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Bravo that Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is now preparing a new plan for Canada's response to what has emerged as the worst refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East since the end of the Second World War. Perhaps he has heard the many voices across Canada – provincial premiers, mayors of municipalities, faith leaders, non-profit organizations and ordinary citizens – wanting to act but stymied by the reality that the key lever for further progress is within the hands of the federal government.

As former federal ministers and deputy ministers, appreciative of what it takes to translate political announcements into realities, we urge Mr. Harper to think big and not let the exigencies of the election campaign diminish the call to action. There is nothing in the caretaker convention, followed during election campaigns, to stop government from responding to a crisis – particularly when there is all-party support.

Mr. Harper can turn to his professional public servants with their past successful history of managing Bosnian, Ugandan, Kosovo, and Indochinese mass movement of refugees. He can ask them to determine Canada`s maximum capacity for absorption of individuals now streaming into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Europe. Under the Public Policy provisions of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the government can launch a significant new humanitarian Syrian refugee resettlement program. Its goal should be to increase the overall Canadian commitment to numbers of refugees and significantly simplify administrative burdens for both private sponsors and immigration officials.

Mr. Harper can ask officials in the Departments of Finance, Treasury Board, Citizenship and Immigration, Defence and Foreign Affairs to ascertain the financial and human resources required and set those aside. The public record of the contributions of the previous waves of past refugee settlement programs demonstrate the long-term returns to Canada from what may, in the short term, look like significant costs. The government can engage with provincial governments, who are also committing resources, to maximize the effectiveness of all efforts. It is short term investments which will be critical to the success of the program: there will be ample payback for an adequate number of visa and security officers in the field for refugee selection, for professionals to expedite medical clearances and security assessments, and for transportation costs and staging areas in Canada when the refugees arrive. Pending full program implementation, the government can ensure "all hands on deck" in fast-tracking existing applications, particularly those with family connections in Canada.

We appreciate that the world has changed. We share concerns about the protection of the security of Canadians in the post-Sept. 11 world – but security cannot be an excuse for inertia. In addition to providing adequate screening personnel in the field, security risks can be mitigated by a focus on women at risk, families with children, and families with Canadian connections. Canada can also now benefit from positive changes since earlier humanitarian programs. Social media and other information technologies now exist that were not dreamt of 30 years ago to enable rapid information sharing and decision-making – whether in identifying security risks or refugee resettlement. In contrast to the 1970s, there is a substantially increased cross-Canada network of highly experienced and motivated municipal, provincial and non-profit newcomer settlement agencies ready to act and be proactive partners.

Nor should Canada's commitment to continuing the fight against Islamic State stop humanitarian initiatives. Public policy often has multiple objectives and there is no reason the two cannot proceed on parallel tracks. We understand that the challenge seems daunting when one considers there are now more than four million refugees. Perhaps in this context, a quote from Mother Teresa is appropriate: "I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples." Will Mr. Harper lead Canada in throwing that stone?

Signed by:

Ron Atkey, former minister responsible for immigration

Elinor Caplan, former minister responsible for immigration

Barbara McDougall, former minister responsible for immigration

Jocelyne Bourgon, former clerk of the Privy Council

Don Campbell, former deputy minister of foreign affairs

Mel Cappe, former clerk of the Privy Council

Margaret Catley-Carlson, former deputy minister of health

Wendy Dobson, former associate deputy minister of finance

David Dodge, former deputy minister of finance

Michel Dorais, former deputy minister of immigration

John Edwards, former associate deputy minister of immigration

Ivan Fellegi, former deputy minister and chief statistician

Ian Glen, former deputy minister and chief of Communications Security Establishment

Ian Green, former deputy minister of health

Fred Gorbet, former deputy minister of finance

Pierre Gravelle, former deputy minister of revenue

Peter Harder, former deputy minister of foreign affairs

Nicole Jauvin, former deputy minister of public safety

André Juneau, former deputy minister of infrastructure

deMontigny Marchand, former deputy minister of foreign affairs

Alan Nymark, former deputy minister of environment

Ray Protti, former director of CSIS

Morris Rosenberg, former deputy minister of foreign affairs

John Sims, former deputy minister of justice

Blair Seaborn, former deputy minister of environment

Georgina Steinsky, former deputy minister of Public Works and Government Services

George Thompson, former deputy minister of justice