Getting real about refugees

Can we just drop the double-talk?

syrian refugees

A refugee camp in Lebanon

Tuesday was a proud day for Canada, but it could have been a much prouder one if the new Liberal government hadn’t engaged in the kind of double-talk that many hoped had been exiled along with the Tories.

The government’s promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees, details of which were revealed by a panel of no less than five Liberal ministers yesterday, turned out to be somewhat less than promised during the campaign.

Which is alright. The promise turned out to be too ambitious for the tight timeframe the Justin Trudeau Liberals had given themselves. Rather than bringing in all the promised refugees by year’s end, the government said they’d have 10,000 here by New Year’s and 15,000 more by the end of February.

As Québec solidaire MNA Amir Khadir said last week, “What is this obsession with saying it’s too early or too late? Do what’s possible to do, as rapidly as possible, and if we haven’t got there by Christmas, too bad.”

For the Syrian refugees who have been waiting years in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the news that they will have a permanent home in Canada is the first real cause for celebration they’ve had since fleeing their homeland’s civil war. With four million Syrian exiles scattered in two dozen countries, being accepted to Canada is like winning the lottery; few are going to quibble over a minor delay in the date they can claim their gift of new life and new hope in a new land.



Five ministers at yesterday’s announcement

The Liberals backtracked as well, we discovered Tuesday, on the promise that Canada would bring in 25,000 government-sponsored refugees (GSRs) in this wave. Instead, Ottawa will start with 10,000 refugees who were already in the pipeline via private sponsors (mostly church groups, mosques, community groups) and add 15,000 GSRs to that number. Immigration and Refugee Minister John McCallum — reminded yesterday by reporters that Trudeau had vowed to add 25,000 GSRs — suggested vaguely that the larger number would still be reached, possibly by the end of 2016.

Again, reaching the goal next December rather than this one isn’t a horrific betrayal of our commitment to Syrian refugees. The Liberals are already doing 10 times more than the Tories, whose refugee promises were much like their greenhouse gas targets: pipe dreams they barely pretended to honour. (We learned in early September, right after seeing the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach, that the Tory government had brought in less than 2,500 Syrian refugees since 2013, despite promising to bring in 10,000 over three years. )

Although some people will be disappointed that the Liberals have compromised their commitment, the truth is that there is certainly more popular support for the slower approach, even among some refugee groups. And in the wake of the Nov. 13 ISIS terror attacks in Paris, reactionary movements in many countries are lobbying to shut the doors altogether to Syrian refugees — which is akin to fighting rapists by refusing to let their victims shelter in your home. No fewer than 30 U.S. governors, for example, have called for a complete ban on accepting Syrians in defiance of President Barack Obama’s comparatively modest goal of accepting 10,000 in a country of 319 million.

So given the context, few would have blamed the government yesterday if McCallum or Health Minister Jane Philpott had come out and said:

“Hey, we were too optimistic and ambitious with our promise to bring 25,000 government-sponsored refugees into the country by Christmas. We still intend to do that, but it will take up to a year. Meanwhile, we’ll proceed immediately to bring in the private refugees who have already been screened and we’ve already sent extra staff to process 15,000 GSRs and get them here by February. Sorry for letting you down, but we’re working as quickly as we can to fulfill the commitment we made during the election.”

How much better an impression that would have made than having McCallum squirm after reporters challenged his numbers game, insisting in a room where no one was buying it that the promise had been respected. Or watching Philpott refuse to accept a CBC reporter’s reasonable suggestion that the Liberal campaign had been overly ambitious when it set its timeline.

This could have been, should have been, a joyous day for Philpott and McCallum. But the good news was tainted by the awkward attempt to paint as completed a promise that media quickly announced had, in fact, been clearly compromised.

One of the reasons why Canadians threw the Tories out after 10 years in government is that we were tired of being lied to, tired of watching Stephen Harper’s cabinet of sycophants follow the government line like contortionists for the Cirque du Soleil.

If the Trudeau government is resorting to these tactics of evasion this early, even when the truth is both evident and reasonable, it bodes ill for the major challenges that lie ahead. On the eve of climate talks in Paris and debate over the Trans Pacific Partnership sell-out, with critical issues like electoral reform and Indigenous rights crying out for frank and open discussion, we need straight talk, not spin from Ottawa.

If ministers feel the need to fake it so soon, the honeymoon’s already over. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.