A fast-spreading movement of local and provincial governments, community groups and individuals trying to raise money to sponsor Syrian refugees to come to Canada is up against what appears to be largely a business-as-usual federal system.
The federal government's approach to a migrant crisis now gripping Europe is based on a time-consuming model in which refugees need to be screened individually by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and heavily burdened Canadian visa offices in the Middle East. Just over 1,000 Syrian refugees, of the four million who have left their country during its civil war, have been brought to Canada this year.
The fundraising and organizing efforts of ordinary Canadians, churches and other community groups are mostly in their early days. But already, refugee advocates say, the government is behind in meeting its targets, as Canadians' desire to help outpaces Ottawa's ability or willingness to facilitate resettlement.
The disconnect between the scale of the refugee crisis and the system's response is prompting demands for dramatic change. On Tuesday, retired general Rick Hillier, who once headed the NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan, added his voice to those calling for an aggressive approach that echoes Canada's response to the Vietnamese boat people in 1979-80. He challenged Canada to resettle 50,000 refugees by the end of this year. Ottawa's current target is 10,000 over three years.
"I wonder why we, as the great country that we are, could not stand tall during these dark days for the hundreds of thousands of displaced souls who are fleeing, quite literally, for their very lives," the former chief of defence staff said in a Facebook post. He would have a lead minister – probably Immigration Minister Chris Alexander – oversee representatives of the Canadian Air Forces, the Mounties, Foreign Affairs and Finance to deal with the asylum seekers applying to come to Canada.
"I know, sounds implausible," he wrote, "but we Canadians are capable of doing the implausible when we believe it important enough. Challenge our provinces, cities, churches and individual Canadians to step up and help this get done. Let's do it instead of endlessly talking about doing it!!!"
Canada's attempts to resettle Syrian refugees have been mired in red tape. Tima Kurdi, the aunt of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old whose body washed up on a Turkish beach last week, intensifying the global spotlight on the refugee crisis, said that in her own attempt to sponsor her brother (Alan's uncle), Canada required UNHCR approval of individual refugee claims, but the UNHCR wouldn't give approval unless Canada agreed first to accept those claims.
A spokesperson for Mr. Alexander did not respond to a request for comment. Liberal Party spokesman Jean-Luc Ferland said Leader Justin Trudeau is calling for 25,000 refugees to be resettled by the end of the year, and agrees a non-partisan approach is best. Mr. Trudeau called on Mr. Harper last week to meet with the other party leaders to create a plan.
NDP candidate and foreign-affairs critic Paul Dewar said the party is calling for 10,000 government-sponsored refugees by year's end and 9,000 a year for the next four years. "We agree with Mr. Hillier that Canada needs to act now, and do more," he said.
In British Columbia, Premier Christy Clark has set aside $1-million to resettle refugees in that province. Quebec is tripling the number of refugees it hopes to resettle this year.
George Petrolekas, who served in Afghanistan and Bosnia with the rank of colonel and was an adviser to Gen. Hillier, sketched out a plan for realizing Mr. Hillier's vision. "We've done this before, and it is not rocket science," he said in an e-mail. "At its heart, this is a military logistics operation. I need to move X number of people, house them, feed them, process them and resettle them."
He said he would begin by establishing who has the necessary language skills in the military, the reserve and the public service, and round up interview teams from the Immigration Department. He would address security concerns by arranging for data links to a place in Europe where the government could tap police and intelligence databases. He said it would not matter where to set up – in Europe or, say, Jordanian refugee camps. Refugees would be divided into three groups: those with family in Canada; those with skill sets Canada needs; and general refugees. He would ask each province about its capacity to absorb refugees.
Visas, or the equivalent, could be created quickly. "It isn't hard to think of a chip-based Canadian temp ID card printed in situ. On issuance of the card, a time, date and locale would be given for migration to Canada," Mr. Petrolekas said.
And the military could provide places for the refugees to stay in Canada until more permanent homes could be found.
"I'd be determining a transient location in Canada. It could be any number of Canadian Forces bases. We have entire apartment blocks dedicated to cadets for summer camps, other camps with barracks like Farnham in Quebec, or Dundurn [in Saskatchewan], let alone former married quarters now held by Crown Assets for disposal or sale," Mr. Petrolekas added.
Reception teams would be in place to assign living quarters and conduct "second-round screening," while officials build a database of where the refugees would ultimately settle. With the infrastructure in place, Canadian Forces aircraft would begin flying people to Canada, and within weeks, would start moving to their final destinations.