A Place for All People?

The Boat People was inspired by the arrival on the British Columbia coast in 2009 and 2010 of two cargo ships with more than 500 Sri Lankan refugees on board, seeking asylum from the civil war in their homeland. Award-winning author Sharon Bala was intrigued by the new arrivals: “What lives had they led? Whom had they lost? And what did they make of this unwelcoming new land?”

Bala narrates her compelling novel from the perspective of three fictional characters.

Mahindan is desperate to leave Sri Lanka along with his 6-year-old son. When they arrive on British Columbia’s coast, Mahindan is elated: “Here was a place for all people.” But fears of terrorism motivate the Canadian government to imprison the refugees till they can undergo hearings. 

When Priya, a Canadian with Sri Lankan lineage, is enlisted to defend the refugees, her mentor tells her, “In immigration law, there can be a gap between policy and practice. And when it comes to refugees, this country has a split personality.” 

Grace Nakamura, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, is appointed as an adjudicator for the refugee hearings. Her boss tells her, “Canada has a reputation for being a soft touch. . . . We must disabuse the world of that notion.”

Bala’s timely and compassionate novel shows the humanity and complexity of both those who seek to advance the cause of refugees and those who work to protect a country and its citizens. 

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