OTTAWA—When the Conservative government promised, in January 2015, to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years, Liberal MP John McCallum didn’t buy it.
The Conservatives were under pressure to address the ongoing refugee crisis created by the Syrian civil war—millions of people were on the move and refugee settlements were bursting at the seams.
But pleas had fallen on deaf ears inside then-prime minister’s Stephen Harper’s office, including pitches from cabinet ministers about how the government could and should do more than the 1,300 people it already committed to bringing over.
Harper would only agree with a condition—the focus had to be on persecuted religious minorities from the country.
Given it was that or nothing, cabinet signed off, and on Jan. 7, a plan was announced—10,000 people would be brought to Canada by 2018, most by private sponsors.
Then serving as immigration critic for his party, McCallum chided the government for relying on private sponsors, saying they needed to lift more of the load themselves. He was skeptical—given the Conservatives’ track record—that they’d meet the deadline.
“We could be waiting forever before 10,000 Syrian refugees arrive in Canada,” he told one news outlet.
Well, it isn’t going to be forever.
Before the Liberals took power on Nov. 4, about 1,263 Syrians had arrived in Canada under the Conservatives’ commitment to 10,000.
Since Nov. 4, a further 6,064 have arrived under a Liberal campaign commitment—a promise they partially expect to meet in the first two weeks of 2016 with the arrivals of nearly 4,000 more for a full 10,000.
But like the Conservatives before them, the Liberals are relying on private sponsors to hit that target.
Many of the refugees who arrived in 2015 were cases opened under the Conservatives, and some were already being fast-tracked—the Conservatives sped up their timelines when they began getting blow back during the election.
A photograph of Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach was the catalyst—the Syrian child and his family were trying to reach Europe. It emerged their family in B.C. had been trying to get some of them to Canada, but the paperwork was rejected.
The sudden attention to the issue saw the Liberals attach a timeline to their own Syrian refugee promise—they’d resettle 25,000 Syrians themselves by the end of the year and work with private sponsors to do more.
The number dated back months, part of the Liberal proposal advanced in March for how Canada could contribute to the war against ISIL.
When asked in an interview with The Canadian Press how the Liberals arrived at the number, McCallum—now the immigration minister—said it was a similar level to previous large-scale refugee commitments.
“I don’t think there’s anything scientific in it,” he said.
“I think, relative to our contributions in the past, relative to what we thought would be a good solid contribution, affordable, we thought that was about the right number.”
When asked during the election how’d they achieve such an ambitious target, the answer was succinct—political will. As soon as they were elected, the Liberals faced questions as to whether the promise, and its deadline, were still in effect.
It was, everyone from McCallum to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself kept saying. Until it wasn’t.
In the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris in November, initially but erroneously linked to men believed to have arrived as refugees, Trudeau said nothing was going to change for Canada’s program.
A week later, he said otherwise: pressure from the public to slow down the process had forced a change.
“We realized that the most important thing is to be able to reassure Canadians that absolutely everything is being done to keep Canadians safe, and therefore ensure that these refugees are welcomed as new Canadians and not a cause for anxiety or division within the population,” Trudeau told reporters.
But it wasn’t just those attacks. Even before, officials from the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration and settlement agencies in Canada all told the Liberals moving that many people by the end of the year just wasn’t feasible.
Among the problems—finding them. As of mid-October, there were only about 8,400 cases in the immigration department’s inventory, 6,540 of then privately-sponsored, 1,761 government-assisted and the remainder from a blended program.
To meet their promise then, the Liberals need to find over 23,000 people able to come to Canada in a matter of weeks.
So, the first iteration of the plan saw the promise broken down—rather than 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees to arrive by Dec. 31, it would be 10,000 privately-sponsored refugees, and a further 15,000 government-assisted ones by the end of February. Then, by the end of 2016, the full promise of 25,000 government-assisted refugees would be met.
Refugee assistance agencies—which had raised concerns about even meeting the previous Conservative commitments—breathed a little easier.
Given they are responsible for the needs and requirements of all government-assisted refugees, some extra time to prepare was exceptionally welcome.
They also needed money. The Liberal platform said the program would cost $250 million but didn’t explain how they’d arrived at that number.
The budget the Liberal government later released estimates the cost at as much as $678 million over six years, with $377 million earmarked for resettlement. But that’s not the full cost.
Earlier in December, McCallum launched an appeal to the corporate community to find a further $50 million for housing.
When asked whether the appeal was made in part to save the government money, McCallum paused.
“You could say it is, but I think the corporate sector should be there. It’s not primarily to save us money, it’s to fill a gap,” he said, explaining that housing isn’t something the federal government normally funds but that refugees need.
Also, McCallum said, getting both private business and citizens involved in the project is important.
“We think there is an appropriate role for other Canadians, big companies, small companies, individuals with thick wallets and big hearts to come forward and in large measure they are,” he said.
“It’s a sign that it’s implicating all Canadians, it’s not just government putting up the money.”
While bureaucrats worked around the clock on the program, the end-of-year target was missed.
A host of factors were cited: weather, diplomatic issues, airport capacity, Syrians not being willing to leave as quickly as the government would like, medical screenings and so on.
The work will continue in 2016 for government, but for also Syrians who have come to Canada and the families that are welcoming them as they adjust to a new life here.
They include Alan Kurdi’s uncle and his family, who arrived in Canada earlier this week, sponsored by Tima Kurdi, Alan’s aunt.
“This is not the end. This is just the end of 2015,” she told reporters. “This is just the beginning.”
With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith