The first wave of Syrian refugees will arrive by military aircraft in Canada tomorrow, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in the House of Commons today.

The first flight with an estimated 160 refugees aboard will arrive in Toronto at 9:15 p.m. ET Thursday, and a second flight will arrive in Montreal Saturday, the prime minister said.

"It will be a great day," the prime minister said, adding the arrivals will send an important message.

"Resettling refugees demonstrates our commitment to Canadians and the world that Canada understands that we can and must do more," he said.

The refugees, initially reported to be departing from Jordan, will be arriving on flights from Lebanon's capital, Beirut.

On the eve of those arrivals, Immigration Minister John McCallum said today the refugees won't move to the front of the line for social housing or Canadian citizenship,

The Liberal government is "very sensitive" to some concerns that the new arrivals will have higher priority for jobs, housing or citizenship, McCallum said.

"We do have to be careful that the refugees not be seen to queue jump, if you will," he said. 

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Members of groups who are sponsoring two Syrian refugee families hold up signs welcoming their charges as they wait for the families to arrive at Toronto's Pearson Airport. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

With extended waits to gain Canadian citizenship, the refugees will have to apply and wait like everyone else and should not expect it "overnight," McCallum said.

The minister said he has also heard from mayors of cities where residents having been waiting months or even years for social housing.

"I don't think it would be popular among those who have been waiting too long if refugees come in and suddenly go to the front of the line," he said.

'Welcoming attitude'

McCallum said Canadians have a "large welcoming attitude," and the government must encourage and foster that by acting in a "prudent fashion."

"It is a balance we have to strike," the minister said. "On the one hand, I do think a large majority want to welcome these people coming from the scourge of civil war to our country, and make them feel comfortable, help them adjust and hope they will get jobs. But at the same time, we don't want to put them in a privileged position relative to other Canadians who are themselves working hard to find housing, to become citizens and so on."

McCallum said about 800 people are being processed each day, and that he is "guardedly optimistic" the process will continue to move at a brisk pace.

New figures released during a briefing in Ottawa include:

  • 11,932 applications are in progress.
  • 1,451 permanent resident visas have been issued.
  • 416 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, 2015.
  • 69 communities across Canada are preparing to welcome refugees.

"This is a pretty good clip and a good sign for us in terms of getting this job done," he said.

But he cautioned there is "no guarantee" that good news will continue, especially with the looming election in Lebanon, which has been issuing exit visas.

Increased funding

McCallum also announced the government is increasing funding for resettlement assistance services by $3.6 million, in order to welcome refugees not only with "a smile, but also with a roof over their head."

McCallum announces new money for resettlement services2:16

The minister confirmed that refugees will have full access to basic and supplementary benefits under the interim federal health program.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accused the Liberals of putting forward a "totally unrealistic" plan during the election campaign to bring in 25,000 refugees by year's end. Now, he said, the government is holding back the full information and numbers.

"Twenty-five thousand — right after the campaign they admitted we'll never be able to do that. We told them it was unrealistic, but Canadians now want a government that's going to come clean," he said.

Yesterday, officials offered the media tours of the special airport terminals in Toronto and Montreal set up specifically to receive incoming flights of refugees. 

Canadian officials are on the ground in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey screening refugees and overseeing the necessary health and security checks before departure. 

Despite the new Liberal government's original ambition to move 25,000 refugees by the end of 2015, the government is now saying only 10,000 will arrive this month, with the rest coming in the first few months of the new year.

Even the lower target is proving a challenge for officials and settlement groups working both abroad and domestically to ensure a safe and successful transition from conflict to Canadian life.