Vietnamese Refugee to Ottawa Police Officer: Constable Phong Le remembers the act of kindness that inspired him to pursue a career serving his community

Posted On Tuesday May 11, 2021
Every time I interact with the public, I treat everyone how I would want my children to be treated by someone in a position of authority
Every time I interact with the public, I treat everyone how I would want my children to be treated by someone in a position of authority

My mom, sister and I were part of the boat people who came to Canada from Vietnam in 1979. We were just three of the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing communism to Thailand in search for a better life.  Project 4000 was championed by former Ottawa Mayor Marion Dewar. 

My mother wanted to give my sister and I a better life, fearing the unknown of communism. We had to leave my father behind. He and my grandfather were prisoners of war for 13 years.  I was six years old. The last words my father said to me were, ‘listen to your mother’, and kissed me goodbye, I could feel the stubble rubbing on my face. I never saw or spoke to him again.

We spent six months in a refugee camp, living in tents in Thailand. My mother and aunt took turns sweeping away the maggots during heavy rain storms from the holes we used as a washroom.  We chose to come to Canada because waiting to go to the US was going to take too long.  It also helped that my aunt was placed in Ottawa.

We arrived in winter. I was wearing shorts at the time. From a child’s perspective, this was a new beginning, that was not the case for a single mother with two young children, no job, no money who did not speak English.  My mother is my hero!  I could not imagine how scared she was, so brave, sacrificing everything for her children.

My mom received a certificate at Algonquin College qualifying her to do electronic assembly work. She worked at Mitel for 20 years, multiple bus rides away from where we lived downtown. With extra work hours and the long commute, my sister and I were often home alone. We went to school and came home, careful not to draw attention to the fact we were unsupervised.  My mother did the best she could and to this day, I thank her for everything she did for us.

This is a ‘Riches to Rags’, story, since in Vietnam, we were well off. My grandfather was a Congressman and a Colonel in the military.  My father was a pilot, that is all I remember of him.

When I was in grade 4 or 5, I was excited to be going to summer camp, not knowing that it would cost money. My ESL teacher gave me a cheque to bring home. I gave it to my mother, and she wrote a cheque for the same amount and sent them both back to school with me. My teacher said, ‘no this is for you’. Knowing our situation, my teacher Mr. Johnson was willing to pay for me out of his own pocket.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this act of kindness helped shape who I am today.  His act of kindness has always stuck with me.  I didn’t have a lot of toys or “things” growing up, but I had a mother that sacrificed everything and loved me unconditionally.  I learned resiliency at a young age, working hard and having a strong work ethic was something I learned from my mother.

I was under pressure to go into Engineering, but I followed the route of my father and grandfather. Everyone else in my family was either Computer Programmers or Engineers, I went into Social Sciences at uOttawa, thinking it would give me the opportunity to help people.  My mother was not happy with my decision but supported me throughout.

I worked at Newbridge Networks as a coop student, then fulltime for this multi billion-dollar company.  Even while working at Newbridge, I was actively looking at changing my career to Policing. My family felt I was giving up a lot to enter policing, but I wanted more and pursued a career in it.

I began my career at age 29 with the Ottawa Police Service in December 2003, patrolling the streets of Ottawa South.  To this day, I have great admiration and respect for the officers working on the frontline. 

I have been lucky to be able to work in different units within the Ottawa Police Service. I’m currently in the Youth Program as an SRO (School Resource Officer).  I love working with youth because there are opportunities to effect change, not necessarily changing youths, but giving them a different perspective through education. I believe that youth will only listen to adults and Police once they trust them. Building that trust takes time and commitment through interaction and connecting with youth, at their level.

I recall one student who had made poor choices and I checked in with him for months.  He did well and I presented him with a new skateboard. He wondered why I would do this for him, his interaction with Police up to this point was negative. I told him, you can’t always control the circumstances you find yourself in, but there are people out there willing to help you through the process.

Every time I interact with the public, I treat everyone how I would want my children to be treated by someone in a position of authority. I am happy to raise my family in the community I serve.  I love my job, but unless you do it, people don’t understand the toll being a Police Officer takes on you and your family.

There is a lot of negativity towards police in the media and on social media that makes this job harder. As a police officer, I want members of the community to decide what they think of me based on what I do standing in front of them.

I’ve been with the Ottawa Police Service for eighteen years. I am a husband, father, brother and son-turned- essential caregiver. I wear many hats and Police Officer is just one of them. I’m proud to wear my uniform every day to serve my adopted community but also in recognition and to continue the legacy of the brave Police Officers who have served before me.