Heather’s note: This is part 3 of a letter of reminiscences Flemming wrote to his 4 children in July 2009.
3. In July, 1996 , while I was living in retirement in Dartmouth and attending Port Wallis Church I had a call from Heather Cook. She had been a social worker and she and her husband Warren had had a “foster child” in the Philippines, and at the time had visited that country. She had been referred to me by our minister, Ivan Gregan.
On May 24 of that year the container ship Maersk Dubai, owned by the Danish Maersk Line but under contract to the Yang Ming Line of Taiwan, docked at Halifax. Canadian police went aboard and arrested the officers of the ship, all 13 of them and all Taiwanese. Some members of the crew, all Filipinos, had informed the Missions to Seamen in Texas that several Romanian stowaways had been discovered on the ship, and had been put overboard on the high seas in conditions under which they could not possibly survive. One of the Filipinos had taken the initiative in building a raft for them; but this happened far from land, and the stowaways were never heard from again. Four of the Filipinos volunteered to give up their jobs (and their futures with the Yang Ming line) in order to testify against the officers.
Charges were laid. But then the prospective witnesses hesitated, because they believed that their families were in danger of retaliation in the Philippines. Heather and Warren Cook had made friends with the men, and when they heard of the threats to their families, they felt they needed help. So they contacted Ivan, who sent them to me. I met with the guys.
The first question in my mind was whether they were telling the truth. Their story sounded plausible, and I moved to gather a support group. I called some friends, some of them members of our church, others that I had met through Halifax Presbytery, and we met with the guys at my place and agreed that the men needed our support.
The man who had built the raft phoned his wife regularly, at night, and would call me afterward, around midnight, and give me the latest news. One night he told me that a car had driven past his family’s home and had run over the family dog; then had backed up and run over the dog again – while the children looked on. A few minutes later his wife received a phone call, and a man told her that this was what would happen to her children if her husband testified against the officers.
I called the group together and told them the story. A retired minister who had worked at United Church Headquarters in Toronto, said that there was a person at HQ who was responsible for cooperation with churches in East Asia. The next morning I called that person, and within hours the family in question was in sanctuary, in a compound owned by the Filippino Council of Churches, and under guard. A second family joined them a few days later.
One member of our group was a Filippino man who had been a member of an anticorruption squad of a police force in the Philippines. He had had to leave the country in a hurry some years earlier, and was living in Halifax. He had belonged to a well known and respected international organization, and members of a local branch of that body had protected his family until he could bring them to Canada. He obtained the services of that organization, and they gave added protection to the four families. He and his wife also hosted the four men in the basement of their home for several weeks until other arrangements could be made.
Having been assured that the families were as safe as possible, the men agreed to testify against the officers. The Yang Ming Line brought the officers’ wives to Halifax, and paid for their rooms in a downtown hotel.
Lee Cohen, a local lawyer, served the men pro bono. He attempted to have the wives and children brought to Canada to testify to the threats, and our treasurer gave us a loan to cover the airline tickets, but the Department of Immigration would have none of it. A Supreme Court judge ruled that he had no authority to judge the case, as the alleged crimes had been committed on the high seas, not in Canadian waters. More hearings followed, in attempts to give the men landed immigrant status, and make it possible for them to sponsor their families. Applications for refugee status were denied, as our friends did not satisfy the definitions in the Geneva Conventions. The decisions were upheld on appeal. Finally, an application for compassionate and humanitarian status was successful, and the four families arrived, one by one, over a period of months. We met them, one by one, at the Airport, and experienced their joy.
What we had hoped would be done in a couple of months had taken three and a half years. The men had been working at whatever jobs they could get, as dishwashers in restaurants, packing fish in an unheated shed in midwinter, etc.
Meanwhile our group had registered under the Nova Societies Act, with 29 members. I was made secretary, and we met, often weekly and once three times in one week, at my place. We elected an executive, we spoke at press conferences and to church groups, we sent letters to the 90 United Church presbyteries, to all the Anglican dioceses in the country, and to all the Members of Parliament. About $100,000 was raised for the cause.
Thousands of letters were received by the Department of Immigration, from all over the country. Not a hearing was held without several of the members of the Society being present. We welcomed the men – and later their families – into our homes.
During the three and a half years, I served for one year as supply at St. John’s Church, North Beaverbank, and we held a special evening service there, with Rev. Jack Risk of the Anglican diocesan staff preaching and the Port Wallis Church choir leading the singing. One of the Filipino men sang “You’ll never walk alone”. I spoke in several churches in the Halifax area, and other members were similarly involved.
16 lives were saved, and in most cases noticeably enriched. And Canada was enriched.
Our Society disbanded in 2000, our work completed. But several of us have kept in touch with the families.
In July I was approached by a group in Halifax who were planning to film a documentary on the story, and wanted to interview me and others in preparation.
So you can see, this summer has been for me a time of being reminded and of remembering.
“There is a destiny that makes us brothers;
None goes his way alone.
All that we bring into the lives of others
Comes back into our own.”