The Conservative government, criticized for its initial response to the Syrian refugee crisis swamping Europe, has unveiled new measures to speed up the process of refugee resettlement.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander laid out the change in plans on the weekend in the midst of the federal election campaign as the Conservatives and the two main opposition parties are locked in a tight three-way battle.
The plan includes fast-tracking the process of bringing in 10,000 refugees, from three years to 15 months, at a cost of $25-million; no longer requiring refugees to prove they are convention refugees under the UN refugee agency; putting more officials on the ground to screen refugees and doubling the staff working in Canada to process them.
Aid groups sought a speedier process after Canadians were shocked by the tragic photograph of a three-year-old Syrian boy lying dead on a Turkish beach three weeks ago.
Until now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had opted for a more incremental approach – for example, announcing the government would match donations from Canadians up to $100-million for Syrian refugees in Syria and in neighbouring countries.
Municipalities, provinces and private sponsors stepped up to say they wanted to help but ran into a wall of bureaucracy, which included the painstakingly slow process of refugees having to be individually screened by UN officials.
Humanitarian group Lifeline Syria said it welcomed the government's efforts to speed up the process. Spokeswoman Alexandra Kotyk said reducing the amount of red tape by dropping the requirement of documentation proving they are refugees is "something we are incredibly glad about."
Federal opposition leaders had also called on the government to do more, and cast suspicion on the Conservatives' sudden change to speed up the process.
In Halifax on Sunday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told hundreds of supporters that if he forms government on Oct. 19, he will bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. He suggested that Mr. Harper lacked the "political will" to respond immediately to the crisis, and he called the government's announcement Saturday a "sudden and convenient – during election time – change of heart."
Mr. Trudeau said the safety and security of Canadians is always a concern, but added, "the fact that Mr. Harper keeps talking about security as an impediment to this is quite frankly just a distraction from the lack of political will to get it done."
He said his plan will cost about $100-million and he raised the possibility of "airlifts" to bring them in. Mr. Trudeau also talked about investing in more case workers and "increasing our capacity on the ground."
Mr. Harper has repeatedly said he would not airlift in thousands of refugees without proper security screening, warning they were coming from a war zone and he didn't want to put Canadians at risk.
Mr. Trudeau's plan, however, remains vague. For example, in 1999, the then-Liberal government under Jean Chrétien budgeted $100-million to bring in just 5,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and his party have called for 10,000 refugees to be here by the end of the year.
On CTV's Question Period Sunday, Mr. Alexander walked a fine line between the security concerns and explaining the new measures to fast track the process.
"We have an obligation to Canadians, to make sure the safety of this country comes first," he said, "and we also have an obligation to respond to the larger crisis that involves millions of refugees who are still in the region and who need help inside Syria, in Iraq as they go into a winter, and who need help militarily to ensure that the Islamic State and [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's] dictatorship don't do any more harm …"
He said the Conservative government's new plan is "realistic," suggesting the Liberal and NDP plans are not.
The Tory plan, says Mr. Alexander, "reflects the realities of operating in this region, that hasn't [been conceived] on the back of a napkin, or invented out of thin air.
"We need to get refugees here faster, respond to the generosity of Canadians, while ensuring that our screening procedures for security, for medical and for all the other aspects that go into refugee resettlement remain strong," he said.
A senior Harper official said the announcement Saturday is simply another one of "several evolutions" in government policy as the crisis in Iraq and Syria has steadily escalated.
The "direction of each step is the same: increasing Canada's commitment of military resources, humanitarian aid, refugee resettlement," said the official.
However, national pollster Nik Nanos, of Nanos Research, told The Globe and Mail it was clear the Conservative government had to do more in regard to the refugee crisis.
"We knew that issue had particular resonance in B.C. and Ontario," he said, which are two battleground provinces for the Conservatives and where the concern about the crisis resonated the most.
Mr. Nanos characterized the Conservative plan as one that is designed to be more defensive than to be a vote-getter.
"I don't think [the latest announcement from Mr. Alexander] is necessarily going to win votes … but it will help inoculate the Conservatives against any political risk on this issue," he said.
Although the Conservatives have been under criticism for not responding more quickly, Mr. Nanos believes the average Canadian's attitude is that this is "better late than never."
With reports from Steven Chase and The Canadian Press