The Canadian Forces could play a key role in helping to bring at least 50,000 Syrian refugees — far more than the government is planning — to Canada by Christmas, retired general Rick Hillier says.

"We've got these incredible leaders in the Canadian Forces, across the RCMP and many other places in our nation who are ready to step up," he said in an interview with Rosemary Barton on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

Hillier, the former chief of the defence staff, called for the government to bring in at least 50,000 Syrian refugees over the next three months, a figure he called realistic.

"We're used to, as a nation, running big operations around the world — whether that's the Canadian Forces putting 3,000 soldiers on the ground in a war zone 12,000 kilometres from home in a very short period of time or bringing 50,000 war brides back from England in 1955. We can do this kind of thing."

But, he said, the country has to move fast.

"I've had the unfortunate experience of being in the middle of some of those crises where I served as a soldier," he said. "You really don't appreciate just how tragic an experience it is until you're in the middle of it, until you witness it personally.

"For those kids and those families and older people who are living in terror and fleeing for their lives, waiting [a few months] is far too long for them."

Calls for immediate action 

Hillier laid out a plan that includes a national meeting of municipal, provincial and federal leaders, as well as faith groups and social organizations.

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Rick Hillier served as chief of the defence staff until his retirement from the Canadian Forces in 2008. 'This kind of operation is doable,' he said. 'This is what our nation has done for 147 years. Let's do it again.' (Reuters)

"Bring them together, make our decision quickly of where people could go... and then at the same time, get the Canadian Forces, the RCMP, Foreign Affairs and Immigration Canada working on what kind of clearance process we want," he said. 

"Let's put a logistics operation in place, get all these cruise ships in Europe that come back to North America for the winter season and let's go and lease a couple of those, bring three or four or five thousand people at a time," Hillier added. 

"You don't have to fly people here on military airplanes. Take seven or eight or nine or 10 days to bring them across the Atlantic and you got more time to figure out assessments. This kind of operation is doable. This is what our nation has done for 147 years. Let's do it again."

'Stop being frightened of our own shadow'

Hillier acknowledged there are security risks, but said they can be contained.

"Doing it quickly doesn't mean you have to take short cuts," he said.

He outlined a proposal where workers on the ground would screen refugee applicants as part of the selection process.

"First, we can go with children who are orphaned, who've lost their moms and dads, who are all alone," he said.

"Go with young women, older women who are perhaps on their own. Go with single-parent families or go with comprehensive families, and you're going to have 50,000 refugees in a heartbeat. And almost none of those is going to be any kind of security threat whatsoever."

This is what our nation has done for 147 years. Let's do it again.

Hillier also suggested talking to the refugees in the camps to help assess the security situation.

"Those refugees will tell you anybody that's different, anybody they suspect of having violent intentions or being a terrorist or being inserted into those crowds, and we can easily do the assessment....

"We've got to stop being frightened of our own shadow. You know, we live in a dangerous world. We handle it pretty well."

Airstrikes

But Hillier said the humanitarian side of the crisis is just one part of Canada's response in Syria, where the extremist group ISIS and President Bashar al-Assad's government are two of the parties in a brutal, multi-faction civil war.

He advocated continuing with Canada's role in the coalition mission against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

"You've got to contain ISIS and that means you've got to decapitate the leadership," he said. "You've got to continue with airstrikes, you have to use special forces... and continue to help build the Iraqi army and Kurdish defence capabilities."

Despite his detailed proposals for dealing with the refugee crisis, the retired general said he has no plans to run for political office himself, adding that he has no criticism for any of the three major party leaders' responses to the crisis, either.

"They're all trying to do the very best that they can," he said.

"I'm just saying, look, let's take what you're saying and multiply it by a factor of three and speed it up by a factor of five."