Canadian cities, provinces make their pitch to help Syrian refugees

The plight of Syrian refugees and calls for the federal government to bring more of them to Canada have prompted other levels of governments across the country to make pitches to help.

Canada has resettled nearly 2,500 Syrian refugees, but municipal and provincial leaders say more can be done

A Syrian refugee carries children in Akcakale, southeastern Turkey, as he and others flee intense fighting in northern Syria between Kurdish fighters and Islamic State militants. Some critics say Canada's acceptance, so far, of 2,500 Syrian refugees is too low. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

The plight of Syrian refugees and calls for the federal government to bring more of them to Canada have prompted other levels of governments across the country to make pitches to help. 

A number of provincial and municipal leaders have in recent days pledged to do what they can to get more refugees into the country. These pitches come amid criticism that Canada's acceptance, so far, of 2,500 Syrian refugees is much too low.

Immigration is a federal issue. Provinces have lobbied the government for more say over immigration and refugee issues, but currently only Quebec has control over its own immigration policies.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has said his province was ready to accept "hundreds, if not thousands" of new refugees fleeing war and terrorism. But Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil acknowledged that only eight government-assisted refugees had arrived in the province this year, although 643 Syrian refugees have come to the province since the start of 2015 through private sponsorships, and 1,900 more are expected by the end of the year.

Toronto Mayor John Tory says he has added Syrian resettlement to the agenda of an upcoming conference of Canadian mayors. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

While the other provinces and municipalities may not have control over immigration and refugee policies, they can offer assistance and galvanize public support for private sponsorships and resettlement plans.

For example, in 1979, then Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar, mother of NDP candidate Paul Dewar, launched Project 4,000, an initiative to bring in refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and other South Asian countries, Dewar was able to get citizens, church groups and private organizations to raise the funds for sponsorship. And in co-ordination with the federal government, she helped bring nearly 4,000 refugees to the capital.

"I thought there was no reason whatsoever why we couldn't repeat that initiative," said Toronto Mayor John Tory on Friday. But an effort like that would still need to be co-ordinated with the federal government.

Tory said he has had conversations with mayors across Canada to organize municipal action to help resettle Syrian refugees. He said he has added Syrian resettlement to the agenda of an upcoming conference of Canadian mayors.

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said he wanted to see 5,000 Syrian refugees resettled in Canada by the end of the year, as his provincial Liberal government pledged to commit $300,000 to Lifeline Syria, a locally led effort to sponsor Syrian refugees.

'Open the door to Canada'

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall posted a statement on Facebook, saying the federal government has been told that the province "can and will support more refugees."

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Diana Whalen said she asked the federal government to "open the door to Canada" and send Syrian refugees to the province. Of the 300 refugees that have settled in the province since January 2014, Whalen said only 20 were from Syria and that they "can certainly do much more."

Her government announced it will donate $50,000 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to support the Syrian refugee relief effort. 

Meanwhile, the Manitoba government said it will increase its contribution to local settlement services organizations by an additional $40,000 to help newcomers and their families.

Earlier this year, the Conservative government pledged to bring in 10,000 more Syrian refugees over the next three years. In August, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper added to that total, saying that if re-elected the government would take in an additional 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees over the next four years.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has said that Canada should resettle 25,000 refugees from Syria as soon as possible. Liberals said it would require $100 million this fiscal year to pay for accelerating refugee intake on this scale.

The NDP said it would get 10,000 Syrian refugees "out of harm's way and to Canada by the end of the year."