Forty years ago this month, nine nervous students stepped off a plane at Ottawa’s Uplands Airport to begin a remarkable journey.
They were coming from the People’s Republic of China, a country that had been virtually closed to the rest of the world since 1966 when Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
It had been 20 years since the Communist Party seized control of China, and Mao was concerned that the country had begun to embrace too many western bourgeois values.
He wanted to rekindle some of that old-time revolutionary fervour, and who better to lead the charge than the country’s youth?
So Mao shut down the country’s schools and universities, handed out millions of little red books containing his collected wisdom, and ordered his “Red Guard” to seek out and publicly denounce teachers and other officials who they believed had betrayed the revolution.
Thousands of these “capitalist roaders” were brutally beaten and sent to the countryside to be “re-educated.”
But by 1973, even the Chinese government had come to realize that the Cultural Revolution had gone too far, and that an entire generation of Chinese youth was being lost. It was time to get them back into class and reconnect with the rest of the world.
Those students stepping off the plane in Ottawa in May 1973 were to be among the pioneers.
They were part of a group of 60 students, including many former members of the Red Guard, who had been selected by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to go abroad to learn English and eventually join the Foreign Service.
All of them had studied English at some point, but they hadn’t been in a classroom for years and their language skills had grown rusty. None of them were really sure why they had been selected, but they were grateful for the opportunity to finally do something meaningful with their lives.
Canada would be their only North American destination. U.S. president Richard Nixon had made his historic visit to China in 1972, but the U.S. had still not recognized the People’s Republic as the legitimate government of China, something Canada had done in 1970.
So nine students were selected to study at St. Patrick’s College, a small liberal arts college affiliated with Carleton University in Ottawa, where the students would never be far from the watchful eye of the Chinese embassy. Chairman Mao had written that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a small step.” This would be that first step.
And I had the opportunity to be with them for part of that journey. I worked with the students over the summer to help them prepare for the academic year and adjust to life in Canada.
Their first few weeks in Ottawa were spent at the Chinese embassy. The students were coming from a politically chaotic country of more than 900 million people. Ottawa would take some getting used to.
“The city was very beautiful and very clean,” Ma Huiyun recalls from her home in Beijing, “but there were too few people. Nobody was in the streets. If you walked on the street you seemed to be the only person there.”
Their next stop also required some adjustment.
They could never really learn about Canadian life or improve their English language skills by living at the embassy. They needed to experience life as part of a Canadian family. Four local families agreed to take on the assignment.
One of them was the McGuinty family, which accepted three students, even though they already had 10 of their own. Dalton McGuinty, the future premier of Ontario, was 17 years old when the students arrived.
“We were already sitting five kids to a bench on each side of the table,” he recalls. “So we were already coping with the pressure of our own space challenges. So when my dad proudly announced that we would be hosting three additional bodies in the house, that was met with some quiet concern, shall we say.”
After spending a month with the families, the students moved into residence at Carleton, where they were introduced to a wide assortment of new experiences.
“This was the first time I heard about marijuana,” recalls Tu Wiezhong. “One day I smelled a very sweet smell in the corridor, and one of the students told me that it’s a very special smoke and she told me don’t try it, don’t touch that.”
In September, the students began a regular academic program at Carleton.
Seven of the nine eventually received bachelor degrees. They returned to China, and most went to work in the Foreign Service, which is where the experiment started paying dividends for both countries.
One of them, Lu Shumin, returned to Ottawa in 2005 as China’s ambassador to Canada, moving into the same embassy he lived in as a student 32 years earlier. Today, he’s the vice-president of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, and is considered one of China’s leading experts on Canada.
Tu Wiezhong worked with western companies trying to establish businesses in China, helping to bridge the enormous cultural divide that often separates East from West.
“I think going to Canada was the most important thing in my life,” she now says, “because I can say that I saw the world before many Chinese people. Forty years ago, I saw the world and it opened my eyes. I knew that China is not the only country, that the lifestyle in China is not the only lifestyle in this world. So when I went back to China I accepted things quicker than other people.”
Ma Huiyun returned to China and helped develop Chinese “friendship associations” in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. “I'm very grateful to those people who helped us in adapting to the local conditions in Canada,” she says. “They expressed great interest in China, and also there were some misunderstandings about China, even at that time. So we were able to introduce China to many Canadians and vise-versa. So in that way we really were the real bridge.”
And the experience also paid unexpected dividends for some of the Canadians who worked and lived with the Chinese students in the summer of 1973. Dalton McGuinty believes his parents’ decision to accept Chinese students helped open doors when he travelled to China as Premier of Ontario.
“For me to be able to visit China as part of a trade mission, to be able to say that back in 1973, three Chinese students moved into my home with me and my nine brothers and sisters, and we hosted them and befriended them - that is an opener that you simply cannot put a price on.”
Today, there are more than 50,000 Chinese students studying at Canadian universities. And the single step that paved the way for them to be here took place 40 years ago when those nine intrepid students got off the plane in Ottawa.
They began a journey that not only transformed their own lives, but helped shape four decades of relations between Canada and China.