Prime Minister Stephen Harper faces a rising tide of political pressure to admit more Syrian refugees into the country immediately, with even a prominent critic of the massive 1979 airlift of Vietnamese boat people suggesting Canada needs to do more.
Calls for greater action came from all levels of government and all over Canada Friday, from Ontario’s Liberals challenging Ottawa to admit 5,000 more Syrian refugees by year end to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi saying it is a “disgrace” Canada has not already admitted the refugees it has promised to take.
“Without the will of the government, no amount of civilian support will actually help us get Syrian refugees to this country,” said Ratna Omidvar, who heads up Lifeline Syria, an organization that is trying to resettle 1,000 refugees in the Greater Toronto Area.
On Friday — the day after the image of Alan Kurdi lying dead, face down on a Turkish beach, appeared on front pages across the country — Ontario pledged an additional $300,000 to Lifeline Syria so they can hire case workers to help refugees get settled in Canada. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia both donated $50,000 to relief efforts. Manitoba pledged an additional $40,000 to aid Syrian refugee settlement in the province.
On Thursday, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said he wants to bring hundreds of thousands of refugees into his province (643 Syrian refugees have come since the beginning of the year, and 1,900 are to arrive by year-end).
Protesters gathered in Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary Friday to pressure the government to bring more refugees into the country now.
Even the loudest critic of Canada’s decision to airlift Vietnamese boat people into the country en masse, said Canada needs to do more to ease a refugee crisis widely regarded as the worst since the Second World War. While taxpayers watchdog group the National Citizens Coalition (which Harper headed up from 1998-2002) opposed then-prime minister Joe Clark’s move to help these refugees, today’s organization supports ramped-up efforts.
“That view was short-sighted, that view was strictly financial,” said NCC president Peter Coleman. “I think, in a changing world, we have to do our fair share. This is going to be bad for a long time, this is a generational fight.”
He believes Ottawa has already done a great deal to help Syrian refugees and Harper is likely sticking with his prior commitment to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees into Canada over the next three years because there is a process to be followed.
“I think he’s trying to balance the fact that he is, by nature, a cautious person, likes to do things the right way and the proper way,” Coleman said.
Federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation Aaron Wudrick echoed the concern about making big commitments to aid more refugees in the midst of a campaign, before the cost is properly sketched out.
“It’s an election, people are trying to make hay of the news of the day. If we’re going to be honest, the way to develop a sustainable long-term policy is not in the heat of the moment in the middle of a campaign,” he said.
The Kurdi family’s plight has mobilized Canadians to donate to relief efforts for Syrian refugees and demand the government increase its efforts.
A new Angus Reid Forum poll of 1,447 Canadians conducted Thursday found 90 per cent of Canadians have some knowledge of the crisis after the image of three-year-old Alan dead on the beach dominated the day’s news. The fact he and his family — all of whom perished except his father — were hoping to make it to Canadian shores sent shock waves through the federal election campaign. However, the startling image may not be the game changer some had predicted.
“Political watchers were certainly thinking this might be a turning point in the campaign, but if you look at that data, what you see is that Canadians are not only just divided on what to do … but also, divisions cut really obviously along political lines,” said Shachi Kurl, senior vice-president of Angus Reid.
Dr. Eric Hoskins said Friday that he knows from experience exactly what to do.
“In 1999 with the Kosovo war raging, I was in charge of humanitarian affairs and refugees in then foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy’s office in Ottawa,” the current Ontario minister of health and long-term care told media at a downtown community centre Friday. “We made the decision, because it was the right thing to do, to urgently resettle 5,000 Kosovar refugees to Canada. And we did this in less than one month. We can do this again.”
Canada can speed up the refugee-status certification process, which usually takes months and sometimes years, he said. Canada can shore up the resources to bring refugees here now and complete their processing here.
“We know we can do it. We’ve done it before and we can do it if we’re determined.”
With files from Ashley Csanady