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Canada’s failure to act on refugee crisis begins with Stephen Harper

Canada's response to the refugee crisis has been terribly disappointing. While other major Western countries, one after another, have been promising to do more, Ottawa has been muttering into its lapels. A country that is justifiably proud of its record of compassion is looking very much the laggard – hesitant, reluctant, defensive.

It has fallen to Canadian mayors to say the right thing. If Stephen Harper hopes to serve again as prime minister, he would do well to listen to them. Canada's mayors are putting him to shame.

Canada's failure starts with Mr. Harper. The cool, unsentimental approach he brings to governing can often be an asset. In this case, he has seemed positively tone deaf.

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That little boy on the beach has changed everything. The huddled masses pressing on Europe's shores have gained a human face. Suddenly, and far too late, we see them for what they are: ordinary people, in many ways just like us, who desperately need help.

The public is ready for something big: a grand gesture of generosity, like our lifeline to the Vietnamese boat people, in keeping with the country's traditions. Canada's mayors seem to understand that.

While Ottawa dithers, and federal party leaders manoeuvre to score points, the mayors have stepped up to demand action.

Montreal's mayor, Denis Coderre, said his city is ready to welcome more refugees. Toronto's mayor, John Tory, has called other mayors to talk about organizing municipal help for refugees. "This is the Canadian way to respond," he said. "With an open heart." Calgary's Naheed Nenshi has taken on the Conservative government for its weak response. "We're a country of generosity and we're a country of opportunity," he said.

Vancouver's Gregor Robertson says Canada is falling short of its international obligations and wants Vancouver to become a city of sanctuary for refugees.

A cynic might say the mayors can speak out because immigration is not their responsibility and so they can sound off without consequence. A more generous view is that mayors have their ears close to the ground. They know that people are hungry for action. They also know how much immigrants, most of whom gravitate to big urban centres, have done for their cities. Hungarians, Czechs, Vietnamese, Ugandans and countless other groups have settled in Canadian cities in various waves of refugee flight. Canadian cities are much richer for it, in every sense of the word.

"The people of Vancouver have a proud history of welcoming refugees," Mayor Robertson says, "and a deep commitment to ensuring that families affected by this ongoing crisis can find new hope, security and opportunity in Canada." It is a mystery that the Prime Minister cannot find a way to say something as simple and as true as that about Canada.

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Instead, we get caviling and temporizing and partisan cheap shots. Fine, fine, we can take in some more refugees, Mr. Harper says, but the real solution is to end the conflict that is putting them to flight. Cue a jab at the Liberals and the NDP for failing to show support for Canada's military mission in the region.

Under questioning from the CBC's Peter Mansbridge, the Prime Minister said there is no "refugee-based solution alone" to the crisis. "We're not going to bring millions and tens of millions of people out of these regions. We can't depopulate them. That's – that's not a solution."

Nobody is saying that it is. Nobody is calling for the whole population of the Middle East to be moved to Brampton and Coquitlam. What growing numbers of Canadians are saying is that as long as the conflict is raging, rich countries such as ours should be stretching themselves to the fullest – to the absolute limit of their ability – to help those who have been forced to flee their homes and embark on a harrowing journey in search of safety.

Germany is making that stretch. Its response to the crisis has been nothing short of magnificent. Throwing open its doors to the refugees has done more than a dozen Holocaust memorials to show that modern Germany is a tolerant, liberal place.

Angela Merkel, like Mr. Harper, is a cool customer and a cautious politician who usually makes decisions only after painstaking deliberation. In this case, she recognized the need for swift, decisive action and Germany responded both in deed and in word. That is not happening in Canada. The abdication of leadership is shocking. The mayors are a prominent and welcome exception to a dismal performance.

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