Quebec is taking steps to triple the number of Syrian refugees it aims to resettle this year as pressure mounts on the federal government to do more to respond to the international migrant crisis.
Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberal government confirmed Monday it will boost its initial admissions target for Syrian refugees threefold to 3,650 people for 2015. Public money will be made available to welcome and integrate the newcomers, Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil said.
"The death of little [Alan] Kurdi sends a message that leads us to act in the face of all the children who are innocent victims of armed conflict," Ms. Weil said in a statement, referring to the shocking image of the young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach after a failed attempt to reach Greece. "The steps we're taking today are in response to the request by Quebeckers who want to do more to support Syrian refugees scattered in various countries."
Quebec's move comes amid calls by provincial and municipal leaders for Ottawa to step up efforts to bring more Syrians into Canada and do its part to ease the refugee crisis.
Ontario's Health Minister Eric Hoskins on Friday pressed the federal government to bring in 5,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Nova Scotia Justice Minister Diana Whalen have said their provinces can accommodate more refugees from Syria, locked in a civil war since 2011.
Unlike other provinces, Quebec has significant control over its immigration policy, with power to select its own immigrants and set admission targets in negotiation with Ottawa. It also oversees programs under which private groups sponsor refugees, which have no limitations.
But it will need the federal government's co-operation to speed up security screening and other processing in order to meet its new objectives. In an interview, Ms. Weil said there are things Quebec could do on its own to this end, such as sending its own immigration officials to a refugee camp in Lebanon to fast-track claims.
Ms. Weil said she was optimistic that her federal counterparts will co-operate. Still, federal bureaucrats already appear to be struggling to process existing claims. Applications by some 2,000 Syrian refugees sponsored in Quebec are still waiting for Ottawa's approval, according to a Quebec immigration department official.
Federal Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was non-committal when asked about Quebec's move on a campaign stop Monday, saying his government was still looking at ways to accelerate the admission of Syrians. He also insisted that Canadian security needs to be "properly protected" when the country brings in people from war zones controlled by terrorists.
Quebec has welcomed 650 Syrian refugees since the start of the year and is believed to be home to the country's largest Syrian community, numbering 17,000. Last year, the province settled 60 per cent of all Syrians accepted into Canada. Canada has so far accepted 2,374 Syrian refugees and has pledged to bring in a total of 11,300 over three years. Last week, Mr. Harper said the Conservatives would bring 10,000 more Middle East refugees to Canada over the next four years if re-elected.
"I welcome Quebec stepping up to the plate," but the effort exposes just how modest Canada's contributions are over all, said Ratna Omidvar, a Ryerson University professor and chairwoman of Lifeline Syria, a group helping Syrian refugees come to Canada. "There are four million refugees and we're arguing about incremental increases of 1,000 or 2,000. It sort of serves to highlight that our response to global crisis is really still quite small."
"There's no reason the Canadian government should refuse this because responsibility, and especially financial commitments, are being assumed by Quebec," said Stephan Reichhold, head of the Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes, a Montreal collective helping refugees. "Still, it's hard to gauge if Ottawa will play ball."
With reports from Bill Curry and The Canadian Press