A military airlift of the new Liberal government's promised 25,000 Syrian refugees would strain military resources and leave the air force largely unable to sustain operations around the globe, sources tell CBC News, suggesting contracted civilian airliners are a better option.

But the Liberal refugee proposal is also large and the logistics so intense, it's also unlikely the government could meet its obligations without relying heavily on the military and its network of bases and troops across the country.

These two realities are likely guiding planners inside the government and military as they prepare to meet prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau's campaign promise to welcome 25,000 refugees of the Syrian crisis by the end of the year.

Retired brigadier-general Gaston Cloutier was in charge of the 8 Wing Trenton air base in 1999 when the Liberal government at the time welcomed 5,000 Kosovar Albanian refugees fleeing conflict and ethnic cleansing in their homeland.

Greece Migrants

A Syrian girl stands on the shore as refugees from Syria and Iraq disembark on the Greek island of Lesbos after arriving with other 120 people on a wooden boat from the Turkish coast, Oct. 26. Europe is struggling to deal with an influx of refugees. (Santi Palacios/The Associated Press)

Operation Parasol

In an interview with CBC News, Cloutier said there were parallels between that operation, named Operation Parasol by the military, and what may yet come with Syrian refugees.

"From my perspective, the military could play a great role, an important role, in accepting Syrian refugees," Cloutier said. "I won't even guess as to the numbers Canada could or should accept, but if we were to act very quickly, it would be logical to involve the Canadian Forces in accepting and screening the Syrian refugees coming to Canada."

It's not just logical, but nearly imperative, Cloutier said. The scale of the effort and the size of the logistical effort are so grand, it's hard to imagine the government could do it without the military involved. 

"I don't think so, and I say that without diminishing the ability of civilian organizations to deal with a crisis situation," Cloutier said.

"The Canadian Forces, we are used to dealing with crisis situations, and we have the logistical system in place to react to crisis situations, and also we have the command and control elements that can react to crisis."

5,000 refugees to Canada

During the 1999 operation, a few more than 5,000 refugees were brought to Canada aboard civilian airliners contracted by the government.


Kosovar refugees are helped across the tarmac at CFB Trenton in 1999. This scene could be repeated again with refugees from Syria if Canada proceeds with a Liberal promise to resettle 25,000 people by the end of the year. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Both Cloutier and some military sources suggest that must be the path the government will follow in this crisis.  

Although the military does own cargo planes and a few troop transporters, committing those aircraft to a refugee airlift would fail to move sufficient numbers and also deprive the military of those same planes to sustain its own operations in Europe, Iraq and other places overseas.  

Any airlift using large civilian aircraft would likely involve as many as 100 flights. With the Canadian Forces' smaller-capacity aircraft, it could require as many as twice that number.

A civilian airlift was used during the 2006 evacuation of Canadian citizens from Lebanon for the majority of the 65 flights. Military aircraft made just four flights.

But according to Cloutier, the military role could be most valuable here in Canada.

Back in 1999, the military set up reception centres at two air bases: 8 Wing Trenton in southern Ontario and at 14 Wing Greenwood in Nova Scotia.

At Trenton, Cloutier established a reception centre to welcome refugees and a separate facility where they were processed by immigration and customs officials, and where they received a cursory medial examination.

Police and volunteers on hand

Both military and civilian police were on hand, as were officials of the Canadian Red Cross and volunteers from the Salvation Army.

'It was a proud moment for the wing, and for the community and also for Canada' - Retired brigadier-general Gaston Cloutier

"Safety is the first concern, to make sure that whoever arrives from another country in a base somewhere, that their safety is assured," Cloutier said. "The next is to ensure that they have a roof over their head and that they are fed."

The Kosovo operation happened in the summer, and at Trenton 2,500 refugees were housed under canvas in a tent city constructed for an air cadet summer camp.

That would not be a possibility this December.

"A rough calculation is that every air base in Canada would have to be involved in order to accept 25,000 refugees," Cloutier said. "Every air base, and to some extent, every army base or navy base could be involved — would have to be involved — from my perspective."

But that effort, if it happens, would likely only be preliminary, as it was with those Kosovar Albanian refugees.

Proud moment

Cloutier retired in 2010 and he recalls his tenure as commander of 8 Wing Trenton as the best time in his military career.


An young Kosovar refugee holds up a Canadian flag in 1999. (David Lucas/Canadian Press)

Even today he remembers the moment the first refugee stepped off a plane and onto Canadian soil.

"The national media was there. The security was tight. There were many people outside the fence observing — many civilian members of the community were there to observe what was happening — and you could hear a pin drop because people understood what was happening, and also what Canada was doing," Cloutier said.

"It was a proud moment for the wing and for the community and also for Canada."