It is not as if Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper's government has been entirely inactive in the face of the crisis in Syria. Since 2013, Canada has resettled 2,500 Syrian refugees and has plans to accept another 8,800 by 2017. Our military is involved in the fight to destroy the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And the government has spent more than $700-million on aid in Syria and neighbouring countries.
But those commitments were made before the tiny body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. The public has since woken up to the unfolding catastrophe, and many of Canada's European allies have responded with emergency measures to relocate hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians. Meanwhile, Canada's process for bringing in Syrian refugees is still as stingy as ever, and still moving at the speed of a glacier. And the Conservative government seems to be just fine with that.
In response to public outcry, Mr. Harper has insisted that his government's existing commitments are adequate. He has justified his unwillingness to do more on the grounds that the suffering is overwhelming, and that one country can't make a difference.
Both those arguments are invalid. Canada and Canadians can always make a difference when faced with humanitarian catastrophes. From one crisis to the next, we have rarely failed to respond.
If Mr. Harper wants to change course, he has two possible outs.
He can call on Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair, the leaders of the Liberal and New Democratic parties, to meet with him and come up with a joint plan of immediate action – now, before the election is over. The other two leaders have been urging the government to take in more refugees and accelerate the exceedingly slow pace of refugee acceptance. They are right. Canada needs to send immigration officials to the Middle East and provide planes to fly the new refugees back to Canada – as was done in past refugee crises.
Alternatively, Mr. Harper could implement all of this unilaterally. Even during an election, his party is still the government, and he is still the Prime Minister. The levers of power are his to operate. He has no excuse for inaction.
There is an opportunity here for Mr. Harper to demonstrate that scarce quality that enables some politicians to rise above partisan imperatives in times of crisis. It's called statesmanship. It's what Canadians expect.