Canada's government is under pressure to allow more Syrian refugees to settle. Premiers, mayors and even a retired general are pushing the Conservatives to open the door a bit wider. Philip Fine reports from Montreal.
Canadian mayors, provincial premiers and federal opposition parties, as well as numerous faith groups and even a retired military general have all jumped head-first into the refugee crisis, with many calling for Canada to increase the numbers it takes in of people displaced by Syria's four-and-a-half-year-old war.
The call to action fills a void left by a government that appears to put military responses and security concerns above increasing the processing and settling of unprecedented numbers of displaced Syrians. The ruling Conservatives promise to bring in 11,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2018, while a recent poll that finds just under half of Canadians ready to accept more than 30,000 Syrian refugees.
The government has also held firm despite being in the middle of a tight three-way fight in a very long election campaign and witnessing an international outcry for humanitarian action, galvanized by a drowning that Canada perhaps could have prevented.
The image of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, which washed up on a Turkish beach on September 2, left more than just sadness in many Canadians for the loss of his life, and the lives of his brother and mother. Many felt frustrated that the boy's aunt, Tima Kurdi, who lives on Canada's West Coast in Coquitlam, British Columbia, had been working toward bringing her two brothers' families to Canada. She had spent months applying for refugee status for one brother, the child's uncle, only to have it rejected as incomplete; this, despite her member of Parliament delivering a letter about both brothers' plight to Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander across the floor of the House of Commons.
Following the widespread publication of the photo, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called a press conference and talked of being moved by the tragedy. Still, he reiterated his government's need to fight the "Islamic State" in the region to protect those in the country and prevent further exoduses.
"We need to help people who are actually there and can't get away. And part of the way we need to help them is to stop the awful violence that is being directed at them, displacing them and killing them," he said.
Politicians call for more
That emphasis on a military response prompted a retort last Friday from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. "The talking points of 'if only we defeat IS then this problem will go away' is not resonating with people," said the mayor. "Has the refugee crisis gotten better since we started the airstrikes?" He said he is ready to welcome more refugees in his city and urged the public to seek out local humanitarian groups.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who held a town hall meeting on the subject Tuesday night, also weighed in: "It's clear that the government of Canada has not been meeting its international obligations in this continuing humanitarian crisis," he said in a statement. The city announced it would contribute 4.1 million Canadian dollars (2.8 million euros; 3.1 US dollars) in lands and grants for a refugee Welcome House and is calling on the federal government to bring in 20,000 refugees annually by the year 2020.
Quebec is the only province that has jurisdictional power over immigration. Premier Philippe Couillard tripled his province's target for Syrian refugees, up by 2,450 for a total of 3,650. British Columbia Premier Christy Clarke has put aside one million dollars in helping settle refugees, while there have also been announcements from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
Security vs. compassion?
Every criticism seems to come with a set of figures. New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair is calling for 10,000 government-sponsored refugees by the end of 2015, with the figure of 9,000 for the four following years, while Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says the government should bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of the year. Even Retired General Rick Hillier, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan, went on Facebook to urge the federal government to bring in 50,000 refugees by the end of the year, while the Archdiocese of Toronto, one of many faith groups active in refugee sponsorship, announced it plans to settle 100 refugees in 100 days.
Despite his critics, Harper has put emphasis on security issues. "Let me also assure Canadians that when we are bringing people from a war zone, from an area controlled by terrorists, … that we will make sure that Canadian security is properly protected."
The debate may not simply be one of security versus compassion, according to Naomi Alboim, a former head of federal refugee settlement programs in Ontario and now a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. She says the problem lies in the demands Canada put on refugee applicants and the resources the country possesses overseas.
"We don't have enough visa officers to do the necessary interviews," she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, adding that forcing applicants to have UNHCR determination interviews was unrealistic. "We should just accept the fact that all Syrians are prima facie refugees."