A Canadian military plane has left Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport carrying the first plane load of Syrian refugees for resettlement in Canada.
An airport source said the plane – a Canadian military CC-150 transport – took off shortly after it was scheduled to depart at 1:45 p.m. local time (6:45 a.m. EST), and was headed to Toronto with 163 Syrian refugees on board. The expected arrival time of 9:15 p.m. EST has been delayed.
The flight will land in a specially prepared part of the airport's infield terminal, where Canada Border Services Agency has set up a screening centre, as well as a children's play area. Warm clothes to help the newcomers cope with the Canadian winter will also be distributed.
A second CC-150 will carry more refugees from Beirut to Montreal on Saturday.
"Resettling refugees demonstrates our commitment to Canadians and to the world that Canada understands that we can and must do more," Justin Trudeau said during Question Period on Wednesday.
Along with Trudeau, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Health Minister Eric Hoskins plan to meet the first wave of refugees Thursday.
Ms. Wynne called on Ontarians to welcome the refugees as they begin to settle across the province.
"Arriving in a new country will no doubt be exciting but an overwhelming experience for these new Canadians," she told reporters at Queen's Park Thursday morning. "But I'm very confident that people across the province will welcome them and will demonstrate the same kindness and compassion that we have historically shown to each other and that will be in place for this new group of people who will be joining us here."
Dr. Hoskins said refugees will receive a "brief but thorough medical screening" for communicable diseases when they arrive at Pearson, will be issued with social insurance numbers and federal health cards, then will be put up in an airport-area hotel for a night. After that, Mr. Hoskins said, they will disperse throughout the province, where various settlement agencies and private sponsors have arranged accommodation for them.
"Arriving late at night in a country after the experience that they've had, it will be very stressful. Our job is to make sure that they are welcomed, that they have the immediate supports that they need, that we provide them with what they need for that new journey, their life in Canada," he said.
Dr. Hoskins, who worked with refugees at War Child Canada before getting into politics, said he was "looking forward" to being there.
"I'm looking forward to being able to greet them and hopefully add a little bit to the security, to the calm that is important for them to integrate in Canada," he said.
Close to half the passengers on board are refugees sponsored by a single Toronto group.
The Armenian Community Centre in Toronto said it was informed on Wednesday that 71 refugees that its community had privately sponsored would be part of the first official Canadian government flight arriving on Thursday.
The Armenian Canadian group is based in the northern Toronto suburb of Willowdale and is behind a robust private sponsorship program.
Apkar Mirakian, who is charge of refugee resettlement program at the Armenian Community Centre in Toronto, said he was also told by authorities that the refugees would be taken to a hotel and that the Armenian Community Centre should be prepared to collect the refugees on Friday morning.
The group was looking to hire chartered buses that will transport the newcomers on Friday morning to the community centre where they will be welcomed and introduced to the local families that are responsible for helping them settle in to their new homes.
While the flights Thursday and Saturday will involve military aircraft, the federal government plans to use commercial charters to transport most of the 25,000 Syrian refugees it has approved to become permanent residents, including 10,000 it has promised to bring to Canada by the end of 2015.
Much of the operation will move through Jordan's Marka airport. The government is in the process of chartering as many as six Royal Jordanian passenger planes for use in the effort. Sources in Jordan, however, suggested that the first flights from Marka could still be a week or longer away.
Immigration Minister John McCallum told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday that 11,932 applications refugee applications were currently being processed in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – three countries that collectively host some four million Syrian refugees. Mr. McCallum said that 1,451 permanent resident visas had been issued so far.
Canadian officials are working their way through about 400 applications each day in Jordan and Lebanon, he said. "This is a pretty good clip, and I think it is a good sign for us in terms of getting the job done," Mr. McCallum said.
The operation in Turkey – where Canada is working with refugee lists provided to it by the Turkish government, rather than the United Nations High Commission for Refugees – is moving more slowly.
Fewer than 500 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada between Nov. 4 and the end of last week, but Mr. McCallum said he still hopes the government can keep its promise to accept 10,000 – most of them privately sponsored – by the end of the year.
The number of refugees who have indicated they are interested in speaking with Canadian immigration officials about coming to Canada has picked up significantly, jumping to 8,554 by the end of last week from 1,801 the week before.
Immigration officials previously indicated many of the displaced Syrians were reluctant to travel halfway around the world, and start their lives over in this country.
But the officials who spoke to reporters on background on Wednesday said they will have no trouble finding the 25,000 people the Liberal government promised to bring here by February.
Some of the refugees will have difficulty making a quick move – they may have to sell property or get other family members out of Syria before they can to pull up stakes in the Middle East, the bureaucrats said. But large numbers of people are still looking to Canada for refuge.
Mr. McCallum said resettlement-assistance organizations in 23 cities – in all provinces except Quebec, which operates under a separate accord with the federal government – will share an additional $3.6-million, an increase of 25 per cent in their usual federal funding, to help ease the transition of the arriving Syrians.
The refugees will be eligible for the basic provincial health coverage that is provided to all Canadians plus supplements for drug coverage, eyeglasses, dentistry and other medical needs that are available to Canadians on social assistance.
"I do think a large majority of Canadians want to welcome these people coming from the scourge of civil war to our country, make them feel comfortable, help them adjust and hope that they will get jobs as soon as possible," Mr. McCallum said. "Here we have 25,000 human beings caught in the scourge of a vicious civil war and terrorist attacks by [the Islamic State]. And we are bringing these people from the horrible world in which they live over to our wonderful country."
With a report by Mark MacKinnon in Amman and Adrian Morrow and Affan Chowdhry in Toronto