ELECTION ISSUE: Refugee situation, immigration policy

Cowichan-Malahat-Langford: Candidates weigh in on an international crisis

Immigration and refugees – perhaps not top-of-mind issues for many Canadians when the election was called on Aug. 2.

But the recent crisis overseas has pushed those issues into the media spotlight, particularly in light of the horrific images of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi face down on a Turkish beach, which have struck a chord with many in this country.

All four Cowichan-Malahat-Langford federal candidates believe it’s time to act on what’s been described over and over as a heartbreaking and tragic situation.

Liberal candidate Maria Manna said Canada has a long history of welcoming immigrants.

“I’m first-generation Canadian. My parents are immigrants from Italy,” she said. “We are this beautiful melting pot of wonderful cultures.”

The Liberal Party wants to invest at least an additional $100 million this fiscal year to increase refugee processing, as well as sponsorship and settlement services capacity in Canada. The party has also promised to provide an immediate $100 million contribution to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to support critical relief activities in Syria and the surrounding area.

“Justin Trudeau has agreed to bringing in 25,000 refugees within the next four years,” Manna said. “We also agree that they need to go through a proper screening process. It’s not just opening up the floodgates.”

She added that Trudeau wanted to put politics aside and work together as Canadians to come up with a solution.

“He extended to Mr. Harper, Mr. Mulcair and Ms. May to come together in collaboration to discuss the best course of action for Canada moving forward and develop a concrete, cross-partisan plan for the weeks and months ahead, but we haven’t heard anything,” she said.

Conservative candidate Martin Barker said tens of millions of people are affected by the crisis.

“It is truly a tragedy and our hearts go out to all of those touched by this heartbreaking situation,” he said.

But, he noted, Canada has one of the most generous immigration and refugee systems in the world, admitting more people, per capita, than any other, he said.

“During the lifetime of the past government we have had 2.5 million new arrivals in Canada,” Barker said. “For many there are a number of reasons they come to Canada such as family reunification, for humanitarian and compassionate grounds and of course refugee situations. We have accepted tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and we will accept more. That being said, refugee policy alone will not solve the problem.”

He said Canadians should be proud of the foreign aid (food, water, relief items and education access) contributed to the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.

Green Party candidate Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi said leader Elizabeth May and their party, too, have a strong humanitarian focus, but more needs to be done – and right now.

“We have a proud history of humanitarians and striving for diplomacy and being a country of peacekeepers, so that’s why I support a strong military, not for war, but for cases like this, humanitarian efforts,” she said. “It’s something that we’re lagging behind in our country and we require leadership. We’re very supportive, for sure, to deal with this immediately.”

Hunt-Jinnouchi called the current efforts “shameful.”

“I think we only need to put ourselves in the positions of the people … they’re not leaving their countries because they want to leave their countries, they’re leaving because of air strikes and war,” she said. “The Green Party would like to accept 40,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. We have a strong history of welcoming immigrants and celebrating diversity and that needs to be upheld. That’s definitely a role that the Green Party will continue to advocate for.”

Having spent seven years working in NDP MP Jean Crowder’s office, New Democrat candidate Alistair MacGregor saw bureaucracy at work.

“I was actually personally and intimately involved in a few private sponsorships of refugees and I know how heart-wrenching these sponsorships are,” he said. “The bureaucracy you have to go through is just a nightmare when you’re dealing with these types of situations, so I am personally motivated to make the system better just from what I’ve experienced.”

MacGregor said the NDP’s refugee and immigration plan begins even before the election.

“We have proposed and offered to work with the sitting government on this. We want to get 10,000 government-sponsored refugees out of harm’s way by the end of this year,” he said.

In the longer term, he said, the NDP would like to see all the private sponsorships be fast-tracked with no caps on them and bring as many people as possible to Canada.

“I think we wanted to set targets of about 9,000 per year over the coming years,” he said.

He said Canada’s birth rate isn’t keeping up with future job demands and many Syrian refugees in particular are well educated and could bring needed skill-sets with them to Canada.

“I think that with a bit of assistance from our government, they could integrate into our society well,” he said.