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But pleas had fallen on deaf ears inside then prime minister’s Stephen Harper’s office, including pitches from cabinet ministers about how the government could and should do more than the 1,300 people it had already committed to bringing over.
Then serving as immigration critic for his party, McCallum chided the government for relying on private sponsors, saying it needed to lift more of the load. He was skeptical — given the Conservatives’ track record — that they’d meet the deadline.
Well, it isn’t going to be forever.
Since Nov. 4, a further 6,064 refugees have arrived under a Liberal campaign commitment, a promise they partially expect to meet in the first two weeks of 2016 with the arrival of nearly 4,000 more refugees for a full 10,000.
Many of the refugees who arrived in 2015 were cases opened under the Conservatives, and some were already being fast-tracked. The Conservatives sped up their timelines when they began getting blowback during the election.
A photograph of Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach was the catalyst — the Syrian child and his family were trying to reach Europe. It emerged that their family in B.C. had been trying to get some of them to Canada, but the paperwork was rejected.
The sudden attention to the issue saw the Liberals attach a timeline to their own Syrian refugee promise — they’d resettle 25,000 Syrians themselves by the end of the year and work with private sponsors to do more.
When asked in an interview with The Canadian Press how the Liberals arrived at the number, McCallum — now the immigration minister — said it was a similar level to previous large-scale refugee commitments.
“I don’t think there’s anything scientific in it,” he said.
When asked during the election how they would achieve such an ambitious target, the answer was succinct — political will. As soon as they were elected, the Liberals faced questions as to whether the promise, and its deadline, were still in effect.
In the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris in November, initially but erroneously linked to men believed to have arrived as refugees, Trudeau said nothing was going to change for Canada’s program.
“We realized that the most important thing is to be able to reassure Canadians that absolutely everything is being done to keep Canadians safe, and therefore ensure that these refugees are welcomed as new Canadians and not a cause for anxiety or division within the population,” Trudeau told reporters.
But it wasn’t just those attacks. Even before, officials from the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration and settlement agencies in Canada all told the Liberals that it wasn’t feasible to move that many people by the end of the year.
Among the problems — finding them. As of mid-October, there were only about 8,400 cases in the immigration department’s inventory, 6,540 of then privately sponsored, 1,761 government-assisted and the remainder from a blended program.
To meet their promise, the Liberals needed to find more than 23,000 people able to come to Canada in a matter of weeks.
So, the first iteration of the plan saw the promise broken down — rather than 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees to arrive by Dec. 31, it would be 10,000 privately sponsored refugees, and a further 15,000 government-assisted ones by the end of February. Then, by the end of 2016, the full promise of 25,000 government-assisted refugees would be met.
Earlier in December, McCallum launched an appeal to the corporate community to find a further $ 50 million for housing.
“You could say it is, but I think the corporate sector should be there. It’s not primarily to save us money, it’s to fill a gap,” he said, explaining that housing isn’t something the federal government normally funds but that refugees need.
“It’s a sign that it’s implicating all Canadians, it’s not just government putting up the money.”
While bureaucrats worked around the clock on the program, the end-of-year target was missed.
A host of factors were cited: weather, diplomatic issues, airport capacity, Syrians not being willing to leave as quickly as the government would like, medical screenings and so on.
The work will continue in 2016 for government, but also for Syrians who have come to Canada and the families that are welcoming them as they adjust to a new life here.
They include Alan Kurdi’s uncle and his family, who arrived in Canada earlier this week, sponsored by Tima Kurdi, Alan’s aunt.
“This is not the end. This is just the end of 2015,” she told reporters. “This is just the beginning.”