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Opinion Paris terror attacks strain Quebec’s pacifist tradition

Is 25,000 refugees too much? Not enough? It certainly is a smaller number than what was suggested last September by retired general Rick Hillier and retired lieutenant-general and former senator Roméo Dallaire – two military men who can't be suspected of being do-gooders. Mr. Hillier said Canada could easily take in 50,000 refugees this year, and Mr. Dallaire went further, saying that there would be no logistical problem in transferring 70,000, even 90,000 refugees.

The two, however, were thinking about transportation and security. They might have ignored the challenge that such a sudden influx of vulnerable migrants would represent to the school and health systems. Yet, even though the original Dec. 31 timetable was unrealistic – the arrival of the government-sponsored migrants will be spread out until the end of February – it is a sound decision to maintain an official due date for the operation. There is nothing like a deadline to concentrate the mind and to imprint a sense of urgency in a bureaucracy.

Canada's effort in relocating Syrian refugees is quite honourable, compared with many other developed countries. The U.S, in a move that would have the Statue of Liberty cry if it were not made of copper, will accept only 10,000 Syrian asylum seekers in the next few months. Since the beginning of the war, in 2011, no more than 2,000 Syrians were allowed to resettle in the U.S. – a shameful record, considering the country's vast resources and its responsibility for having triggered the destabilization of the region with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. France commited to receive 30,000 over two years, and Britain is willing to accept 20,000 over five years. Only Germany did much more, in part for a reason that many young Germans acknowledged publicly: the need to make up for the Holocaust and the millions of refugees created by the Nazi regime.

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European countries must tread carefully on this issue: They are confronted with the rise of extreme-right-wing parties, and they are burdened by a history of inadequate policies regarding the integration of Muslim immigrants. Canada, on the contrary, can afford the luxury of being generous. This country is protected by the Atlantic Ocean from the war-torn areas, it was able to choose most of its immigrants, it enjoys a peaceful brand of multiculturalism and there is no mainstream party with a xenophobic platform.

Nevertheless, the prospect of seeing 25,000 Syrians settle over a short period raises worries; in Quebec for instance, where a CROP survey taken after the Paris terrorist attacks showed that 60 per cent of the population is against the idea of receiving so many refugees. The Quebec government will be responsible for 3,625 refugees in 2015 and the same number next year. The province is willing to take more, depending on Ottawa's contribution.

Three factors are at work: the concern that schools and health services, already rationed by severe budget cuts, will be stretched by the arrival of unschooled kids and people affected by various illnesses; a general distrust of Muslim immigration; and the fear of terrorism.

The reflex of fear was amplified by the bloody events in Paris that echoed especially loudly in Quebec, which feels so close to France, especially in times of distress. This is why, in a sharp break with its pacifist tradition, Quebeckers now wish for more military action against terrorists. According to a recent Léger poll, 64 per cent want to maintain or increase the aerial strikes against Islamic State.

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