Harper shut Canada’s door during Syria’s agony: Editorial
How did the Harper government channel Canada’s compassion in the face of Syria’s agony? By shutting the door on refugees, and delaying their resettlement.
Like many Canadians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper choked up when he saw the photos of a young Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Mediterranean beach last month. Speaking to the media on Sept. 3, his voice breaking, he called the child’s drowning “a heartbreaking situation … a terrible tragedy.” And so it was.
But unlike most Canadians, Harper was in a privileged position to do something about Syria’s swelling refugee crisis in the months leading up to the boy’s death.
So how did his Conservative government channel Canada’s compassion in the face of one of the worst humanitarian crises in memory? By shutting the door on refugees, delaying their resettlement and leaving some in limbo, at a time when the Syrian exodus of misery was cresting.
Last spring, as Syrians were fleeing the broken country in record numbers, the Prime Minister’s Office instructed Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s department to “review” a “first tranche” of United Nations-approved, government-assisted refugees from Syria this year. They were mostly Muslim at the time. But going forward, the Conservatives were determined that priority should be given to the “most vulnerable” (read: Christians and other non-Muslim minorities). Officials were also reportedly reacting to American concern that terrorists might be trying to sneak in the back door.
No one bothered to tell the Canadian public, of course. But Harper’s “review” brought the system to a screeching halt, for several critical weeks at least.
Meanwhile, PMO officials began poking through individual refugee files to see who was moving through the system.
This overt meddling by Harper and his office, done on the down-low until media reports blew the lid off this past week, is just the latest manifestation of an anti-Muslim bias by this government. Harper never loses a chance to invoke the spectre of Islamist terrorism. And his campaign against niqab-wearing women has been a low point of the election.
Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau spoke for many when he described last week’s media reports of PMO interference as “disgusting.” And New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair accused Harper of “shaming” the nation. As indeed he has.
From the start, the Harper government’s response to Syria’s agony has fallen hopelessly short of past Canadian generosity to tens of thousands of Southeast Asian “boat people,” Czechs and Hungarians fleeing Soviet communism, Iraqis and others. And it pales against mobilization in the Middle East, Europe and the Nordic countries to provide safe haven to as many people as possible.
Canada has managed to resettle barely 2,500 people in the past three years, when civil war has shattered the largely Muslim Arab country, killed 250,000, and sent four million fleeing abroad. Until the election, the Harper government’s response was little more than a cold shrug of indifference.
Shamed by Alan Kurdi’s drowning, and with an eye to the election polls, the Conservative government was forced to grudgingly acknowledge that its Syrian policy was hard-hearted. Suddenly, in mid campaign, Harper came up with a plan to resettle 10,000 Syrians here in the coming year. As the Star said at the time, it was the bare minimum the Tories could hope to get away with, without alienating voters they need.
Even then, it was less generous than Trudeau’s call to fast-track 25,000 people by year’s end, or Mulcair’s pledge to resettle 10,000 this year and 9,000 more annually until 2019. Both opposition leaders took the measure of the nation’s conscience, and acted accordingly.
When Canadians were calling for a compassionate, generous response to Syria’s agony, this government was obsessed with playing divisive politics, dragging its heels, and doing as little as it could get away with, for as few as possible. We are better than this.