Rick Hillier is a can-do guy. Canada's former top military boss says we can bring in 50,000 Syrian refugees – by Christmas. All we need is the will. "First, we can go with children who are orphaned, who've lost their moms and dads, who are all alone," he told the CBC. "Go with young women, older women who are perhaps on their own. Go with single-parent families or go with comprehensive families, and you're going to have 50,000 refugees in a heartbeat." Security? It's a phony issue.
Retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire says we can take in 70,000, or maybe 90,000. The Syrians, he says, would be a valuable asset for Canada. Security concerns are just a smokescreen for inaction. "I think that Canada and its decision so far in regards to refugees is nothing less than atrocious and totally foreign to what and who we are," he told Maclean's.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has pledged to take in an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq over the next four years, although processing delays mean hardly anyone has been admitted yet. The mainstream media have been hammering away at him to do more. The opposition parties say his response has been pathetically inadequate. So why don't NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau keep pounding on him?
Because they've read the opinion polls. And the polls say this issue is a loser. Despite the dead child on the beach, despite the wall-to-wall coverage of desperate people flailing in the sea and camped by European roadsides, most Canadians are happy to let this crisis be someone else's problem. Sure, we'll do our bit – so long as it's a little bit.
A new Ipsos poll, conducted Sept. 11-13, found that despite all the bad publicity, nearly four in 10 Canadians (38 per cent) still think the Harper Conservatives would "make the best decision for Canada on the Syrian refugee situation." Thirty-two per cent named the NDP, and 30 per cent named the Liberals. This doesn't mean that people want Canada to take in more refugees immediately; a whopping 61 per cent oppose Mr. Trudeau's proposal to bring in 25,000 refugees by year's end.
As for security, Canadians flat-out disagreed with the generals, the Ipsos survey found. Seven in 10 (71 per cent) said that "we can't compromise Canada's security, and individual Syrian refugees should go through proper screening to make sure they aren't terrorists even if this slows down their admission to Canada."
The opinion polls have been widely interpreted as just another instance of Mr. Harper riling up his base, which, as we all know, consists of less-educated older white men who live in the sticks and shake their fists at the CBC. Yet support for the status quo is widespread. According to a EKOS poll, conducted Sept. 4-8, only 36 per cent of respondents thought Canada should be taking in more refugees. Twenty-five per cent said we are already bringing in too many, and 34 per cent said the number is about right. Even Liberal and NDP voters were divided: Only 48 per cent of Liberals and 53 per cent of New Democrats said we should be doing more.
These findings raise some big questions. Are Canadians more xenophobic than we let on? What has become of our famous compassion? We brought in 50,000 Vietnamese "boat people" and successfully resettled them. Why can't we do that again?
Well, it's worth noting that Canada stalled for years before taking in the boat people. (For the record, the cold-hearted prime minister at the time was Justin's dad.) Since then we've become (along with Australia) the most immigration-friendly country in the world, on a per-capita basis, with a fairly generous refugee intake. That's a lot of moral high ground.
There are other factors. Not least is the fact that Syrian refugees come from a very troubled neighbourhood, where people have been killing each other for quite a while and will no doubt keep on doing so for years to come. No matter how many we take in, we can't fix that. Millions are already settled in refugee camps – squalid, dead-end refugee camps, to be sure, but at least they're not under fire or starving. For every child we rescue and send to school, there are thousands of kids in camps with no schools at all. There's a valid argument that most of our resources should go to humanitarian relief.
So don't pay too much attention to those who say our government is cold, callous and indifferent. Perhaps it is. But it seems that many Canadians wouldn't have it any other way.