Mayors and provincial officials are putting pressure on the federal government to ensure that Syrian refugees initially settle all over the country instead of congregating in Canada's biggest cities.
Details of Ottawa's plans to bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of February remain incomplete, including when the Syrians will start arriving in Canada and where they will be settled.
However, there are growing concerns that a large majority of the government-sponsored refugees will be drawn to cities such as Montreal and Toronto, where thousands of privately sponsored refugees are heading in coming weeks to join large, existing communities of Syrian Canadians.
Officials in the Atlantic provinces, including Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, argue that having refugees more uniformly distributed could provide a great opportunity for the region to deal with its demographic challenges.
"It ties in with the needs of Nova Scotia for immigrants to come to the province, so we think there can be not only a humanitarian and compassionate side to this, but also be very good for our economy," Mr. Savage said in an interview. "All provinces and cities will likely be saying, 'We think we can play a role here and we want to have a chance to do so.'"
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger added that his province would like to welcome up to 8 per cent of the Syrian asylum seekers – about twice Manitoba's proportion of the overall Canadian population. "We know that Manitobans want to do their part in welcoming these innocent victims of war find a better life," he said.
In a conference call with reporters, Immigration Minister John McCallum said he's aware that officials in places from Victoria to Halifax are working to rejuvenate their population.
"We would like to see these refugees spread fairly evenly across the country. We do not want to concentrate them all in three or four big cities," he said, adding that Ottawa does not "control exactly where they will go."
Mr. McCallum said the government will be leasing planes from Royal Jordanian Airways to fly many of the refugees to Canada, stating the first trip could occur as early as next week.
"We want to have a certain number built up before we begin the process," Mr. McCallum said, adding the government will soon be able to process 500 cases a day at a centre in Jordan.
Still, there have been concerns about whether small-town Canada can handle government-sponsored Syrian refugees, who will be the most vulnerable and traumatized newcomers. Governments are preparing an assessment checklist that can help them determine whether smaller towns have the necessary minimum services such as health, mental-health and education workers.
Chris Friesen, of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., said that "if those key elements are not in the community," resettlement groups and governments will have to consider whether these support services can be added over time. The alternative is sending these refugees to the 36 long-standing refugee-resettlement centres across Canada.
Resettlement groups say they are still waiting to be given the names of the private sponsors who will welcome 10,000 refugees in coming months, to assist them in successfully integrating the newcomers into Canadian society.
"A number of these private sponsors will be doing this for the first time and it's critically important for them to have support around them as they take on this big task of welcoming and integrating their Syrian refugee family," Mr. Friesen said.
He added that Syrians will have a challenge adapting to welfare-rate housing.
"You're coming from a middle-class family with a nice house in Damascus. Managing expectations may at times be challenging," Mr. Friesen said.
Another issue is seeing how many refugees Ottawa plans on bringing to Canada in 2016, not only from Syria but other countries, as well. The "immigration levels" are normally released every fall, and refugee groups say they need to see overall projections to accurately plan for all the newcomers.
"The government has been consistent in promising this [the Syrian refugee intake] will be over and above pre-existing refugee targets for other regions," Mr. Friesen said.
Ottawa has been consulting provincial and municipal officials, as well as refugee groups, after announcing the broad overview of its logistics efforts last Tuesday. The government will bring 10,000 privately sponsored refugees and 15,000 government-sponsored refugees to the country between now and the end of February.