John McCallum says government still has to convince Canadians to embrace refugees

The man tasked with bringing thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada says that while most Canadians were quick to embrace them, his government still "has to work very hard" to convince some people to embrace these new arrivals.

McCallum: What makes me very proud as a Canadian is that our people were so welcoming to refugees

Immigration Minister John McCallum helps a newly arrived Syrian refugee with his glove at Pearson International Airport in Toronto in February. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

The man tasked with bringing thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada says that while most Canadians were quick to embrace them, his government still "has to work very hard" to convince some people to embrace these new arrivals.

"Canadians are not 100 per cent different from Americans, from British. We have to understand these concerns," said Immigration Minister John McCallum.

He made the comment while answering a question about the anti-globalization sentiments that surfaced during the U.K.'s Brexit vote in June and the campaign for the U.S. election in November.

Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the first planeload of Syrian refugees landing in Canada.

The scene of Syrians of all ages arriving in Canada garnered international attention when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to Toronto's Pearson airport to welcome them himself.

But not everyone is ready to embrace refugee families — a quick peruse of the online comment section of any refugee-related story will illustrate that.

"That is why, for example, I was always absolutely determined not to treat refugees better than Canadians, not to put them in the front of a queue for social housing. We have to convince Canadians, I think we can, that it's for the good of the Canadian economy," McCallum told CBC host Chris Hall on The House.

"Given the global context, we have to work very hard to ensure that that is true and to ensure that message gets out clearly."

McCallum said the message that immigrants can create jobs, not take them away from Canadians, is getting through — "not to everybody, but to many people."

Refugees 'doing very well' on the whole

A year after the first wave of refugees arrived, McCallum noted, nothing involving that many people is perfect, but, "we got them over here and that was mission accomplished."

To deal with a backlog of refugees seeking to come to Canada, the government is increasing the number of privately sponsored refugees for 2017, yet McCallum downplayed the notion that refugees brought over by families and groups adjust better because they have more support.

"They do better in the short run, they get jobs faster. I think in the long run the government ones do well too, and especially the children," he said. "We want a mix ... our whole purpose was to help the most vulnerable."

He said that so far, 90 per cent of government-assisted refugees are enrolled in language classes and some are finding jobs.

Improving the public interface

Late last week, Trudeau said the federal government must "make significant improvements" to a system that can be trying to navigate for both bureaucrats and immigrants.

McCallum pointed to the customer service wing of his department, such as its website, as an area of concern. 

"We don't want people to need a PhD in English to understand all this stuff. So we want it shorter, simpler, more interactive. So if someone makes a mistake, the computer corrects it before it gets put into some black hole," he said.

He also said the government could do a better job providing refugees with mental-health services.

A young Syrian refugee shows his athletic abilities off to McCallum, third from right, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, second from right, and Health Minister Jane Philpott, right, as they tour the Zaatari Refugee Camp, near the city of Mafraq, Jordan, in November 2015. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"But I think that's a problem for all Canadians. As Jane Philpott, our health minister, would be the first to say, we need to do better overall on mental-health services," he said.

The new year won't see as many refugees land on Canadian soil as 2016, but McCallum said there will be a renewed interest in bringing in people from Africa.

"Some people feel like Africa has been shortchanged in terms of how long it takes to do things, in terms of receiving refugees, so we have to work harder on Africa."

The government will also be looking to make it easier for high-skilled immigrants and international students to reach Canadian shores in 2017.

"We have to persuade them that Canadian cold winters are better than Australian warm winters."