Canada must confront the fact that while as many as 150 communities are offering to welcome Syrian refugees, only three dozen have the support structure in place for so many vulnerable and traumatized Arab speakers, the co-chair of a crucial gathering of stakeholders taking place this weekend says.
Chris Friesen, who heads settlement programs for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., is helping lead a two-day meeting with Ottawa, provinces, municipalities and resettlement groups in Toronto that will make plans for the tens of thousand of Syrians who will start to arrive in December.
A key dilemma is where to send the 25,000 government-sponsored refugees the Liberals have promised to bring to Canada. This group is separate from the 10,000 privately sponsored Syrians also being airlifted here who are mostly family reunification cases and will plug into a support structure already used by their relatives.
The Liberals have pledged to take the "most vulnerable" refugees for the government's 25,000 allotment. This means children, "women at risk; perhaps survivors of sexual violence and rape," Mr. Friesen said. It's children traumatized by months or years in refugee camps. "You've got single mothers whose husbands have been killed, murdered, detained, you've got the LGBT community."
On the one hand, small-town Canada is where affordable housing can most easily be found for such a huge influx of Syrian refugees.
Conversely, the specialized assistance these Syrians will need is in shorter supply, or absent, in these communities, the refugee advocate said.
"We can't start sending people to a town that has no Arabic-speaking interpreters, no specialized medical intervention, no education system with an English-as-an-additional-language support teacher, no high school counsellor or child psychologist who's dealt with a student of a refugee background before," Mr. Friesen said.
It's heartening to see premiers and municipal leaders welcoming Syrians so openly, the refugee advocate said, but, he added, it's time for a reality check on how this might work.
"We're saying 'Hold on, put on the brakes. We need to have a rational behind-the-door discussion of what this really means.'"
The Trudeau Liberals have tried from the start to market the refugee resettlement plan as a pan-Canadian endeavour.
"This is not a federal project. This is not even a government project. This is a national project that will involve all Canadians," Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum said as he announced the bare bones of Ottawa's plans.
The response has come in from coast to coast, with Mr. McCallum talking to more than 30 mayors across the country who were interested in playing a role. In addition, the federal government launched a website by which Canadians could signal their interest to donate money, be a volunteer or sponsor newcomers.
Mr. Friesen said governments will have to make a considerable investment to ensure that government-sponsored refugees heading to smaller communities have the support they need.
"We need to be able to say if the person is in Fort St. John and they need an interpreter, they can phone a number and reach a language interpreter who speaks Arabic."
That could mean more spending for Ottawa and possibly provinces and municipalities on the Syrian refugee resettlement – an endeavour that the Liberals have already said could cost as much as $678-million.
Mr. Friesen said failure to provide health, education and counselling for refugees dispersed to small towns could sour these hosts on the new arrivals and also prompt the Syrians to leave for bigger cities.
"The Syrian refugee who is destined for a community where there is no specialized services becomes problematic for that community … because it's so complicated to work with a traumatized child or traumatized adult," he said.
"Or the refugee who is stuck in a small town, which offers an amazing welcome, wonderful welcome but [then they say]: 'Where's my community? Where's my mosque?' Sorry, I am taking a bus to a bigger centre.'"
It would be harder for the government to spur pan-Canadian involvement if the refugees were resettled in a limited number of communities. In Quebec, however, the government has announced that a large majority of the 7,300 Syrians who will come to the province will go into the greater Montreal area, which will welcome 6,200 of them.
The Trudeau government pledged new funding for the Syrian cause on Thursday. In Ottawa, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced $100-million in assistance to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to help the agency cope with the crisis in Syria. The new funding brings Canada's humanitarian contribution to the cause to nearly $1-billion.