Canada's new government on Tuesday unveiled a plan to accommodate about 25,000 Syrian refugees. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal Party won national elections last month, had made hosting the refugees a prominent part of his campaign platform.
"This is not just about welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees, this is about welcoming 25,000 new Canadians," Trudeau told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview on Tuesday.
According to the plan, Canada will take in 10,000 refugees by year's end and will aim to bring in 15,000 more by the end of February. Trudeau's government said it would budget more than $500 million as part of the effort, though the program will also involve contributions from community groups and private donors.
The Canadian initiative and the positive rhetoric of Trudeau's government stand in stark contrast to what is taking place south of the border, where Republican politicians and presidential candidates have to varying degrees urged the rejection of Syrian refugees. The Obama administration is — so far — standing by its plans to resettle about 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year.
According to the Canadian government, the refugees will undergo rigorous vetting and health screening overseas, in coordination with the United Nations' refugee agency. The majority of those selected would then be flown to Toronto or Montreal on chartered aircraft and resettled in communities across the country.
"We will welcome them with a smile," Immigration and Refugee Minister John McCallum said at a news briefing on Tuesday. "This is a wonderful humanitarian gesture by all Canadians."
One important wrinkle in the plan is its emphasis on bringing over families, children and women. Single, unaccompanied men will be brought over only if they can prove they are fleeing persecution for their sexual orientation.
It's a move that some critics believe reinforces stereotypes that single Syrian men are threats. In an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees described the decision as "inherently dangerous."
Questions about Muslim integration and Islamist infiltration into the country surrounded the heated 11-week election campaign — an intense affair by Canadian standards. Trudeau's Liberal Party pointed to its triumph as a sign that Canada had transcended the politics of division.
But, as in the United States, a number of polls show that majorities of Canadians are wary or disapprove of the refugee resettlement plans. Trudeau has persisted, saying he does not put much stock in the polls.
"This is not about security. The security is an issue we've dealt with," he told CBC, gesturing to the intensive, coordinated process handled abroad. "This is about welcoming people who are fleeing terrorism, not bringing terrorism with them."
Canada, of course, is hardly alone in pushing ahead with its refugee resettlement plans. Even after the Nov. 13 Paris terror attacks, the French government renewed its commitment to bring in 30,000 Syrian refugees over the course of the next two years. Germany expects about 800,000 refugee and migrant arrivals this year; Sweden says it anticipates about 200,000.
In an interview with WorldViews on the sidelines of a security conference in Halifax this weekend, newly appointed Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan echoed his prime minister.
"The refugees are not fleeing poverty. They are fleeing war," Sajjan said. He also argued that, from a strategic perspective, it made sense to help lift the pressures on countries bordering Syria, which are hosting the lion's share of Syrian refugees.
"This is not strictly just about doing the right thing," Sajjan said. "We are doing this as part of a coalition, to be able to alleviate some of the burden there."
Sajjan suggested that Canada would be open to taking in more Syrian refugees after the initial 25,000 are processed and resettled. He said this was in keeping with the country's traditions.
"Multiculturalism isn't an experiment anymore," said Sajjan, a former military and police officer who is one of four Sikh cabinet ministers in Trudeau's government. "My kids think like Canadians, and they don't know anything else."
"Here, I don't have to look over my shoulder," he said, gesturing to the misguided animosity and violence that some turbaned Sikhs faced in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Trudeau, meanwhile, says he shared his plans with President Obama, who is contending with a very different type of conversation about refugees in the United State in the wake of the Paris attacks.
"I was aware that there might be concerns when I sat down with President Obama last week. On the contrary, he was effusive in his support of what we're doing," Trudeau said in his CBC interview. "He has pointed out there is more of a security risk from tourists than refugees."
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