study at Québec universities under Colombo Plan scholarships in the 1950s and 1960s ended up settling in the province.) Their presence eased the transition somewhat for the Cambodian refugees who began arriving in Québec in the 1980s. The earlier settlers served as interpreters for the new arrivals, which helped them to learn French. The Cambodians who have settled in Québec have thus adjusted more easily than those who settled elsewhere in Canada.

In other Canadian provinces, the resettlement of Cambodian refugees was initially difficult. Cambodian refugees who arrived in Canada were typically rural people with little education. Only 3 per cent had completed primary school and only 2 per cent had completed secondary school. In addition, only 8 per cent could speak one of Canada’s official languages. Many adult Cambodian immigrants had difficulty in learning either of Canada’s two official languages and therefore had to accept poorly paid, unskilled jobs in manufacturing or as seasonal agricultural labourers. Today, however, many younger Cambodian Canadians who were born in Canada are completing secondary and post-secondary education and are employed in professional fields.

Vietnamese Cambodians and Chinese Cambodians integrated into the larger Vietnamese and Chinese communities already present in Canada. For the Khmer people, integration was less seamless. The lack of knowledge about the Khmer culture and context, and the scarcity of Khmer translators, made orientation and social service programs difficult to deliver. According to the 2016 Census, 38,490 people reported being of Cambodian (or Khmer) origin. Almost 40 per cent of these people (15,350) lived in Québec.

Social, Cultural and Religious Life

Most Khmers follow Theravada Buddhism blended, in various forms, with Hinduism and local animist traditions, whereas Vietnamese and Chinese Cambodians tend to be Mahayana Buddhists. Cambodian Canadians make efforts to maintain their religious practices, although some have converted to Christianity. In Canada, there are Cambodian Theravada temples in Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto and Montréal, as well as smaller Khmer religious associations in many other Canadian communities. These temples and religious associations facilitate important religious and cultural practices such as meditation instruction, merit-making (the religious or philosophical belief that if a person does good, he or she will receive good), weddings and festivals.

Cambodian Canadians have also formed community organizations such as the Canadian Cambodian Association of Ontario (CCAO), which was initially created to assist new refugees with their adjustment to life in Canada. The CCAO continues to provide a variety of support services to Cambodians in Canada and to organize activities for the preservation of Cambodian culture, such as classes in Khmer language and traditional dance. In Montréal, the Centre Khemara pursues the mission of transmitting knowledge of Khmer history and civilization to Cambodians and Quebecers of all ages, offering workshops in Khmer language, art, architecture, music and cuisine. Youth organizations help young Cambodians to navigate the confusing dual identities of being both Khmer and Canadian. However, partly due to negative experiences during the Khmer Rouge era, some Cambodians are still suspicious of those who seek positions of authority, and community networks tend to be based on traditional and informal hierarchies rather than elected leadership.

Relations between Canada and Cambodia

After Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia in the late 1980s and the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1991, members of the Canadian military helped to stabilize and rebuild Cambodia as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission.

Canada and Cambodia have had a friendly relationship for two decades and work together on a number of bilateral and multilateral initiatives through organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. Canada has also provided development assistance to Cambodia through the Canadian International Development Agency (which was absorbed by Global Affairs Canada in 2013). Programs have focused on strengthening Cambodia’s democracy, promoting food security, managing land reform, reducing poverty and inequality, clearing landmines (see Ottawa Treaty) and supporting private-sector development.

In 2005, Canada provided funding for an international tribunal to prosecute the senior Khmer Rouge officials who had committed serious crimes and violations of national and international law during the Democratic Kampuchea period. Established in 2006, this tribunal is known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). It is headed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (a position held, from 2004 to 2008, by Canadian judge Louise Arbour). It has indicted a number of individuals suspected of crimes against humanity and serious violations of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, committed between 17 April 1975 and 6 January 1979. These defendants have been grouped into four cases for trial. The first trial was completed in 2012. As of 2017, the second trial was still in the preparatory stages.

Louise Arbour
Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour.

None of these defendants has been convicted of genocide, and for many years the new government of Cambodia avoided talking about this dark page in its history — not even in textbooks. But the Cambodian diaspora has helped to fulfil the important obligation to remember the victims. Thus, in 2015, the Centre Khemara in Montréal held ceremonies to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Cambodian genocide.

In 2015, the Embassy of Canada in Bangkok, Thailand, opened an office in Phnom Penh.


Further Reading

  • Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975-1980 (2017).

  • Janet McLellan, Cambodian Refugees in Ontario: Resettlement, Religion, and Identity (2009).

  • Louis-Jacques Dorais, The Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese in Canada (2000).

  • Nancy J. Smith-Hefner, Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community (1999).

  • Janet McLellan, Many Petals of the Lotus: Five Asian Buddhist Communities in Toronto (1999).