Syrian refugees: John McCallum stresses housing as key on Calgary visit

Housing is the key priority for settling Syrian refugees, said Immigration Minister John McCallum as he met with Mayor Naheed Nenshi on a brief visit to Calgary Wednesday morning.

Federal immigration minister and Mayor Naheed Nenshi praise contribution of private rental companies

Ottawa plans to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of December and another 15,000 by March 1. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

Getting the refugees settled into new homes is by far the most pressing issue as the federal government prepares to bring in 25,000 displaced Syrians, said Immigration Minister John McCallum as he met with Mayor Naheed Nenshi on a brief visit to Calgary Wednesday morning.

"We have three priorities — housing, housing and housing," McCallum said at a news conference with Nenshi and Lori Sigurdson, Alberta's labour minister.

550 discounted homes

McCallum said help from the private sector would be vital, and he praised two Calgary companies — Mainstreet Equity and Boardwalk Rental Communities — for the support they have pledged.

"I'm hoping they are the tip of the iceberg," said McCallum. 

Both federal Immigration Minister John McCallum, who visited Calgary Wednesday, and Mayor Naheed Nenshi, stressed that housing is the top priority as Syrian refugees start arriving in Canadian cities. (CBC)

"And that their example will induce others to come forward with similar contributions so that we can welcome refugees not just with a smile but with a roof over their heads and all of the other things that they need to begin their lives in Canada."

Mainstreet Equity is making 200 units available to refugees for 90 days at discounted rental rates, and Boardwalk has set aside 350 units, which will be offered to refugees at a $150 discount. 

Mainstreet Equity has also assembled a team of Arabic speaking volunteers to help the refugees, said company president Bob Dhillon. 

'Good plan'

Calgarians are already stepping up when it comes to sponsoring the refugees, with the city ranking third for the most private sponsors in the country, according to figures from Ottawa. 

Figures released Tuesday show that 24 privately sponsored refugees have arrived since Nov. 4, with a further 478 in process.

Calgary has the resources, including volunteers, non-profits, and community agencies to successfully settle the refugees who come to the city, Nenshi said.

He said while there are enough vacancies in the city, making sure there's enough affordable housing will be a challenge.

"We've got to be able to solve that gap, whether it's through more government funding, whether it's through more generous landlords providing rent subsidies, whether it's people being able to rent their places for a little less than they were renting last year. That's really what we need to get at," he said.

Nenshi said officials in Calgary will also make language training a priority.

"Let's remember that Calgary regularly welcomes 1,000 refugees a year," he said. "We have the ability to do this well."

Sigurdson says the Alberta government has been developing its resettlement plans for some time.

"We've been working with settlement agencies across Alberta, with mayors like Mayor Nenshi, to ensure that we're ready and that we have a good plan here in Alberta," she said.

"We have a cross-ministerial team that is working on making sure [the refugees] will have access to a good public education, health care and housing."

Private sponsors

To date, 1,015 Syrian refugees have received visas to come to Canada from Jordan, CBC News reported on Wednesday. Others will come from camps in Turkey.

More than 300 refugees have been booked on flights to Canada so far. 

Ottawa plans to bring in 10,000 refugees by the end of December and another 15,000 by March 1.

The first group will be made up largely of privately sponsored refugees, many of whose files have been in the works for months as churches and other community groups moved to assist some of the most vulnerable people fleeing the Syrian civil war.

The plan is to bring those refugees into Canada on commercial flights, with military airplanes available every 48 hours if necessary.