EAGER BEAVERS — Missteps Canada’s Liberal government took in its Syrian refugee settlement process


Dr. Michael Stephenson runs the Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre in Kitchener, Ontario. The clinic, which started in a church basement is supported by 25 volunteers, employs a small paid staff and is open for patient visits two days per week. The health care services Dr. Stephenson provides to his refugee patients is free. He does not bill the government for his work. Incredibly, Dr. Stephenson has seen his group of patients grow from six to 1700 in the last four years. About 700 of those patients came to his clinic only last year. At the moment his refugee clinic is only taking new patients who do not already have a family doctor in Canada. He receives new walk-ins daily.

One of the Liberal Party of Canada’s election promises before they won the federal election in 2015 was to settle 25 000 Syrian refugees in Canada. The previous government, led by the Conservative Party of Canada, had been criticized for not importing refugees fast enough. The Liberals felt the process could be expedited. Many Canadians who supported the Liberal mandate seemingly agreed.

The Liberals set a December 31st deadline to settle 25 000 Syrian refugees in Canada. In the weeks leading to the deadline they reassured Canadians that the government was working around the clock to meet their target. People critical of the whole process surely felt the government was acting a little too eager. It was not like they were pulling Syrian refugees from the roof tops of buildings besieged by ISIS, Syrian rebels, or Syrian government forces. Canada was to receive its Syrian refugees from shelters in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. These countries are relatively safe when compared to Syria, a country embroiled in a civil war. After the election the 25 000 refugee target was cut to 10 000 and the 25 000 target was reset for March 2016.

By the end of 2016, however, the Liberal government failed to reach its goal to bring 10 000 Syrian refugees to Canada. Instead, the government brought little over 6 000. While they did not hit their revised mark, and seemed very apologetic for it, most Canadians were probably willing to forgive them. Canadians had their own problems to worry about let alone the responsibility of integrating refugees from a mainly Muslim country into Canadian society.

In January 2016 the first murmurs of real criticism against the newly-elected Liberal government’s Syrian settlement program started getting coverage by the press. CBC reported some Syrian refugees were being dumped in budget hotels in Toronto and had received little attention by anyone from the government. Volunteers complained about the government’s lack of help and support in these cases. There were pressing mental health issues affecting some of the refugees that needed to be addressed. Loneliness, depression, PTSD. Basic human needs like communication and contact were being overlooked. Some refugees voiced their desire to return to the places from where they came.  Several notable people would criticize the government’s approach to settling Syrian refugees in Canada including former senior Canadian diplomat James Bissett. Of the process he said, “The way they’ve [The Canadian government] been handling this is just amateurish and dangerous.” He noted that Canada did not have the capacity to find refugees accommodation and to settle them. Refugees landing in Calgary had unaffordable rental spaces to look forward to. Agencies in the cities of Vancouver, Ottawa, and Toronto asked the federal government for a temporary freeze in refugee arrivals so they could concentrate on finding homes for the refugees they already received. The city of Halifax asked for a slowdown in new arrivals.

Refugees, it would seem, were easier to bring into the country than to care for.

In February an Angus Reid poll revealed that over 70 per cent of Canadians felt any refugee target over 25 000 was too high. In spite of these findings the Immigration Minister, John McCallum, had been promising to take 35 000 to 50 000 Syrian refugees into Canada by the end of 2016. The Liberal government could not import refugees fast enough despite what the majority of Canadians wanted according to the Angus Reid poll.

The Canadian government did have temporary living accommodations prepared for refugees in the event extra space was needed, spending six million dollars to renovate six military bases in two provinces and moving hundreds of military personnel. As it turned out, the government did not use the military bases to house any refugees. The money was not a total waste, however. The improvements made at those bases should benefit military personnel for years to come.

In May food banks across Canada indicated they were serving a large amount of Syrians who had been settled in Canada. Immigration Minister John McCallum addressed the situation saying new arrivals did not have much income and that there may be a “cultural element” to their penchant for utilizing food banks. Critics were quick to jump on McCallum for his latter remark. He retracted it and apologized. What “cultural element” these Syrian refugees possessed which McCallum had in mind is a mystery.

Various other problems cropped up. The Rebel Media did an investigation into the difficulties some Canadian schools had integrating Syrian children. Some of The Rebel’s findings were quite shocking. Teachers were complaining about how culturally different some of the children were and of the lack of resources schools were receiving from the federal government to deal with them. It was apparent that some of the Syrian boys did not respect their female teachers. This story was not widely reported in Canada. According to The Rebel the only major Canadian media outlet to pick up their story was the Toronto Sun. The Rebel’s investigation dug fairly deep into the murky, often less explored kinds of cultural issues that occur when people from predominantly Muslim countries are transplanted in the West. It is no surprise that other Canadian media outlets like CBC did not pick up the story.

Schools across Canada struggled to cope with the number of refugee children entering their institutions. John McCallum admitted the government was sidelined by the amount of refugee children Canada brought into the country. “Many of the refugees had large numbers of children and that was not completely anticipated in the beginning,” he said. One has to wonder how anyone at the immigration office could be surprised by the amount of people they admitted into the country who happened to be children. Did they not ask adult refugees how many children they had during the vetting process? Did employees of the immigration office not have calculators on hand or spreadsheet software to keep track of such information?

Things became dire for some privately-sponsored Syrian refugees in Canada as the one year mark approached, when refugees who arrived in November of 2016 would be responsible for their own income. In the first 12 months Syrian refugees who were privately sponsored were the responsibility of their sponsors. Some refugees paid out of pocket to organizations which, once the refugees arrived in Canada, paid the money back to them. Others relied on the generosity of sponsors. Some sponsors skipped out on their responsibilities, leaving their refugee dependents without income or aid. Privately sponsored refugees in Canada are unable to claim welfare unless they spend a year searching for work. Syrian refugees who were funded by the federal government for their first year in Canada would also need to find their own income after their 12 months of assistance dried up. Concerning numbers released by a senate study indicated only about half of all adult refugees in Canada, 9000 people in total, had found work. During an interview on Global News, Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Arif Virani, explained that it takes years for settled refugees to attain the same economic levels as other Canadians. He also claimed the children of those immigrants “overachieve compared to Canadian-born children.” Some issues Syrian refugees have faced in Canada that may have contributed to their difficulties finding work is the lack of English (or French) language training available to them. These, Virani said, were being addressed with increased funding. The job numbers from New Brunswick were especially dire. Since December 2015 the province received 1 554 refugees. Of those refugees 604 were of working age. Only 20 per cent of those working-age refugees found employment and a quarter of them were working seasonal jobs.

As of today, 39 671 Syrian refugees have been settled in Canada under the Liberal initiative. Of course, there have been success stories. Those success stories, however, do not change the mistakes that were made along the way by the Canadian government in the refugee settlement process. Settling and integrating people from foreign countries into the West, especially Muslim ones, is not an effortless endeavor. The Canadian government, led by the Liberals, seemed to display a naivete for the whole process and a willingness to offload the burden on Canadians and their institutions. Perhaps they were legitimately surprised by the difficulties they encountered, perhaps they fully expected to make mistakes and assumed Canadians would be oblivious to them, instead continuing to believe the Syrian refugees were better off in Canada than in distant Muslim lands. What long-term difficulties will arise from the rushed settlement process will undoubtedly make their mark. As of right now, though, the process of settling Syrian refugees in Canada is still unfolding.

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