A little more than a week before Canada’s Oct. 19 federal election, protesters in downtown Montreal chanted in French: “Refugees, welcome.”
Mohamed Mahmoud, a Syrian-Canadian activist, addressed the crowd of several hundred demonstrators.
“If you can help Syrians, please do,” he told his audience. “They are nice people.”
Mahmoud went on to criticize Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper over reports his office had delayed the processing of applications for a security “audit” and recommended priority for Christian refugees.
Conservative Harper is in a tight three-way race to keep his current job against Liberal Justin Trudeau and the New Democratic Party’s Tom Mulcair. One of the major issues of the campaign has been Syrian refugees — specifically how many Canada will resettle and how quickly.
Even advocates didn’t expect Syrian refugees to be a high-profile campaign issue. But in September, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi drowned while his family was trying to reach Turkey. Photos of his body washed up on a beach became the iconic image of the Syrian refugee crisis.
The boy had an aunt living in British Columbia, Tima Kurdi. She had sent money for the family to be smuggled out.
“This shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t happen to them,” she told reporters outside her home shortly after the boy’s death.
Canadians were riveted. Kurdi had hoped to eventually use Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program to bring over her relatives. This program allows citizens to raise the money to resettle refugees over and above the government’s commitments. Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the young boy’s death made Canadians look more closely at their country’s role. And she said even with changes since Kurdi’s death, the private sponsorship process is still full of red tape.
“I’ve talked to private sponsors who say it takes them up to six months to prepare an application because it is so complicated,” Dench said.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government has promised to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over four years by allotting more of its existing refugee quotas specifically to people fleeing the armed conflict.
In the latest development, Canadians learned the prime minister’s staff halted the processing of some applications last spring for what Harper has called a security “audit.” He also acknowledged that his administration had decided to prioritize Christians and other religious minorities, even though most Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims.
“Our government has adopted a generous approach to the admission of refugees,” Harper said at a recent campaign event, “while ensuring the selection of the most vulnerable people and keeping our country safe and secure.”
He has said the Islamic State’s targeting of religious minorities justifies the preference for those religious groups.
The prime minister’s conservative base has been supportive of this view. Polls show Canadians generally split on how many refugees to accept, but Harper’s rivals apparently think this issue will work to their advantage. Liberal candidate Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, is Harper’s closest rival going into the election.
Speaking on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. about the way Harper’s administration has handled the refugee issue, Trudeau said: “That’s not the Canada we want. That’s not the Canada we need to build.”
Though Harper’s conservative on immigration, he has counted on significant support among new immigrants in the past. His party won 42 percent of the votes of foreign-born Canadians in 2011, a higher percentage than he received from those born in Canada.
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