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Governor General David Johnston hopes the Rideau Hall forum will provide answers for those who want to help Syrian refugees settling in Canada.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Because things are so urgent, most of the Syrian refugees coming to Canada are being brought in directly by the federal government, rather than through private sponsors. These government-assisted refugees, as they're called, are at greater risk of failing or of falling through cracks. How can you help? A forum at Rideau Hall Tuesday hopes to tell you.

Governor-General David Johnston, who convened the forum, believes the Syrian refugee crisis is simply the latest in a long line of events that challenge Canada's willingness to welcome the world.

"It repeats, doesn't it?" he said in an interview Monday. "Sometimes we respond courageously in ways that we can applaud, and there are other times in our history when that has been less the case."

Canada's most prominent refugee rescue mission, Operation Lifeline, brought 60,000 Vietnamese "boat people" to Canada in 1980. More than 55,000 Somalis fled to Canada between 1988 and 1996. In 1999, 5,000 Kosovars were airlifted to Canadian Forces bases in Canada and then resettled, as part of Operation Parasol.

But there are other, more shameful precedents, such as Canada's reluctance to accept Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s, or the prejudice against Asian immigration prior to the 1960s.

Now the better angels of our nature are being summoned again. The millions of Syrians displaced by civil war "causes Canadians to look at the fundamental values of the country and see whether they come to the fore again, and I think they have," Mr. Johnston said. But not even the Vietnamese refugee crisis prompted the federal government to move as quickly as the Trudeau government is determined to move. Even with the Liberals' decision to shift the deadline from the end of December to the end of February, airlifting 25,000 refugees in three months with mere weeks to prepare is an enormous challenge, which is why the Governor-General invited 160 key actors in the operation (and by the way, could someone please give this operation a name?) for half a day of talks and discussion.

Participants include federal Immigration Minister John McCallum, who returned Monday from a fact-finding mission in Jordan, provincial immigration ministers, mayors from Halifax to Victoria, leaders of non-profits that work with refugees and of other charitable organizations, representatives of the Canadian Armed Forces, aboriginal leaders, faith and interfaith leaders, and representatives of the private sector, among others.

The purpose of the gathering, which is open to the media and will be televised, is for everyone to tell everyone what everyone is doing, to swap ideas and tips, and to make sure that this extraordinarily complex and multifaceted operation will come off with as few hitches as possible.

But even more important, the Governor-General hopes the forum will serve as "a call to action to individuals and communities across the country to get on board."

The genius of the Vietnamese airlift was that community groups everywhere took responsibility for sponsoring the refugees, supporting them after they arrived and helping to successfully embed them in the community.

But the urgency of the Liberal government's response makes that impossible. Fifteen thousand of the refugees will be government-sponsored; only 10,000 will be privately sponsored.

Part of the job of supporting the government-assisted refugees falls to federal, provincial and municipal governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. But Mr. Johnson would like individuals and organizations to band together to make the new arrivals, "sponsored after the fact."

If, within your family, among your friends, at your Rotary Club or place of worship, you're wondering how you can help the newest of Canada's new arrivals, Mr. Johnston is hoping Tuesday's forum will provide answers.

"The welcoming of newcomers, with their diversity, and very often coming from oppression," is the most deeply embedded of all Canadian traditions, Mr. Johnston observed. "And we have made it work." He wants all Canadians to help make it work again.

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