Neither the bright glare of the political spotlight nor the constant criticism of the Liberal government’s Syrian refugee operation from opposition benches bothers John McCallum, Canada’s minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
Even the decision by a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate committee to hold a meeting in Washington next week on Canada’s fast-track refugee plan and its implications for U.S. national security doesn’t rankle him.
“The U.S. Administration has in fact supported our refugee initiative,” McCallum told the Toronto Star. “I have spoken to the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary as well as the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, and both expressed support. We are confident in the measures we have taken on security, as are the heads of the RCMP, CSIS and CBSA. The fact that the U.S. Senate has chosen to hold hearings on this issue is of course their decision.”
The 65-year-old Markham-Thornhill MP — who has been front and centre on the Syrian refugee file since he was appointed to cabinet after the election — is deeply honoured and moved to be in charge of what has become one of the most important files in Ottawa, he says.
The statement seems genuine, although it’s hard to reconcile the emotion with the no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip manner that the Cambridge-educated McCallum is known for.
“It’s a brand new world for me,” he said in an interview at his constituency office in a Markham strip mall. “I can’t think of anything more rewarding. To see with my own eyes these people coming from horrors overseas … and be welcomed to Canada, it’s a moving experience.”
He has put his money where his mouth is, explaining that he and his family have made a donation to help a Syrian refugee family. His wife, Nancy Lim, is an immigrant herself, originally from Malaysia. She, too, shares the excitement McCallum feels about his new job and the plan to welcome refugees to Canada.
“She’s pretty excited about it,” he said. “She gives me good advice about various issues along the way. But it does mean I’m away from home more than I otherwise might be.”
His offices are decorated with mementos and photos from supporters — a plaque from the Sikh community; a Ganesh from the Hindu community; an award from the Chinese community. Down the hall, a couple seek advice from one of McCallum’s assistants. She refers them to the appropriate officials in Ottawa.
Sitting in his office, he looks tired, but remains enthusiastic about the task at hand. He is not new to Cabinet, having served both as a junior finance minister and defence minister in the government of Jean Chrétien. Nor is he new to the immigration file, since he served as critic.
But in his current role as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship minister he is front and centre in one of the busiest and highest profile positions in cabinet. And he and a group of his fellow cabinet ministers have been given a monumental task — to bring in more than 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees as well as thousands of privately sponsored refugees.
“What I’ve done before has tended to reflect my economist background,” said McCallum, who not only is a former economist at the Royal Bank of Canada but also was Dean of Arts at McGill University.
“This is different because it speaks to Canada. It speaks to who we are as a country. I’m honoured and pleased to be in the spotlight because I do think it is important that we send a message to ourselves and a message to the world as to what Canadians are made of.”
He believes the portfolio is a “natural fit.”
“My riding, where we are today, Markham, is according to Statistics Canada Canada’s most diverse city,” said McCallum. “It’s a hugely multicultural place, and the key to my election over 15 years has been support from the Chinese community, the South Asian community, and so I live and breathe multiculturalism in my job, and so naturally I am very keen on building an even better multicultural society.”
The job comes with sleepless nights, hours of meetings with bureaucrats and unexpected trips to the Middle East on the refugee file. And still to come are meetings on the long list of promises the Liberals have made when it comes to other immigration and refugee policy.
The former economics professor is the first to admit the plan to bring in Syrian refugees fleeing the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War is not without snafus. The Liberals missed their first deadline of bringing 25,000 refugees to Canada by the end of December. And more recently, COSTI, a Toronto non-profit agency handling local resettlement, asked Ottawa to pause its delivery of government-sponsored refugees for five days because it was behind in its task of finding housing for new arrivals. Vancouver, Ottawa and Halifax had asked for similar delays.
But McCallum doesn’t seem concerned. “I am told this will be resolved in a matter of a few days, not longer than that,” he told reporters. “And, in the meanwhile there are other places in Canada who are ready and willing to receive the refugees.”
He admits a plan of this magnitude is bound to have problems. “I just think it’s important to do this job as quickly as possible, but above all to do it well. It’s not going to be perfect. There are going to be hiccups along the way.”
And indeed, McCallum himself has also taken a misstep or two, including making what he now says was an “inappropriate comment” to the Conservative immigration critic, Michelle Rempel, when Parliament sat briefly after the election late last year.
McCallum told Rempel: “We’re into sunny ways; I would suggest to my colleague to look a little more cheerful.” Rempel asked the Speaker for an apology, which McCallum was quick to give. “I like to just set the record straight and move on,” McCallum said about the incident.
McCallum has been so preoccupied with the refugee plan he is only now beginning to look at implementing some of the other promises the Liberals made on the immigration file, including repealing parts of the Citizenship Act as well as reallocating resources to speed up processing times for spousal, family and caregiver applications.
McCallum first entered politics in 2000, at age 50, after being wooed by Liberal Senator David Smith and Chrétien. It was an unusual step, he concedes. He left a high-powered job as chief economist and senior vice president at the Royal Bank — with an equally high-powered salary rumoured to be about $400,000 — for a job as MP. “You get less money, less time with family, but you get an opportunity to do something you believe in,” he explained.
A mid-life crisis, perhaps?
Not really. He was motivated to leap into the political arena by the then-leader of the Canadian Alliance, Stockwell Day.
“Stockwell Day’s Canada was radically different from my Canada, so it made me keener to be on the Liberal team,” he said. And to do something to reflect the values of a Canada that McCallum believed in — one that was multicultural, welcoming, humanitarian.
“I think if it had been Joe Clark versus Jean Chrétien, I might not have entered politics.”
Critics worry some key issues will be overlooked
So what do the opposition critics think of John McCallum and his performance as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister?
• According to Jenny Kwan, the New Democratic Party’s Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship critic and MP for Vancouver East, McCallum is “an experienced parliamentarian,” but he and his government have failed to live up to the original federal election promise of bringing in 25,000 government-assisted refugees by the end of the 2015.
It’s important that the government live up to that commitment, Kwan said. While encouraged by McCallum’s promise to bring in a total of between 35,000 to 50,000 Syrian refugees (both government and privately sponsored) by the end of 2016, Kwan worries the Liberals and McCallum won’t live up to their promise. “The government must meet their commitment to bring in 25,000 government-assisted refugees. That’s the commitment from the campaign.”
Kwan also is worried that the Liberal government will not stick to some of its other campaign promises involving immigration policy, including one that the Liberals would increase the number of parent and grandparent reunification applications from 5,000 to 10,000.
But so far that hasn’t happened. She fears the government will backtrack on that pledge. “It’s important for the government to not forget about other important issues in this portfolio.”
She also fears other promises may be abandoned such as repealing Bill C-24, which made substantial changes to the Citizenship Act as well as the promise to speed up the processing times of applications including citizenship, spousal sponsorship, caregiver, parent and grandparent as well as family reunification.
“So far, we have extended our hand to the minister to say to him we want to work collaboratively with him on these important issues and other policy issues. And he’s been receptive to it. And I think that’s good.”
• Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel is also worried the Liberals may not keep their election promises. But she also has some reservations about McCallum, particularly after the run-in they had in the House. “This is a serious file,” said the MP for Calgary-Nose Hill. “He was blatantly glib,” she said referring to the exchange she and McCallum had in Parliament. “I was a little surprised given the sunny ways mantra of the Liberals the minister was as glib as he was in the House of Commons — blatantly glib. It was shocking actually.”
She also criticized McCallum and the Liberals for turning the Syrian refugee crisis into what she described as a “political wedge.” And she is critical of the Liberals’ failure to meet their campaign promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. “I think the Liberals promised an unobtainable figure during the campaign for the refugee initiative and you know I think that the number is important.
“This is a core campaign commitment they used the number as a political wedge in what I think was a heart-breaking situation. I think the minister has been tasked with creating a veil of smoke and mirrors around that campaign commitment.”
She shares the concerns of the NDP’s Kwan that McCallum and the Liberals won’t keep the rest of their immigration campaign promises, including the doubling of parents and grandparents reunification program; changes to the citizenship act as well as speeding up the processing times of all classes of applications to the department. “In regards to legislative changes I think there will be greater scrutiny of some of their campaign promises as legislation is rolled out.”