Harper wants to keep refugee crisis focus on big picture: Chris Hall

Stephen Harper wants Canadians to see the big picture, the one beyond the photo of Alan Kurdi’s little, lifeless body face-down on a beach in Turkey.

Answer to refugee crisis includes military mission, Harper says

Alan Kurdi and his older brother, Galib, seen in an undated family photo, drowned along with their mother while trying to escape Syria. (Tima Kurdi/Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper wants Canadians to see the big picture, the one beyond the photo of Alan Kurdi's lifeless little body face-down on a beach in Turkey.

The Conservative leader says the big picture is not just that a three-year-old's life should end so tragically trying to escape Syria with his family across the Mediterranean in a rowboat.

It's that the response to the crisis in Syria — all the people fleeing civil war and attacks by ISIS, all the people for whom risking death at sea is a viable option to living in fear in their homeland — involves more than Canada accepting larger numbers of refugees from that country.

"We could drive ourselves crazy with grief. Obviously we want to do what we can do to help," Harper said Thursday.

And what Canada can do is exactly what Harper says he's already promised. First, accepting another 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next four years. Second, delivering more humanitarian aid to those who remain. And, most importantly, continuing the military campaign to end the relentless advance of ISIS fighters.

Family sought refuge in Canada

What Canada didn't do, apparently, is much of anything to assist the Kurdi family to get to Canada, where Alan Kurdi's aunt, Tima Kurdi, was trying to sponsor them.

She told reporters that her brother's family wanted to come to this country. She'd even written a letter to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, asking for help. The letter was delivered to Alexander, in person, by New Democrat Fin Donnelly, her MP.

'And I do not know how, for the life of me, you look at that picture and say, "Yeah, we want to help that family, but we want to walk away from the military mission that's trying to prevent ISIS from killing tens of millions of people.''' (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

"Here's a woman who's doing everything in her power to try to bring those family members to this country We need to play a role in assisting that," Donnelly told CBC News. "Canada needs to be doing more."

That sentiment — Canada needs to do more — echoed across social media, in news programs — and on the campaign trail.

Suddenly, an event half a world away was forcing Harper to cancel a campaign event and forcing him to make a statement later about the Canadian response to little Alan Kurdi and so many others like him.

And then there's Alexander. The immigration minister stepped back from his re-election bid Thursday to fly to Ottawa to meet with department officials to determine what happened in the Kurdi case.

Suddenly, something that for the Conservatives hadn't been as a major campaign issue was a full-blown communications crisis.

Chris Alexander and the refugee crisis

6 years ago
Duration 2:27
Many Canadians are venting their anger and sadness about the refugee crisis directly at the immigration minister 2:27

"You don't get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign," Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Thursday. "You either have it or you don't.''

Alexander told CBC's Power & Politics that he came to Ottawa once he learned of "the Canadian connection" in the Kurdi file.

He acknowledged receiving the letter and said he asked his officials to look into it.

But Alexander's main task was to defend Canada's response to the refugee situation. He said close to 2,500 Syrians have been resettled in Canada.

"We do want to speed it up. We plan to speed it up," he said. "We are committed to accelerating on the Syrian side."

Both opposition parties say they would increase the number of Syrian refugees in Canada. The Liberals are targeting 25,000. New Democrats say the work has to start now.

"Let's start with what the UN has given us as a target with 10,000, let's get that done right away," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Thursday.

"Let's be generous, let's be open, let's do like what we did with the boat people after the collapse of Vietnam, let's bring our hearts to understand that we have this obligation, and let's get it done."

Process too slow, refugee groups say

Refugee groups are nearly unanimous in saying the process is too slow. They say the Conservative plan depends too much on private sponsorship of refugees, and not enough on working with the United Nation's High Commission for Refugees to identify refugees and bring them to Canada using the government's own resources.

It's not clear what changes can actually be made in the middle of a campaign. Or whether the supports such as housing are in place in Canada to accept 10,000 or more refugees right now.

But what is clear is this. The photo of Alan Kurdi on the beach and news reports confirming his family was desperate to get to Canada are resonating with voters.

And it's causing the Conservatives concern.

When Harper spoke to reporters later in the day, he expressed his sadness at the death of a child so young. He spoke of the heartbreak it caused him and wife, Laureen, when they saw the photo.

But then he shifted straight into campaign overdrive, castigating his political opponents for opposing the military mission in Syria and Iraq.

"And I do not know how, for the life of me, you look at that picture and say, "Yeah, we want to help that family, but we want to walk away from the military mission that's trying to prevent ISIS from killing tens of millions of people.''

It's a fair question. It's just not the one Canadians appear to be asking.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?