National Column: Refugee resettlement pays big political dividends

Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement operation is more than a laudable contribution to a global humanitarian crisis. It is also a well-executed political play.

Because it was one of the Liberals’ most time-sensitive undertakings, the campaign commitment to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees before the end of the year was always a strong candidate for early failure.

Election promises often involve a certain amount of shovelling inconvenient details forward. Trudeau’s refugee policy featured more of that than usual.

The commitment to a Jan. 1 deadline set the stage for a potential boondoggle.

With little more than 10 weeks between the election and the deadline, the notion that the logistical pieces of the refugee resettlement puzzle would fall in place in a timely fashion required a lot of magical thinking. (The Liberals’ election rivals would use stronger language here!)

The Paris terrorist attacks ultimately provided the Liberals with a providential hook upon which to hang the decision to extend the deadline and buy essential time to create reasonably auspicious conditions to achieve their refugee target.

As a bonus, calls by Trudeau’s municipal and provincial partners to slow down the pace of the operation gave the prime minister some welcome political cover to break an election promise.

In the process, a logistical nightmare in the making was transformed into a national goodwill mission, and a golden marketing opportunity.

The Syrians Trudeau greeted last week at Toronto’s Pearson airport were really Stephen Harper’s refugees. Their applications were in the pipeline before the election campaign. Most, if not all, were privately sponsored. In line with the criteria of the previous Conservative government, the majority were drawn from the ranks of Syria’s religious minorities.

In contrast with the still-to-come government-sponsored refugees, those first arrivals are the primary responsibility of relatives and/or of various non-governmental organizations. In Trudeau’s absence, they would still not have been left to their own devices upon arrival.

But by being on hand, the prime minister achieved a larger purpose than just putting a telegenic face on a Liberal policy.

Pictures of Trudeau welcoming the first contingent of Syrian refugees in person were published worldwide.

At a time when voters were about to deal with the leading anti-immigration Front National in the second round of France’s regional elections; against the contention by U.S. presidential hopeful Donald
Trump that Muslims should be barred from entering the United States, the scene from Canada offered a striking contrast.

When Vogue magazine publishes pictures of the Trudeau couple, it is the prime minister who is primarily branded as an international celebrity but when the pictures show him greeting refugees, it is Canada itself that provides a model for other heads of governments to hold up as they struggle to win over their domestic public opinions to the cause of the Syrian refugees.

It had been a while since Canada had been presented as a positive model to the rest of the world. It had also been a long time since Canadians from across the political spectrum mobilized behind a cause.

The last time goes back 20 years to the last Quebec referendum and the so-called federalist love-in that saw thousands of Canadians travel to Montreal. A lot of Quebecers were offside with that movement.

The mood could not be more different in this case.

To wit, a tweet published over the weekend by the former minister in charge of the Parti Quebecois’s proposed secularism charter, Bernard Drainville. “We respond to hatred by extending a welcome and with that welcome we are telling Islamic terrorists: you will not win,” he commented about the arrival in Montreal of a second group of refugees.

In an ideal world, some of the features of the handling of the Syrian refugee issue will become a template for the heavy lifting that awaits the Trudeau government as it addresses other even more complex policy challenges.

They include a capacity to adapt actions to changing realities, a willingness to act on constructive criticism but also a knack for mobilizing support from the ground up rather than dictating outcomes
from the top down.

All those elements will be essential as Canada sets out to belatedly up its game on climate change.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.-

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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