OTTAWA (CCN) — Canada’s new Liberal government is moving ahead on its promises, including its promise of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas.
On Nov. 9, the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum announced the creation of an ad hoc committee on refugees to assist. Chaired by the new Health Minister Jane Philpott, the nine-member committee of high-level cabinet ministers includes the Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale; the Foreign Affairs Minister Dion; International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau; and National Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan.
“The committee’s function is to make this work, which involves getting things moving very, very fast and very, very competently, but also continuing beyond the immediate weeks to ensure that not only the choosing of the refugees and their transport is done efficiently, but also that when they arrive in this country that their resettlement is carried out in a humane and expeditious way,” McCallum told journalists Nov. 9. “And on that point, I would say the participation of provincial governments, many of whom have expressed great enthusiasm, will be key because provincial governments play a major role in the resettlement and the integration of newcomers coming to Canada.”
Many Catholic dioceses, parishes and groups have been preparing to welcome refugees, but McCallum also promised to bring in 25,000 through “immediate government sponsorship” and will work with “private sponsors to accept even more.”
“This is exceptional news,” said Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada national secretary Carl Hétu. “In order to be efficient in a time of crisis, this is how the government has to do it.”
Hétu said the project to receive the refugees is both necessary and doable. “Already since September, many cities, many provinces many churches and Catholic dioceses have already expressed the desire and are organizing to welcome refugees spread over all the country,” he said. “Twenty-five thousand is not that big.”
The Conservative policy was to bring in refugees predominantly through private sponsorship. That meant about 75 per cent of refugees have relied on parishes and other groups developing welcoming committees, raising funds, finding apartments, helping the refugees procure health care, he said. “That takes time.” However, many groups started preparing some time ago and are ready to receive families, he said.
In addition, many refugees, including many Syrian Christians, have been cleared. “In Lebanon, I know of at least 1,500 members of the Armenian Catholic and Apostolic Church from Syria. They all have their papers and are ready to come here.”
Hétu is also concerned whether the Liberal government will recognize the additional plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the conflict. While all religious groups suffer from war and need assistance, Christians, Yazidis and others suffer persecution in addition. “The government would make a mistake to ignore religion in this age,” he said, adding he hopes that at the very least Christians will be brought in at levels at least proportional to their presence in the Syrian population — about 10 per cent.
Meanwhile, ISIS has been moving into areas of Syria where Christians have been living in their traditional areas without too many problems over the four years of the war, “making the lives of Christians hard if not impossible in Northeast Syria, he said. “They are not only victims of war but also of persecution because of their faith.”
In other news regarding refugees, McCallum has promised the Liberal government will restore the full health coverage to refugees and refugee claimants; invest $100 million to increase refugee processing, sponsorship and settlement services; and immediately provide a new $100 million contribution to support relief efforts in Syria and surrounding countries.
The Liberal government also faces urgent challenges on climate change, indigenous rights and assisted suicide with little time to get up to speed before Parliament opens Dec. 3.
Deadlines loom on the COP21 United Nations climate change meetings beginning Nov. 30; and on laws regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide because on Feb. 6 the present Criminal Code provisions against assisted suicide will no longer be in force and on Dec. 6 Quebec’s euthanasia law comes into effect.
Only days after the cabinet’s swearing in Nov. 4, rookie MP now Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna was off to Paris to attend pre-climate change meetings Nov. 8-10.
“The Government of Canada is determined to deliver real results on climate change and the environment,” McKenna said in a statement. “We will work with our international partners on the adoption of an effective climate change agreement and in the transformation towards a low-carbon, climate resilient global economy.” The Liberals, however, have not been specific on what targets they will set out to achieve in Paris.
Citizens for Public Justice executive director Joe Gunn noted the name change of the environment portfolio to include Climate Change. “That’s a great thing,” he said. But for Gunn and the CPJ, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), the issue of climate change is linked inextricably with poverty, as indicated in a recent joint statement by religious leaders and letters from the CCCB president and the CCC president to the new prime minister.
McKenna does not have a background in environment issues, but “she has one in law, international development and international justice,” said Mark Cameron, who served as a senior policy adviser to the Harper government, and is now is executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity, an organization promoting using market principles to clean up the environment. Since the Paris environment talks are a “big international negotiation her background will probably serve her quite well,” he said.
The new minister will have help on this file. The new Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, now heading up the newly named Department of Globalization, has an extensive background in environmental issues, having served as a former environment minister and Liberal leader. He will chair a new cabinet committee on “environment, climate change and energy” that will include the new Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, who is a climatologist. The former University of Windsor professor had been a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The UN Climate Change meetings will already be underway when the House of Common begins its first session of the 42nd Parliament Dec. 3, with a speech from the throne slated for Dec. 4. The first item on the agenda is a promised tax cut for the middle class the Liberals hope to pass before the year end.
On indigenous issues, Trudeau as Liberal leader had promised to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action.
“I think the whole way of going forward is about a relationship, a relationship that’s respectful and with real partnership with First Nations, Inuit, Métis and a distinctions-based approach,” said the new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett after her swearing in Nov. 4.
The new Liberal government will also deliver on its promise of an inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women, Bennett said. “We want to make sure we get it right.”
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde welcomed the appointment.
“Minister Bennett has deep experience in First Nations issues and served as an effective and informed critic in the previous Parliament,” he said. “I look forward to working with the minister to move on our immediate priorities and a comprehensive, strategic plan for transformative change.”
He also welcomed two indigenous cabinet ministers, the new Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo.
“Minister Wilson-Raybould’s appointment is a powerful acknowledgement of First Nations peoples and the skills and abilities of the minister herself,” Bellegarde said. “Her role will be key as we act to give life to First Nations rights and Treaties and ensure Canadian law and policies are consistent with those rights.”
He said he enjoyed working with Wilson-Raybould when she served on the AFN executive as a former B.C. chief.
Gerry Kelly, a consultant who advised the Catholic entities party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and before that directed the CCCB’s Aboriginal Affairs secretariat, said both appointments were “hopeful signs.”
Bennett “has a long history of being very attentive” to indigenous issues and committed “to the process of reconciliation,” he said.
Kelly said another promising sign is the putting of an indigenous person into a major portfolio in cabinet that does not just concern indigenous issues.
Though the Liberals face an almost impossible deadline of Feb. 6 to craft new legislation governing assisted suicide and euthanasia, the Liberals are more vague on this urgent issue and face pressures from those for and against doctor assisted death.
“It’s definitely a priority that we’re moving forward on, and I look forward to talking about that in the days and weeks ahead,” said Wilson-Raybould Nov. 4. She would not respond to a question on whether the government would ask for a delay from the Supreme Court of Canada before its Carter decision, striking down the Criminal Code provisions against euthanasia, goes into effect.
The new Health Minister Jane Philpott also faced questions on assisted suicide.
“Many of these issues of course that affect health like physician assisted suicide also cross other portfolios,” she said. “Certainly I will be collaborating with all the relevant stakeholders in those kinds of issues.”
An even more immediate challenge comes from the province of Quebec, which will implement its euthanasia law Dec. 6. Quebec is proceeding to implement “doctor assisted dying” as health care, challenging the jurisdiction of the federal government over Criminal Code matters.
The Conservatives had launched an external panel to examine legislative options on the Supreme Court’s Carter decision that continues its consultation under the new Trudeau government.