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Barbara McDougall, PC, was minister of immigration from 1988 to 1991

Although rarely spoken of, the irony that Germany, with its Nazi past, should be the most welcoming of any nation in today's refugee crisis, is not lost on those with any knowledge of the era, which is just about everybody. Canada has its own stain from that dreadful period, the turning away of the Jewish refugee ship MS St. Louis in 1939. While there are many memories of prime minister MacKenzie King, that stain will remain forever on his reputation.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper would do well to remember this in the current Syrian refugee turmoil. This is his moment to shine, and it is slipping away fast. Conservative Party followers may be split on this issue, but then Conservative Party voters always are, no matter what the issue. Mr. Harper has done well to hold the Conservative factions together for the past decade, but the coalition, which began to unravel shortly after the last election, is disintegrating at an accelerating rate, with the remnants of the old Red Tories becoming more vocal on the moral crisis the government faces.

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It is beyond time for Mr. Harper to recognize that every leader faces an unexpected moral choice that sometimes seems to come out of nowhere – and this is his. The fact that he is in the election campaign of his life makes his situation more difficult, but does not make the choice less compelling. He surely does not want to go into history, whenever that may be, with the heartrending picture of a tragically drowned toddler at the top of his file. And it may well dominate, no matter what his accomplishments in government have been, unless he can find a way to navigate the flood of sympathy now rightly being expressed by Canadians from all walks of life, including many Conservatives.

Canadians are looking for a leader to lead to express the sympathetic outpouring of Canadians and act upon them.

There was a time as the crisis developed when Mr. Harper could have picked up the telephone to his G7 colleagues to mobilize a co-ordinated strategy to stem the worst of the tragedy, bearing in mind that Canada is not a front-line state. It is too late for that. But it is not too late to offer Canada's full support to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande to take some of the pressure off of them. Front-line state or not, we do not have the right to stand aside, and some co-ordination would still be useful. Mr. Harper is right to emphasize the need to defeat Islamic State. Until the bloodshed ends, there will be the heartbreak of more dead children, thousands will continue to flee for their lives, seeking refuge wherever it can be found. Western countries, including Canada and the U.S., where the refugee crisis seems to have barely registered, have to demonstrate that democracies care about more than military objectives. That means opening our doors and our wallets as well as our hearts.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, one of the most effective of UN agencies, has decades of experience with large crises, but this is surely the most overwhelming in recent years. Canada is accepting only refugees identified by the UNHCR, a legitimate position in normal circumstances, but the UNHCR is, understandably, running well behind. It is time for Canada to step up and play its own role in the field. By sending our own refugee specialists, they can not only help identify refugees for Canada, they can add to the field of UNHCR specialists. It would be interesting to know what conversations Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has had with the UNHCR, and what offers he has made to help.

But this tragedy is not about how many refugees, and the political squabbling among federal opposition leaders about who will take the most is unseemly and cynical, turning the refugee crisis into a contest about numbers ("My party will accept more than your party;" "no it won't; we'll take more.") What is needed is not a debate about numbers but an opening of the process to identify, transport and settle as many as possible as soon as possible. This is not as easy as it sounds, but Canada has done it before, and other countries are doing it now. Within Canada other levels of government – provinces and cities – have already started to establish the means to accept refugees when they do finally arrive. The well established refugee organizations are ready. The churches are ready. Mr. Alexander is doing his best.

But it is still up to Stephen Harper to seize his moment.

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