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John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, says while the government is committed to bringing Syrian refugees to Canada quickly, it also wants to do it right.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Liberals are still debating whether to extend the Dec. 31 deadline to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada in order to allow all health and security screening to be conducted on foreign soil, sources said.

The greatest concern at this point is that if some refugees land in the country as unscreened temporary residents, the government would face a series of legal hurdles before it could expel any of them for failing required tests, the sources said.

The Trudeau government is in the final stages of preparing its resettlement plan, which, in the recent election campaign, the Liberals promised to conclude by the end of the year. The final details will be unveiled on Tuesday, after a meeting of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's full cabinet.

A key issue still under debate is whether to allow some of the refugees to land in Canada as temporary residents and undergo further screening here, or to conduct all screening abroad and welcome all of the asylum seekers in the country as permanent residents, sources said.

The first option would accelerate the process; the second one could push back the arrival of a portion of the refugees into January, a source said.

Given the ongoing conflict in Syria, the government wants to avoid a situation in which it would have "stateless citizens" on its soil. In that context, some federal officials are pushing for the government to do the entire screening abroad, in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.

"You don't want people who are in the country who are legally ambiguous and you have nowhere to send them," a federal official said, adding that the internal debate "could change the timeline" for the arrival of the refugees.

Immigration lawyer Gordon Maynard said the issue for the government is that providing temporary residency status to refugees would speed up the process, but it would be hard to subsequently send them back to their "country of nationality."

"Unquestionably, doing the screening oversees is going to give you the benefit of not having an issue on your hands, if you decide to backtrack on the temporary entry that you have facilitated for the sake of expediency," he said in an interview. "That is the tradeoff you make, there is no question about it."

Concerns about the security risks posed by Syrian refugees began spreading among provincial and municipal governments after last Friday's terror attacks in Paris. The Trudeau government is striving to convince Canadians that the refugees are a minimal risk, insisting that the RCMP and CSIS have endorsed the proposed screening as robust and strong.

Asked about polls suggesting Canadians are sharply divided on bringing in so many Syrian refugees so quickly, Canada's new Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, offered a passionate rejoinder. Mr. Sajjan said welcoming 25,000 Syrians in a matter of weeks is not just "a humanitarian project" but also a rebuke of the Islamic State, which seeks to convince Syrian Muslims and others that the West is their enemy.

"This sends a great message to ISIS," he said, using another acronym for the Islamic State, "that you might have created this environment for us but we will not let you take advantage of this."

The Defence Minister, who immigrated to Canada from India as a young boy, spoke forcefully on this initiative, saying "by doing our part for this we are actually hitting ISIS in a different way."

Mr. Sajjan cited a Ugandan-Canadian friend of his who remains grateful that Canada accepted him when "no other country would take me," and how this man, now a multimillionaire, gives back in contributions to charities including Armed Forces causes.

He said Syrians will benefit Canada. "They are not fleeing poverty – they are fleeing war. These people are coming … with skill sets, and the people who resettle in this area are going to be contributing to our economy."

Sources said there are still a "number of moving parts" as federal officials work with other levels of government to finalize plans to welcome and house the refugees across the country – as many as half at military bases – and help them integrate into Canadian society.

Speaking at the Canada202 conference in Ottawa, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said she is convinced that adequate security measures are in place.

"What we can't give into is allowing security to mask racism," she said. "That's the danger."

With a report from Shawn McCarthy

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