The first taste of Canadian life given to 174 Indians who landed illegally on the Nova Scotia coast in foggy, predawn darkness Sunday was peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. They probably will have the chance to eat more of such typical North American fare in the months to come. But the organizers of the illegal landing of the 173 men and one woman were not treated so kindly. A Halifax judge Tuesday sentenced two men - one Swedish, one Indian - to serve short jail terms and pay fines of $5,000 (US$3,780) each after they pleaded guilty to helping the group, apparently all Sikhs, enter Canada.
Canadian officials hope the quick justice will deter further for-profit, mass illegal landings. These operations, notes W.K. Bell, director-general of policy and program development for Canada's immigration department, can be ``very dangerous.''
In a somewhat similar episode last August, 155 Tamils were found drifting in two lifeboats off Newfoundland.
The 497-ton freighter that last weekend brought the Sikhs offshore to a rocky cove near the small village of Charlesville is being held in Halifax, its disposition uncertain. Canadian Navy and Coast Guard vessels captured the ship, flying a Costa Rican flag, on Monday some 200 miles out to sea. A second boat, possibly bearing the wives and children of those aboard the Amelie, is being sought.
Mr. Bell also hopes the incident will spur Canada's Parliament to pass legislation this fall tightening and expediting the nation's immigration procedures for dealing with refugees.
Most members of the Sikh group were expected to seek refugee status yesterday and today in hearings before Canadian immigration department adjudicators.
They will be dealt with under the existing law. That means that within a few months, their initial claim for refugee status will be decided. If it is granted, they will have immigrant status in Canada.
If it is not granted, they can appeal the decision. A final decision could take as long as two or three years. In the meantime, the Indians can live and work freely in Canada, earning income that could quickly offset the $1,200 to $2,500 in Canadian funds they are said to have paid for their passage.
The proposed legislation is aimed at controlling a flow of self-proclaimed refugees that reached 1,000 a week in the first two months of this year. Most of these were Salvadoreans or other Latin Americans entering from the United States - people worried about their ability to stay in the US under the new law governing illegal aliens.
To slow that flood, Canadian immigration officials required these people to stay in the US until they could be heard before a ``refugee status advisory committee.'' That takes two or three weeks. After the hearing, those seeking refugee status are admitted to Canada while awaiting final determination of their position.
That entry delay, applying only to those arriving from the US, has slowed the flow to under 200 a week.
The Canadian reaction to the arrival of the boatload of Sikhs has been mixed.
The people of Charlesville, who discovered them on a nearby road, took them to a community center and gave them tea and sandwiches - peanut butter because they said they were vegetarians. Immigration authorities then bused them to Stadacona, a military base in Halifax, where they are housed in a gymnasium.
Members of the Canadian Sikh community are preparing to welcome the group with funds and other help to get them started in Canada.
But William Atton, the judge who sentenced Rolf Nygren to a year in jail and Jasvir Singh to three months, said: ``What bothers me most is the intentional avoidance of the immigration laws.''
Canada welcomes thousands of legal immigrants and refugees each year.
Some Canadians also are concerned that Sikhs may bring their religious and political dispute with Hindus in India into Canada. An investigation continues into suspicions that Sikh extremists in Canada were responsible for the bomb that destroyed an Air India airliner on a flight from Montreal to London in June 1985, killing all 329 aboard.
Canadians police apparently were tipped off that a ship was arriving by telephone calls from a Yarmouth motel to a wiretapped Toronto phone. This facilitated the arrest of Nygren and Singh just before a planned flight from Halifax.