Be careful what you wish for. When Justin Trudeau won the federal election, he won the chance to prove that a promise is a promise — whether practical or merely political.
Thanks to the prime minister’s gambit, the Ontario government is scrambling to find every square metre of provincially owned property that it can place at the disposal of refugees arriving in the December cold. That means a couple of recently decommissioned hospitals in the GTA, schools with space to spare and other safe havens that Infrastructure Ontario can ferret out from its portfolio of barren buildings across Ontario, according to a senior provincial source.
Taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees in five weeks is eminently doable. But is it sensible?
The best way to answer that question is to ask another: Why the rush?
No mystery there.
All those Canada-bound refugees can’t be confused with the Europe-bound waves of boat people that have overwhelmed the continent. There is no imperative for a rapid-fire evacuation to forestall more drownings at sea or confrontations on land.
Nor are these same Syrian refugees facing imminent peril in United Nations camps scattered across Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The onset of winter in the balmy Middle East doesn’t demand urgent airlifts to the frigid sanctuary of sub-zero military bases across Canada.
Yes, the sooner they can be resettled, the better. But far better to resettle them with deliberate speed, rather than rushing to meet contrived Christmas deadlines.
In truth, there is no compelling humanitarian motivation for the frenzied evacuation of refugees from camps that have been their refuge for several years. After all, another five million refugees will remain behind, just as they have languished for the past five years — until voters noticed a heart-rending photograph of a drowned child on the shores of the Mediterranean.
No, the impetus is political, not operational. Meeting the December deadline is about electoral credibility, not practicality.
There’s another reason for delivering rather than deliberating: In reality, it’s not that hard to airlift 25,000 desperate souls to Canada in a few weeks — our airlines do it every day and our military transport squadrons are trained for mass movements of troops destined for combat.
Bluntly speaking, it’s an easy deliverable for a newly elected government trying to show its mastery of events during its first 100 days in power. The question isn’t whether it’s workable, but wise.
While airlifting people isn’t as hard as it sounds, resettling them isn’t as easy as it appears. It’s not just about decent housing, but language training and integration.
Much has been said about the need to delay resettlement in light of heightened security fears after the Paris terrorist attacks. The impulse is understandable but unfounded. To be clear, Canada is drawing upon a pool of the Middle East’s most vulnerable refugees — mostly women and children — who have been languishing in UN-vetted camps for years, not secretly infiltrating Europe’s porous borders.
The bigger uncertainty isn’t security but capacity — the exigencies of timing, the shortages of accommodation and the harshness of the Canadian climate in late December.
That’s why Ontario initially proposed a timeline extending through the end of 2016 when it announced plans to take in 10,000 refugees (Ontario doesn’t actually select refugees — that’s Ottawa’s job — it merely resettles its 40 per cent share of the 25,000 people the federal government has targeted for acceptance).
To repeat: Ontario’s timeline (end of 2016) extends far beyond the deadline set by the federal Liberals (end of 2015). Far from being a laggard, Ontario’s plan serves as a reality check to Ottawa’s frenzied pace.
“We have the capacity — I think the issue is that we’re talking about a compressed time period and we’re talking about a large number of people coming day after day,” Premier Kathleen Wynne told reporters Friday.
It may be that the federal Liberals will show more flexibility when they announce their final plan on Tuesday, backing down only when the rest of the country begs them to show flexibility (“We could have and would have kept our word, but in deference to public sentiment we will give ourselves a little more time”).
Either way, the mad dash to a December deadline feels as if it is designed to bolster federal Liberal credibility as much as it is destined to show genuine hospitality to refugees in need. Haste makes for heartbreak.
Whether with the best of intentions or the worst of calculations, moving 25,000 across the world should be a humanitarian enterprise, not a litmus test of political will. It’s not just about doing the right thing, but doing it right.