In the hours and days after three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey, Canadian immigration officials were focused on fashioning and tweaking their formal responses – words that ultimately rang hollow as the world mourned the little boy’s death.
New documents obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act provide a revealing look at the often-frantic flurry of internal government communications that erupted in the days after a heart-rending photo of the toddler’s corpse rocketed around the world.
The email trail reveals federal staffers grappling with the painfully slow wheels of bureaucratic red tape as they try to respond to a torrent of media requests, all the while fussing with the minutiae of wording government statements that did little to address the most burning questions.
The Canadian Press requested all emails dealing with the subject Syrian refugees that were received and obtained by David Hickey, then-director general of communications for the federal Immigration Department, for the three days following the death of Alan Kurdi.
The ensuing documents totalled 532 pages.
On the morning of Sept. 3, 2015, the photo of Alan lying dead on the beach appeared in newspapers around the world. Canada, which was in the throes of a federal election campaign, was linked to the boy in initial media reports that mistakenly stated his family’s application to come to Canada had been rejected.
“I need urgent responsive lines,” a staffer at the Canadian embassy in Beirut asked of the Immigration Department.
Communications staffers immediately went into damage control. Emails that began early in the morning went back and forth, discussing media lines aimed at correcting the public record – the Kurdi family had not been rejected by Canada – while also highlighting the commitment of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees.
One bureaucrat tried to move the conversation away from message control, stressing the “need to focus on the migrant issue” and asked them to consider naming Alan Kurdi in the government response.
“Doesn’t matter how many thousands, a three (year-old) boy is dead,” wrote Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, assistant director of media relations for Immigration.
But the ensuing conversations only became more bureaucratic.
Transcriptions of every media report and copies of every news story were shared among the staffers, as well as the increasingly frustrated requests from journalists, still awaiting the government’s official response.
Meanwhile, communications staffers worked on a draft statement and continued to loop more and more departmental heads into the conversation, asking for input and approval on wording. Here and there, a word would be changed, and the newly revised draft would have to once again be circulated for approvals, which were required at the deputy minister level of multiple departments and from the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Finally, at about 4 p.m. on Sept. 3, the much-discussed, three-line government response was posted to the Immigration Department’s website.
But emails continued well into the night as officials realized the public conversation was shifting away from the dead child and toward why Canada wasn’t doing more to help Syrian refugees.
Since this was happening during an election campaign, some officials questioned how to handle their messaging during the writ period.
“Given this ‘special electoral period’ would we have the capacity (as we normally would) to set the record straight by using factual data, or would this be viewed as partisan?” one embassy staffer asked.
As Sept. 3 rolled into Sept. 4 and more media requests from across the world continued to pour in, the emails show communications staffers pressing their superiors for answers to the increasingly detailed questions they were getting on immigration and refugee policy.
The documents also show government staffers were warned not to speak directly to media, as they began to hear of a rally planned near a departmental office.
Bureaucrats focused on trying to highlight the positive aspects of Canada’s refugee programs and finding accurate numbers of Syrian refugees who had been admitted to Canada, leaving questions and concerns being raised about the country’s refugee policies simply hanging. Hours went by with little progress and they tried to “manage expectations” of journalists whose deadlines were being missed.
As Sept. 4 drew to a close, an “urgent” response to questions from Maclean’s magazine was still being batted around when one official realized another department – Foreign Affairs – should have been looped into the approvals process.
The final 22 pages were withheld from release, citing an exemption in the Access to Information Act that prevents disclosure of records involving advice or consultations with cabinet ministers or their staff.
Alan Kurdi’s aunt, Tima Kurdi, has recently written a book about how the photo of her nephew washed up on a Turkish beach “changed the entire tone of conversation about refugees.”
But despite the fact it left the Canadian government scrambling behind the scenes – and ultimately saw the new Trudeau government welcome more than 51,800 Syrian refugees, according to the latest government figures –Tima Kurdi believes political leaders are still not doing enough.
“It pains me that there are so many people who suffer and nobody knows about them and all those politicians, I don’t think their hearts have woken up,” she said in an interview.
“They don’t actually take action, they only talk. So, I encourage people to come out from their silence. I encourage them to talk to their politicians and their leaders. We need to have a political solution to end the war to let those people go home and rebuild their lives.”