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Canada Canada capable of aiding more refugees, former chief of defence Hillier says

File photo from Saturday June 14, 2008.

Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

As Stephen Harper attempts this week to get a handle on the sensitive issue of Syrian refugees, a former chief of defence staff says there are ways of dealing with security concerns to bring in far more displaced people than the Tories would currently allow.

Rick Hillier, who led the Canadian Armed Forces from 2005 to 2008 through difficult years of the Afghanistan mission and who has previously praised the Conservative government for its military policy, says Canada has the capacity – and should have the resolve – to resettle 50,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas. More than four million people have been uprooted in the region by civil war and Islamic terrorists.

The Conservatives have made several pledges to take in fleeing Syrians and Mr. Harper said last month that he is prepared to resettle an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq over the next four years. But he has consistently resisted calls to do more, citing security concerns and the need to carefully screen applicants before bringing them to Canada.

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Mr. Hillier said last week that he believed the numbers being allowed into Canada were too low and he reiterated that on Sunday during an interview on CBC's Power and Politics.

"I get frustrated by the fact that we in Canada sometimes don't see the leadership necessary to step up and be the great nation that we are …" said Mr. Hillier. "We should do much more for those poor people, the hundreds of thousands of them that have nothing, fleeing for their lives and needing our help."

Mr. Hillier said he understands there is a need to screen for terrorists who may try to enter Canada under the guise of refugees. But "we've got to stop being frightened by our own shadow," he said. "We live in a dangerous world. We handle it pretty well. And we are going to take some appropriate security measures no matter how many refugees come into our nation."

If Canada agreed to take in orphaned children, women who are on their own, single-parent families, or families in general, it would be easy to find 50,000 people who need to be relocated and who present no security threat, said Mr. Hillier. He suggested that the government could lease cruise ships that have been spending the summer in Europe and will soon be heading back to North America to transport as many as 5,000 people at a time.

"We can do this and doing it quickly doesn't mean you have to take shortcuts," he said.

The Tories will make a concerted bid this week to regain control of the Syrian refugee file – which Conservatives privately say they mishandled by taking the wrong tone in early September.

The Harper government is preparing to announce new measures to expedite the intake of asylum seekers and bolster financial support for the effort. Options under consideration include pouring more resources into application processing, loosening the red tape affecting private sponsorships organized by five or more Canadians, and helping citizens who want to sponsor refugees.

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On Saturday, International Development Minister Christian Paradis announced that the federal government will match eligible Canadian donations with up to $100-million under the Syrian Emergency Relief Fund. Canada previously allocated $503.5-million for humanitarian efforts in Syria and neighbouring countries since the beginning of Syria's civil war.

But Mr. Harper's response to date has prompted pressure to do more from community and religious groups as well as opposition members on the campaign trail.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has said that 10,000 refugees could be brought to Canada by the end of this year. The Liberals' Justin Trudeau has set a target of 25,000.

Mr. Hillier said 50,000 is the minimum number that should be considered and that the federal government should organize a meeting with the provinces, cities, churches, community groups, the RCMP, Immigration Canada, Foreign Affairs and the military to get things started.

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