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The integration of refugees affirms Canada as a caring society

David Johnston is the Governor General of Canada.

How does Canada do it?

That's the question German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked me when I welcomed her to Rideau Hall during her visit to Canada in the summer of 2012. Ms. Merkel wanted to know how Canada has built such a vibrant society out of people from around the world, with more than 200 ethnic origins and at least as many languages spoken. With Canada, Germany and many other countries together welcoming millions of Syrian refugees this year, the question is not abstract. Here in Canada, people from all walks of life are busily preparing to welcome thousands of Syrian children, women and men fleeing war.

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Tuesday at Rideau Hall, we're hosting a forum on welcoming refugees, attended by leaders from the public and private sectors and from civil society who are dedicated to this important humanitarian effort. These leaders recognize that successfully welcoming and integrating refugees is both a challenge and an opportunity, and both a short- and a long-term project for Canada.

The short-term challenge is to warmly welcome and safely settle into our communities these newest members of our Canadian family. That this effort will unfold during a cold Canadian winter poses an added challenge – not that we haven't faced down winter together many times before. Indeed, those early 17th-century settlers at Port Royal, in what is now Nova Scotia, would never have survived their first winters were it not for the generosity and guidance of local indigenous people. Our history is full of such stories of diverse people helping each other through hard times.

Perhaps the bigger challenge we face is the long-term project of positioning our new Syrian-Canadian friends for success in their new country. And just as effective integration poses a significant challenge, so does it present a significant opportunity for Canada. Remember, great nations are built on great challenges.

The great opportunity we have in taking on the challenge of integrating new Canadians is simply this: It's a chance to revisit and renew our commitment to being a smart, caring and inclusive society, not just for Syrian refugees, but for all Canadians, including the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.

The challenge of integrating refugees is the latest chapter in the continuing experiment we call Canada. At its heart, it's an experiment in building an inclusive society of opportunity for diverse peoples. Consider our country's roots. John Ralston Saul calls Canada a "Métis civilization." Our national character is inclusive and mixed – and strong as a result. In their book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that politically and economically inclusive societies thrive, while exclusive and extractive societies fail.

But perhaps the most compelling argument I've heard of late for rededicating ourselves to building a society of inclusive opportunity comes from a parent in Syria, whose son recently received a refugee scholarship to study at the University of Alberta. In thanks, the parent wrote: "You have pulled my son out of the hell, where he has been taking daily a high dose of risk, tension, worries and sorrow. The wheels of the war have crushed everything; the human and the stones, but not the heart and soul and never the will and hope."

So to answer the question "How does Canada build a diverse and inclusive society?" I remember "why" we do it: Because it's both the right and the smart thing to do. Now together, let's reimagine how.

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